Learning Things I Never Knew About in My Backyard. 

By Carl Madsen

Last summer, my friend Dan Cooke and I shared the joy of being on the water together, through Horseshoe Lake out the Brule River to the Lima Grade. It was a perfect day for me as Dan pointed out details along the way that  I never knew about in my own backyard. 

Will Steger and Dan Cooke (right)

Dan owns Cooke Custom Sewing (CCS). Since 1981, CCS has made durable bags and packs, tarps and canoe covers, and other gear for the Boundary Waters. Adventurers around the world use Cooke’s outdoor equipment. 

In a YouTube interview eight years ago, Dan listed all the products CCS produces. “I make them for myself,” Dan said. “If they work for me, I like to share them with other people.” Dan mentioned to me several times that he loves the area around Rockwood, namely Horseshoe Lake. 

One day, I asked if he ever took the Brule River out of the BWCAW to the Lima Grade road. When Dan said he was very familiar with it, we decided to take the trip together. 

A couple of years passed with no trip, but we talked about it whenever we were together. 

Then, on  August 31, 2022, he showed up here at Rockwood, and we set out on a little BWCAW adventure. 

We took Lizz off of Poplar and went into the Boundary waters. On Horseshoe Lake, we found the headwaters of the Brule River.

“Forty-two years ago,  I honeymooned on Horseshoe Lake,” Dan said. “And exited up the Poplar Creek.” Dan and his late wife spent many days on Horseshoe over the years.

“I have camped on every campsite on Horseshoe,” Dan said. “Many times, I had camped on the Butt Crack campsite, #675.”

Dan Cooke on Butt Crack campsite, Horseshoe Lake, BWCAW. Photo by Zak Rivers

Dan said that he exited Horseshoe on the Brule many times. “The trip down the South Brule River took about half the time,” he said.

It may take half the time, but the route is challenging.

Stars show entrance (Poplar Lake to Lizz) and exit (Lima Grade at Brule River)

The route is rarely used. The portages for the Brule River are long gone, so we had to walk down the middle of the river, carrying the canoes as we went. 

More than once, we had to bend over in the canoe to sneak under downed trees and ride through small rapids. 

It has been a long time since anyone has gone this way

Dan kept taking photos and videos as we went. 

We both had solo canoes made specifically for river trips, able to bounce off rocks without damage. 

The canoe Dan chose for the river trip is the Northstar Phoenix, made with IXP/Innegra. My canoe was a Northstar Northwind Solo, also made with IXP/Innegra from our Rockwood stable. Dan was also testing a new bow and thwart cover that snaps into place, keeping the items in the canoe dry. It was one he custom-built and was getting ready to share at his online shop.

On that last day of August, Dan and I started from Rockwood at 7 a.m. Paddling and portaging the Brule route, we reached the Lima Grade Road just before noon. 

At the end of the trip, we stopped and visited Dan’s long-time friends, Ted and Barb Young, at Poplar Creek B&B.

Dan was diagnosed with brain cancer the year before our trip. After having chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, he has a hard time communicating verbally. But you can see the sparkle in his eyes when he describes his memories of his wife (she passed away a few years ago) and Horseshoe Lake. 

Dan Cooke photo by Layne Kennedy

If you’d like to take this route, let us know, and we’ll get you properly outfitted.