The Main Southwest Miramichi: A Classic New Brunswick Canoe Trip

Boisetown, June, 2013 — My group had just finished a trip down the Taxis River, when loaded down canoes started arriving at our gravel beach take-out point in droves. The emerging paddlers described a harrowing trip full of rapids and waterfalls down the Main Southwest Miramichi River. The trip sounded fantastic, and the memory of that day was set to occupy a space in my mind for years.

Afterward, I learned that the trip from Half Moon Pit to Boisetown on the Main Southwest Miramichi was one of the classic New Brunswick canoe runs. Fellow canoeists describe the trip as a sort of rite of passage for New Brunswick adventurers.

The Miramichi River and its endless branches are steeped in lore. In many ways, these stories are what make the Miramichi experience unique. In the early 1800s British ships built with timber from the region helped defeat Napoleon. A century later, W.F. Ganong — the preeminent explorer and scientist — relentlessly studied the region’s natural history. In the 1960s, in her book Silent SpringRachel Carson dubbed the Northwest Miramichi ‘The River of Death‘ after applications of DDT infamously killed a run of Atlantic Salmon. The species endures, however, and for the better part of a century fly-fisherman from across the globe have flocked to the Miramichi for its prolific salmon runs.

Flash forward to 2016, Matt & I were in his truck bumping along NB Route 107 with his Nova Craft Prospector in tow. We’d decided to spend our May long weekend taking part in the tradition. I’d been warned about this road — it was supposedly one of the worst roads in the province — but I was skeptical. It turns out that the warnings were not unfounded.  Years of hauling timber have taken its toll, and now the 107 is easily one of the worst paved roads in the province.

We arrived at Half Moon Pit around 11:00 a.m. The put-in was in excellent condition, it comes complete with garbage cans, signage, and — my favourite — a ramp and steps to help with launching boats. There’s even the added charm of paddling under an old rail bridge shortly after shoving off.

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A single paddler guides a loaded canoe down to the water’s edge while his partner looks on.

For the first few kilometres the water was fast moving, but relatively placid. Small swirls and riffles caused by unseen undulations in the river bed rose in silence around us as we debated the origin of some young forest on the water’s edge. Only a few sentinel white pines remained amongst a dense mat of balsam fir saplings in what was likely once a mighty stand of timber.

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A palpable sense of excitement and apprehension filled the boat on the approach to the first set of rips around Fairleys and Louie Islands. We were living a tradition, but, much like those that had come before, the task at hand couldn’t be ignored. The rips were uneventful, all the larger rocks were easily submerged and offered no real threat. The closest gauge in Blackville read 1.5, which is reportedly the ideal height for a clean run. If the submerged boulders were exposed, all the rips in the upper stretch would have made this trip much more technical.

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Matt looking for a line through an early set of rips

For the bulk of the day we cruised along, floating through rips and smaller class I-II rapids with relative ease — including the famous Big Louie and the Narrows. The scenery was beautiful, although there were more camps than expected. The dark green softwoods contrasted with the grey, leafless hardwoods giving the nearby peaks an almost distinguished appearance. As we ate lunch on the bank, a moose stood up in the grass 150-200 yards away and headed back into the woods — clearly annoyed by the handsome canoeists.

Several established, and well-maintained campsites occupy the first upper stretch, these would make an ideal destination for an evening or late afternoon start.

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If this is your camp, blame this guy for us wanting to take this picture!

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In general, I don’t mind it when my naps are interrupted by canoeists

The biggest challenge of the day was the Burnt Hill Rapids, which, according to the map was Class III. The rapid was situated on a slight left-hand turn and consisted of one main ledge followed by a series of standing waves on the river left, with safer passage being offered on the right. After a day in the saddle, our confidence was high so we lined up the boat on left.

Above the rapids, the haystacks seemed manageable, but as we dropped in, suddenly they felt much larger. Firm braces at the bow and stern steadied the boat as it rode over the waves. Our line was good, but we narrowly avoided the central rock/ledge at the bottom of the rapid. Upon clearing the last wave we whooped exuberantly, while unbeknownst to us, a couple of seniors watched from the deck at the Burnt Hill Lodge.

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Night one camp site

Just below Burnt Hill we stumbled upon a flat, spacious campsite nestled under some white pines; it was too good to pass up. It was clean but had clearly been well used. An established firepit occupied the center of the site and nails could be found in most trees for hanging gear. We settled in for the night and enjoyed a moose steak and a few sips of wine while the crackling fire competed with the sounds of the river for our attention.

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What settling in for the night looks like

There was no rush to start day two given that so much ground was covered on the previous. After a bannock and bacon breakfast, we ending up hitting the water around lunch. The forecast was calling for a high of 20°C and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky — much better than the previous year.

With the difficult part of the trip behind us, our pace was vastly reduced. We stopped to bask in the sun on the gravel beach in front of the campsite at Clearwater Brook. The site boasts lengthy views up and down the river, space for numerous tents, and some of the most intricate fire pits I’ve ever seen. Inevitably, our discussion turned to how often the site is visited, and, as if on cue boats appeared on the horizon. Soggy looking canoeists eventually pulled up to the site and immediately started unloading their gear — most of which seemed to be beer. We took the hint and packed up our stuff. 

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Looking up river from the beach at Clearwater Brook

A few kilometers beyond Clearwater Brook is Falls Brook Falls, the tallest waterfall in the province, which stands at 110 ft tall — as noted by W.F. Ganong in 1909. The falls itself is located a few hundred meters from the main river, and it is well worth the short hike. If you’re visiting with someone that hasn’t been there before, I suggest having some fun at their expense. Tell your friend to prepare for a grueling 5 km hike and watch their expression when you arrive shortly after departure.

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Falls Brook Falls, the tallest waterfall in New Brunswick

Immediately after Falls Brook we stumbled upon the Trout Brook campsite and opted to set up camp. Similar to the previous night’s, the site showed signs of many years of use and abuse. Broken glass was scattered around the firepit and half burnt chairs were strewn about. The surrounding forest was mostly hardwood — beech, maple, birch, etc. — that had almost fully leafed out. Interestingly, the same species at the put-in — as of the time of our arrival — had no leaves at all, which points to discernible local differences in bud burst phenology.

From the site, we hiked upstream in search of a waterfall that the map indicated was nearby. We mistakenly assumed that a small gorge just above the campsite was the falls and only later learned that Trout Brook Falls is one of the more impressive waterfalls in New Brunswick — alas, maybe next trip.

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Juvenile beach leaves at Trout Brook

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Campsite at Trout Brook

The next morning, after a beautiful float down the river, a single fisherman stood on the bank of the river just outside Boisetown. Our gazes met, so I called over to him, “any fish?”

“Nah” he said.

I nodded in reply, we both knew it didn’t matter. Up here the river calls and you answer.

Searching for Summer Brook Trout: Fishing the Cains River Crown Reserve

Finally, in mid-July the time had arrived. After purchasing 4-wheelers in the spring, Grant and I had been patiently waiting for a free weekend in which to hit the New Brunswick trails. This was going to be Grant’s first ATV trip, so I wanted to show him a good mix of trails and logging roads en route to our campsite. Our destination was a site on the Cains River, known locally as the Italian Bridge.

We discovered the site a few years ago on a canoe trip down the Cains. At that time it was unoccupied so we decided to squat for the night – it was too perfect to pass up. As it turned out, the site was for fishermen that had booked Upper Cains Crown Reserve fishing stretch. We resolved to return someday and fish.

During discussions leading up to our 4-wheeling trip we debated going up, camping if the site was available, and going elsewhere if it wasn’t. However, we decided that we didn’t want to spend time and gas roaming around looking for an alternative should the need arise.

Crown Reserve fishing is run on a lottery based-system. Each year anglers place their names in a draw for exclusive access to some of the province’s most sought after fishing spots. In the low season — when the fishing is poor — some weekends go undrawn. When this occurs anyone can book the stretch on a first come, first serve basis. As it turned out, we were in luck: our chosen stretch was unbooked, and just like that our 4-wheeling trip became a fishing trip.

Our plan was to meet in Chipman on Friday and strike out from my parent’s house. We arrived at the house around 4:00pm, secured our gear onto our quad racks, and hit the trail. In total, our route was around 60 km. We hoped to arrive at the Cains River in time to set up camp and partake in an evening fish.

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Arctic Cat XR500 all loaded for the Fishing Trip

We travelled down an old trail that connected North Forks to Gaspereau. Conditions were dry. On the Howard Lemon logging road the dust forced us to either drive side by side or 400 meters apart. We crossed the Gaspereau River at the Grand Lake SnoCruiser’s Snowmobile Shack. The trail system beyond the Gaspereau connected us to Mountain Brook Road and eventually Blue Rock. From Blue Rock we headed straight to the Italian Bridge –arriving at our site around 7:30pm.

The Upper Cains Crown Reserve is a live release only stretch that encompasses over 10km of the river. Several tributaries drain into the river in this area — Gordon, Otter and Wildcat Brooks to name a few. In total there are 14 named pools and an untold number of fishable rips, not bad for $23/rod.

With the temperature in the high 20’s, it was a warm evening. The water, however, was cool and deep, much deeper than the Gasperau. We scouted the four pools closest to our campsite — Salmon, Acadia Bridge, Pine, and an unnamed pool — and decided to fish only one for the night.

After setting up camp we tied on our go-to flies and hit the water. Things were quiet at first, but after settling in the pool suddenly came to life. Fish began rising all around us. In a short period of time we probably landed a half dozen fish — a mix of good sized trout and chub. Unfortunately, just as quickly as it came on, the pool went silent. Conditions were serene as the sun was setting so the lack of action didn’t matter. We were content to enjoy the tranquil sounds of the river and watch arced fly-lines travel through the air against a spruce backdrop illuminated by the setting sun.

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Calm evening pool.

Back at the campsite, the mosquitos were relentless. Our smoky campfire offered some reprieve, but regardless the onslaught lasted until dark. After a busy day, we attacked our steaks and wine with the same vigor as the bugs did us.

With heavy heads, we arose the next morning at the crack of 9:30am – well past peak fishing time! Dark grey clouds approached and thunder rolled in the distance, and, of course, our rain gear was packed deep into packs on the quads. The storm ended up being uneventful, it lasted just long enough to soak through my cheap rain suit. With low expectations, we made it to the river by 11:00am.

Grant had good luck the previous evening so he offered up his hot spot to me for the morning session. He had been fishing with a nameless orange dry-fly, and had enticed a few nice trout to the surface. I opted to stick with the Olive Crystal Flash Wolly Bugger from the previous evening, mainly for convenience sake. I was not having much luck, so I switched up my approach and began casting up river. This method allowed my fly to drift more freely through the center of the pool and resulted in a hook-up. A good fight ensued and I landed the first fish of the morning, a foot-long chub. Not really what we were looking for but good fun none the less.

I released the chub and began to cast away upstream again. After no more fish, I was ready to relinquish the spot to Grant when suddenly I felt a small bump. I pulled the rod skyward hooking nothing but water. I rolled the line a short distance upstream again only to feel the same bump. This time my timing was on. SCREEEECH!!! My Orvis Battenkill II reel screamed as I was into a very nice fish.

The fish swam straight to the bottom and made a run for it. In our limited experience we surmised this was the way a Salmon typically takes a fly, and, with the way my trout rod was bending I had little doubt. Grant ran back to the campsite to retrieve the camera. I did my very best to keep this fish hooked. I followed him down along the bank through the pool keeping the rod tip skyward. I was only a few minutes into this battle but I could feel my forearm pulsing to maintain the resistance. This fish was still pulling line. I had to palm my reel to slow his progress.

Grant returned out of breath but full of excitement — he wanted to land this fish as badly as I did. We coordinated an effort to land the fish on a small gravel bar along the bank. Our first attempt showed us that the fish was not a salmon, but rather a very large trout. However, the fish – like most people — spooked at the sight of Grant and peeled more line off my reel. For us, the third time was a charm, and we successfully landed the largest brook trout I will probably ever catch.

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Cains River Brook Trout

The trout measured in at 22inches in length. It had a girth similar to that of a football. I estimated that it would tip the scales at a minimum of 3.5lbs — but it was likely closer to a 4lb fish. After some photos I worked the fish back into the water to be caught another day. Grant caught a couple more trout, but I didn’t land another.

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Grant displays another fine trout caught on the fly.

Eventually we packed up our gear and headed home. That night I would attend my 10-year High School reunion and ironically, the only story I told was from earlier that day!

Salmon Success in Newfoundland

A Thursday morning in the office quickly turned into an evening on the river when a coworker came to me brandishing a calendar and a camera. He showed me today’s date on the calendar with a black cartoon fish beside it and a photo of himself with three salmon on his fingers. “Last time the calendar showed this, I got these.” was all he said.

I have never put a lot of stock in suggested “best days” for outings based on the moon phase but his photographic evidence had me home packing waders and a rod into the bed of his truck. The plan was to drive up to  Cormack, NL and hike 45 minutes up the Humber River to Cabin Pool.

Upon arriving at the pool it was clear to us that the water was high and the pool had expanded in size. We knew this because there were fish breaching — everywhere! We made a plan to go above the pool and work our way down both sides of the run.

After a couple hours of fish jumping all around us my coworker suggested I move toward him somewhat as he could see a fish between us that was rising towards my fly. I took a couple steps toward him and cast my line in such a manner that it would drift over the area he indicated. The fish took my Blue Charm with a Squirrel tail much the same way a trout would. She tugged on it a couple times before I rose my rod to set the hook. She stayed on the bottom and didn’t budge. Only when I made my way toward shore did she begin to run. My reel screamed as I persuaded her towards a shoal where my coworker was waiting with a net.

At 60cm and 5.5lbs she was definitely worth one of my tags. We hooked and lost another fish each that evening before trekking back to the truck. You can bet that the next time my calendar has a black cartoon fish on it I will be headed to the river!

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Cabin Pool, Upper Humber River, NL

Through the Chiputneticook Lakes Part I: The Calm Before the Storm

On a May weekend I had a trip planned with some friends into the famed Chiputneticook Lake system of western New Brunswick and eastern Maine. These lakes comprise the headwaters of one of Canada’s most culturally significant rivers,  the St. Croix River.

Our group proposed to travel roughly 55km from the north end of North Lake, across East Grand and Spednic Lakes to Spednic Lake Provincial Park. Unfortunately for us, the forecast for the weekend did not look promising — they were calling for abundant precipitation. Despite the negative forecast, the group agreed the trip was a go; consensus was we didn’t just suffer through a long, hard winter to be deterred by a little rain.

The section from North Lake to Davenport Cove on East Grand Lake is part of the ancient canoe route known as the Maliseet Canoe Trail. The route extends over 200km from just outside Woodstock, New Brunswick to Old Town, Maine. It crosses three major watersheds — the Saint John, the St. Croix, and the Penobscot Rivers — and served as an important travel corridor for Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and European people at different times throughout history. In the last 85 years only three parties have traversed the entire trail, the most recent of which was in 2005. The 2005 crossing featured several esteemed adventurers and can be read about online — a must read. While our trip was unlikely to be historic, it presented a challenge to the participants in it’s own right.

My Old Town Discovery and I rolled into Spednic Lake Provincial Park late Friday afternoon where we met up with our bowman Shane and our tripmates. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, we were crazy to have considered cancelling! The only issue was the shortcut via highway 630 was washed out.

Because of our circuitous shuttling route, we arrived at North Lake late in the evening. The fading daylight forced us to shorten our paddle by putting in at the border crossing between East Grand and North Lakes. From here it was a short paddle to our destination for night one, Blueberry Point on East Grand Lake.

With the boats loaded we set off down the inlet toward the open water — a slight breeze in our face. Empty cottages illuminated by the hues of what promised to be a memorable sunset, lined the banks on the Canadian side. As we approached a point before paddling out into a bay crossing, an ominous old man with a fishing pole appeared on a waterside rock. “I wouldn’t cross in these conditions” he announced, as his lure plopped into the water not 20ft from me. “It gets pretty choppy out there when the wind’s coming from the east.”

Someone in our group replied with something like, “well we’ll give it our best shot” and he shook his head in a way that suggested he’d go ready the rescue boat.

Of course — as they often are — the old man was right. We emerged from behind the point and a strong headwind was blowing from the east. Skirting the shoreline wasn’t possible, there were only two options, wait it out or travel straight across. It was early in the trip and we were full of energy so Shane and I decided that we could handle the crossing. We hit the open water paddling hard with little to show for our efforts, while our companions did the smart thing and waited for the wind to die down. Their decision was the correct one, they arrived at the far bank shortly after us.

The Blueberry point campsite was not where we expected it to be, it had been moved down the shoreline. The new site was rustic to say the least — it was damp and rocky, with few level spaces for a tent. With three tents, it was a tight squeeze for our group. One other awkward note: the privy is located effectively in the heart of the sight. With that said, we were in the woods and sitting around a campfire with good company — tough to complain about that.

Say what you will about the Blueberry Point campsite, but at least there were chairs!

Overcast skies and a moderate breeze coming from the south greeted us in the morning. The water in the vicinity of our site looked calm and paddleable. Unfortunately, a member of our group announced he was feeling sick and had decided he wouldn’t be making the rest of the trip. After some discussion we decided to press on.

Conditions on the lake were deceiving. The water was calm in the narrow stretch from before Spruce Point, but we were greeted by white caps and intense wind as we gazed across the bay toward Hayes Point and the Five Islands. Watching the force of the waves as they crashed into the shore did not fill us with confidence. We learned our lesson the previous evening, and decided to take refuge at the Spruce Point campsite. This site is a long, waterfront campsite with the firepit connected to the tenting area via a short trail. The best access is via a nice sandy point with some struggling cedars and a broken old picnic table. Sadly, the rain arrived soon after us — around 11:00 a.m.

The view out across the bay looking toward the Five Islands, the winds were relatively calm here.

The sandy point at the Spruce Point campsite between deluges

After setting up a tarp, putting on a fire and enjoying a coffee, the weather still hadn’t broken. We’d traveled a total of 1.5km — roughly 5km out of the proposed 50km — and steady cloud cover suggested that we weren’t going anywhere. With enough firewood to last for multiple days we explored the area on foot.  Mostly lowland species comprised the surrounding forest — cedar, black spruce, and the ubiquitous balsam fir. Fiddlehead season had just concluded and Trilliums were in full bloom.  When 4:00pm rolled around the decision was made to setup camp and to start working our way through the beer supply.

A couple of soggy, bored campers wondering if it’s time to open a beer yet.

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Trillium erectum in full bloom

Steaks were on the menu for supper, but because we neglected to bring a grill and there wasn’t one on the site,  Shane and I were forced to improvise. We constructed a feeble reflector oven with tinfoil and a wooden frame, using rocks to seal off the sides and back. It got the job done — eventually — and the steaks were delicious, but then again an old boot with some steak spice may have been just as enjoyable. The night ended early with the group resolving to get up before sunlight and make a decision about moving forward.

Our worthless reflector oven in all its glory. The steaks were still delicious.

At 5:30 a.m. thick grey clouds hung low in the sky but, more importantly, the wind had died in the night and the water was a smooth as glass.  The group conceded to packing up camp and hitting the water without breakfast or even coffee. At this point the trip was in jeopardy and we needed to take advantage of our opportunity to get across the open water between Spruce and Hayes Points. After a couple handfulls or trailmix we — finally — resumed our voyage.

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Water conditions around Spruce Point on the morning of Day 3

Out on the lake a soft, grey gloom engulfed our boat.  Navigation by sight became impossible — the fog was so thick that we drifted off course and ended up near the Maine coastline.  We headed west toward the American shoreline on a compass bearing and followed it until Work Point, and from there we paddled across to the Hayes Point campsite — where our tripmates were waiting, with coffee.

No Alternator, No Problem: A Kennedy Lakes Canoe Trip

The May long weekend is sacred for a lot of canoeists: It’s the first paddling-eligible long weekend of the year. Paddlers face cool air and water temperatures, but are rewarded with an insect-free woods. This year my friend Shane and I were headed into the Kennedy Lakes Protected Natural Area in central New Brunswick. The 207 square kilometer area was exempt from industrial activity when New Brunswick established its Protected Natural Areas Act in the early 2000s. The series of small lakes in the area comprise the headwaters of the Renous and North Renous Rivers.

Our goal was to try and access either Lower or Upper Kennedy Lake. Unfortunately, from a tripping perspective, little information is available on the region, aside from the fact that it is notoriously difficult to access. New Brunswick is famous for its road density — it’s often said that there are few places not accessed by vehicle — so it seems fair to say that the Kennedy Lakes are among the most remote in the province.

Aerial photographs from GeoNB indicated that access could be achieved via an old logging road off of Route 108 along the southern boundary of the protected area.  The road would take us to within 500 m of Second Fowler Lake. Second Fowler is adjacent to Kennedy Lake, and at their closest they are a mere 300 m apart. Through some additional research, we learned that the Miramichi River Environmental Assessment Committee had established a portage trail from the end of the access road into Second Fowler Lake. However, a DNR ranger suggested that the chance of the road being passable was 50/50 with a truck — which was fine because I have a truck. Or so I thought.

While driving through Blackville the battery voltage on my old Mazda B2500 started declining rapidly, engine shutdown appeared to be imminent. Fortunately, the old girl didn’t leave me stranded — she left me with just enough juice to reach Shane’s parents’ camp in Renous.

After some fiddling with battery cables in the driveway, the voltage continued to drop. The alternator was dead, and so was the truck. Fortunately, Shane had gotten off work earlier than anticipated and made the last minute decision to drive up on his own ahead of me. The truck may have been dead, but the trip still had a faint pulse. With DNR’s advice in mind, a sense of apprehension filled the car as it pulled onto the decrepit access road late Friday evening. My Old Town Discovery was strapped to the roof and the question that lingered was, how far were we willing to portage?

The road was relatively solid. After dodging sharp rocks, cutting back fallen trees, and bridging deep ruts we arrived at the trailhead around 6:00 p.m. only to find a vehicle parked there. Discussion immediately turned to whether or not this could be a local beer drinking hole — did I hear banjos?

It appeared as though the occupants of the vehicle had gone tripping, so we elected to setup camp at the trailhead and begin the portage in the morning. After a small campfire, and talk of all the trout we were sure to catch, I dozed off to the calls of spring peepers and enjoyed a night full of dreams about expensive repair bills. What truck?

The portage trail was well marked and — mostly — easy walking through dense fir-spruce woods. Snow still covered the trail in many places. The boardwalk installed to prevent damage to the wetland on the last leg of the trail has mostly fallen into disrepair. Missing and/or broken boards caused us to slip into knee-deep mud several times.

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Enjoying a coffee at the Second Fowler Lake put-in

At 90lbs the Old Town Discovery 169 is not built for portaging so, for Shane, Second Fowler Lake was a welcome sight. At its deepest the lake is only 3-4 ft but the bottom is covered with layer of mud/sediment equally thick. Conditions were serene, the water was smooth as glass, the sun was shining, and the call of the white-throated sparrow echoed across the lake. The surrounding area was low lying; clusters of pitcher plants lined the shoreline amongst the grasses, rhododendron, and black spruce.

A portage trail into Kennedy Lake was located in the northwest corner of Second Fowler. Red blazes marked trees at the trailhead. The carry was unexpectedly easy, dry, and well marked. At the Kennedy Lake end, broken down old boats lined the shoreline near the trail, having long been abandoned by their owners.

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Note the red blazes

Kennedy Lake is long and narrow, but is still a relatively small lake at 2.5-3km in length. It’s much deeper and rockier than Second Fowler, reaching depths of up to 20ft in places. There are no camps or cottages on the lake, so it is surrounded by contiguous acadian forest. Sentinel white pines line the rocky shoreline at the south end of the lake, while small mountains flank the western side. Immediately after launching from the put-in the shoreline drops away and the water turns black — surely teeming with trout.

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Stopping for lunch on a flat rock on the island

A few casts around the bay near the trail yielded no trout.  It was around noon — a poor time for fishing — so it seemed like a good time to explore the lake and look for a campsite. The DNR Ranger suggested a single campsite existed in the northeast corner of the lake, and to us this seemed like logical destination. As we approached the island in the centre of the lake our solitude was disrupted by — of all things — a motor boat. It was irritating that our wilderness experience was disturbed but the irony was not lost on us. There’s something funny about not wanting to put forth effort required to paddle around a lake, but simultaneously being willing to carrying a boat and a motor across portage trails.

With another boat on the lake our fears were realized, the lone site was occupied. What was once a nice site exists on a nearby point, but something had killed all the red pine and it was now a widow makers paradise.  The former site was — predictably —  covered in burnt out old frying pans and pots.

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Something has killed all the red pine on what was once probably a great site

Without a campsite we resolved to paddle the shoreline in search of a flat place to put a tent. Flatness was in short supply — most of the shoreline was rocky and covered in thick Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) bushes. Eventually we stumbled upon the portage into Upper Kennedy Lake near the northern river inlet. The trail leads to a short paddle across a small pond before continuing northward toward the lake, certainly worth exploring but it was not in our immediate trip plan.

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Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata)

After circling back to the put-in at the south end of the lake we ended up on a sloped site at the mouth of Lake Brook. The site had plenty of flat rocks for food preparation and seating and appeared to be well-used — as evidenced by the burnt out pots and pans. A set of the falls at the mouth of the brook ruled out paddling further down stream, but the active water created a nice little fishing hole. On my first cast from the shore I landed my first trout of the day — a little 6′ brook trout.

With morning came the sounds of raindrops hitting the tent. Inside the tent the gear was mostly still dry, however everything — including the occupants — had shifted a few inches down the slope. Outside the air was cool. A fine mist fell so lightly from the thick low-hanging clouds that the air itself felt wet. Steaming hot coffee with bacon and oatmeal helped ward off the chill. As if on cue, the rain began to fall immediately after breakfast — suddenly breaking camp seemed unnecessary and we committed to spending the day exploring the area.

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Damp site at the mouth of Lake Brook

The banks of Lake Brook proved to be worth exploring. The dull skies gave the water a darkened tone as the last of the freshet flowed lazily through the pools after the falls. I stood on a large rock mid-stream and watched as small trout darted after my spinner as it worked its way across the current. The lichens beneath my feet, formerly dull and brittle, were plush and vibrant from the rainfall. My mind drifted to the source of two massive eyelets sunk into large, flat rocks on opposite sides of the brook — were they used to control the start of log drives in a bygone era or installed for more modern purposes?

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Lake Brook

The rain continued through the afternoon. A short paddle around the island left us cold and wet and in need of a fire upon arriving back at the campsite. Storing wood under the tarp overnight proved to be a good decision.  The dry material made starting a fire relatively painless. The need to start and maintain a fire in the rain justifies bringing an axe or hatchet on any trip. Regardless of the intensity of a rain event, roundwood logs will rarely be soaked all the way through, hence the ability to split logs and expose their dry interior can be crucial to maintaining comfort. As we stood around the fire in our rain suits the wind picked up, and talk turned to improved weather on the final day.

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A fire helps dry out a couple of wet campers.

The sun re-emerged the following morning after the last of the morning fog burnt off the hills to the west. As we broke camp and made our way back across the portage trails to civilization my CAA membership status abruptly entered the forefront of my mind — had I paid my dues this year, how many kilometers were we from Fredericton? As it turned out, my dues were paid and the tow to Fredericton was completely covered. When we arrived back at the camp in Renous we enjoyed a celebratory beer in the sun and watched as my truck was loaded onto a flatbed bound for Fredericton. Certainly not the ideal way to end a trip, but it was better than no trip at all.

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The last of the cloud cover on the final day

Goodbye Royalex, Hello Nova Craft Prospector

Old Town Canoes made headlines in 1978 when they tossed a Tripper canoe from the roof of their warehouse and it landed unscathed. The boat was constructed of a new material known as Royalex — bonded layers of vinyl, ABS plastic, and a foam core. Royalex caught on immediately and companies all over North America adopted it for their own tripping and whitewater canoes.

But it was all over in April 2014 when PolyOne — Royalex’s manufacturer — announced they were ceasing production. Boat builders were left in the lurch as they scrambled to find a suitable replacement. Developing another material compatible with existing canoe moulds proved difficult. A brief glimmer of hope came along when Esquif Canoes announced that they’d developed a replacement material — T-Formex — for release in 2015.  But Esquif lacked the financial backing, and they shut down.

Consumers raced to snatch up the last of the Royalex canoes. Not wanting to miss the boat — literally and figuratively — I caught Royalex fever. I had to act fast if I wanted to get my hands on a canoe like my father’s Old Town Tripper. I called several distributors in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and their answers were all the same: they were out of stock and waiting on orders that would never be filled.

Looking online at Nova Craft Canoe’s distributor list, I saw there was a dealer a mere 4 km from my door here in Corner Brook. One quick email to a buddy who just began working at the store and I had confirmation that there was one canoe in stock. Tense hours passed while I waited to hear what model, length, colour and, most importantly, material the canoe was made of before I had my answer late Friday evening.

Saturday morning I loaded this 16-foot Nova Craft Prospector onto my truck, knowing I had just purchased the last new Royalex Prospector in Newfoundland, possibly in eastern Canada!

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Nova Craft Prospector 16

With proper maintenance this canoe could last me a lifetime, but for added insurance I applied Kevlar skid plates. I laid out a template for the skids with plastic and masking tape and roughed up the vinyl left exposed. I applied a generous coating of epoxy on both skids afterward.

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Skid Plate Template

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Skid Plate Installation

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Finished Product

Now I just have to wait for the ice to finally melt in the ponds and rivers here in western Newfoundland to take her on her maiden voyage!

Editors Note: At time of publication Esquif has announced they will reopen and continue developing the T-Formex product. Only time will tell if it will compare to Royalex.

Frosty Spring Paddle: Early Season Brook Trout on the Gaspereau River

As the winter draws to an end and the days begin to warm, I start to see signs that the rivers will soon begin to flow. As an avid canoeist and fisherman, spring break-up brings all the memories of seasons past and the anticipation of memories to be made.

I recall an early season trip back in April 2012, Grant and I were anxious to get the first trip of the year under our belts and to try our luck with the early-run trout. We convened on a Friday evening at the camp with the goal of doing a little stream-hopping — trying a few casts in a couple different nearby tributaries of the Gaspereau River — and getting up early Saturday for an upper Gaspereau River paddling adventure.

McKean Brook was our first destination. To get there we headed north on Route 123 towards Doaktown, and pulled onto a logging road known locally as G-11. The brook meanders east, draining Ackerman Heath, and is known to hold trout in the early season. It crosses G-11 at an 8 foot galvanized-steel pipe — where we parked the truck and baited some hooks. We worked a few hundred meters of stream on both sides of the pipe, but with high water levels and a subconscious knowledge that it was probably TOO early for trout, we decided to pack up and try another stream.

We headed further north, crossing the Gaspereau River Bridge — our take out the next day – turning onto Mountain Brook Road to try our luck on a brook of the same name. Mountain Brook flows northeast into the Cains River. We stopped at a bottomless arch culvert and worked a few casts into the black water. Again, no luck.

Determined to catch something, the right decision seemed to be to head back to camp in hopes that some of last season’s trout were trapped in the beaver pond behind the camp. After a few casts we started to think that leaving the fishing rods behind tomorrow wouldn’t be a terrible idea, when I felt a light nudge at my single blade spinner. A quick retrieve and an aggressive cast back to the same location yielded an instant strike. The fish squirmed and ran parallel to the dam before breaking the surface in a series of splashes while I reeled her towards shore. It was a beautifully colored brook trout that had darkened from overwintering in the beaver pond. It retained pink coloration in its meat — which paired nicely with our strip loin steaks later that evening. A few cold pops enjoyed over several games of cribbage next to the fireplace saw us into our respective beds.

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Camo keeps me hidden from trout too!

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Perfect for the frying pan

Grant and I arose to a chilly cabin and a silvery landscape. A heavy frost had worked its way into the river valley overnight. Over breakfast we both agreed that this is what spring paddling is all about. After shuttling a truck to the bridge we headed to our put in. From here it was a short portage to the river’s edge where, as the sun began to peer over the tree tops, we slid the Old Town Tripper into the water.

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I’m sure Robert Frost could have captioned this…

We had roughly 15km ahead of us to the bridge, an easy day paddle with plenty of time for fishing at the best holes. The water was swift and made paddling more of a steering affair – I’m not sure Grant touched a paddle all day. Steering is important on this stretch of the Gaspereau River, it is narrow and turns back to meet itself every kilometer or so.  Out of the sunlight the air was cool and most of the trip was through the shadows of the mature spruce and pine. We managed to keep warm by doing the odd 8oz curl and casting our lines.

As lunch time rolled around we spotted a nice bank with a few downed snags and pulled ashore. We worked swiftly to get a little fire going to take the chill off. Thankfully we had brought hotdogs and granola bars along with us as the fish were hiding quite well up here too.

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A little warm up required

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Lazy lunch

After our shore lunch we continued on down river enjoying the scenery and the day as it was presented to us. Small talk and sightseeing was all that was needed for entertainment.  We landed an 8 inch winter trout each before happening upon a majestic pine that the ice had scoured under for years, giving it appearance of being suspended in the fresh spring air. Effortless paddle strokes brought us around the bends until finally, the bridge was in sight.

Bring on the effortless bends.

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Hovering White Pine

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Successful day!

New Toys

I recently recieved a couple new toys, a Ruger 10/22 and a GoPro. I couldn’t think of a better way to debut both!

870 Wingmaster in Miramichi: A Thanksgiving Grouse Hunt

On Thanksgiving Sunday this year my girlfriend Maggie and I were preparing for a trip up into the Miramichi woodlands. For the second year in a row our plan was supper Sunday, hunt Monday – a pretty good tradition we’re starting. It made me reminisce about Thanksgiving last year.

At the outset of Thanksgiving Monday 2013, I had lofty expectations for my first hunting experience in the woodlands surrounding New Brunswick’s fabled Miramichi River. Stories of the game-filled woods of the north abound throughout the province, but I learned very quickly that hunting in the Miramichi isn’t that easy. The people in this region are a persistent group; most do a variety of things to survive. Strong survival instincts have shaped some of the finest outdoorsmen that this province has ever known. The knowledge passed between generations has cultivated a woodland proficiency that is rivaled in few other places in Canada.

I was reflecting on this when I noticed a grouse sneak off the trail and into some tall grass on the edge of a balsam fir stand. Maggie and I were somewhere north of the fabled Northwest Miramichi River, bumping along the Mullin Stream Rd. in my truck — deep in the woods. I stopped the truck, grabbed my 870 Wingmaster, and started quietly stalking up the road. When I was within 30 yards, I stopped and listened intently — not a sound. Just as I started to inch forward the bird exploded into flight, right in my direction. I shouldered my gun, aimed ahead of the bird, and pulled the trigger. “Not even close” I muttered to myself, as I watched the bird continue its flight unabated.

I watched as the bird landed in the top of a tall aspen tree 100 or so yards away, finally a break. The tree had shed all of its foliage already, providing a clear view through the canopy. The setting sun was only illuminating the treetops; the low-angled light gave the yellow and red October foliage a glowing golden tone. Again, I quietly stalked toward the bird. When I was within 20 yards I took aim. The grouse instinctively knew it was being watched, it crouched and launched itself off its perch just as I fired through the branches — another miss. I watched as the bird disappeared into the fading sunlight. We were returning empty handed.

I sullenly made my way back to the truck. I told myself that I clearly just had a run-in with New Brunswick’s smartest grouse, or perhaps it was just a hallucination after a day of failure? I put my gun away, jumped in the truck cab, and looked at Maggie and said, “don’t tell your Dad about this.

Flash-forward to 2014, spending a little time in the area over the course of the summer had given me a positive feeling heading into this year’s hunt. I told myself as the truck rattled up Highway 420, this year was going to be different.

The sun was shining and the air was crisp on Monday morning – a beautiful day for a hunt. Unfortunately, Maggie had a little too much turkey the previous evening and was not feeling up for it, so it was going to be a solo effort.

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A crater lake on a beautiful fall day off of the Mullin Stream Rd.

I hit the Mullin Stream Rd. around 9:30 a.m. The plan was to walk trails or bushwack through good-looking habitat. Successful habitat identification isn’t difficult. Over-grown trails lined with alders, tall grass, or immature balsam fir generally in upland stands with lots of cover in the understory are a good place to start.

Things were quiet early on; the woods were a crowded place on this holiday. Dozens of like-minded groups were out participating in a traditional Thanksgiving Monday birdhunt. Fortunately for me, most of these groups didn’t appear to venture off of the road. They merely crept along in their pick-ups looking for birds on the roadside.

While you don’t cover as much ground on foot, you get a better feel for the land, and for me personally, the hunt is more rewarding. This method also tests your patience, senses, and stalking ability — skills that are transferrable to other hunts.

The clear blue sky and vibrant Fall foliage made up for the fact that it was a slow day. I was walking down a grassy road between two cut blocks. The edges of the cuts were lined with rows of tall large-toothed aspens. Gusts of wind caused green and gold leaves to rain down from the canopies — a photo-worthy moment. I grabbed my camera-phone out of my pocket and noticed that I had reception. I wasn’t quite ready to head home yet so I thought I’d send home an update. I tossed my gun over my shoulder, and kept walking as I texted – you can probably guess what happens next.

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Don’t look at your phone while grouse hunting!

With my head down and mind back in civilization, I entered an immature birch-fir stand, and sure enough, a grouse exploded into flight 10 yards from me. I muttered an expletive and watched as the bird disappeared into the distance. I put my phone away and paused for a moment. Often, I get so caught up in the grouse in flight that I forget that they are frequently found in groups. As if on cue, I heard shuffling leaves in the opposite direction.

I quietly slipped amongst the trees and I set myself up behind a fir tree, watching for movement. I could see an outline carefully walking through a thicket of 2-3inch birch stems. I resolved to wait and get closer. My heart was pounding. I tried to outpace the bird to get a clear shot. As I closed in the bird jumped up onto a log — it was a beautiful ruffed grouse. I was within 20-yards, so I aimed and fired. The bird disappeared off the log, which I assumed indicated a successful hit. However when I approached it was nowhere to be found – man these Miramichi grouse are tough.

I quick stepped in the same direction and eventually caught up with the grouse as it shuffled through some fir seedlings. When it emerged, I stepped out and fired. The sound of wings flapping against the forest floor indicated a hit – my first Miramichi grouse!

I put the bird in the game-pouch of my vest and quickly hiked back out to the trail. I didn’t want pass up the opportunity to pursue the bird that flew in the other direction. I stepped across the trail and bushwhacked through dense birch forest at a steady pace for about 200yards. As I was sliding between two stems with my head down, I heard a familiar shuffle to my right. I glanced up and another grouse was skimming across the fall-yellow forest floor. I raised my 870 Wingmaster and fired. A good clean shot gave me my second ruffed grouse of the day!

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Two beautiful ruffed grouse taken from the Miramichi watershed

I put the second grouse in the game pouch and started the trek out to the truck. Two birds was enough for me for the day, it was time to head home. Another great day in the woods of New Brunswick, a place where hunting traditions are alive and well.

Mid Summer Brook Trout: An Upper Cains River Canoe Trip

As June turned to July the water levels of New Brunswick’s rivers continued to drop – providing limited canoeing options. So, when my friend Randy and I were searching for places to head out on a two-day canoe trip, I suggested the majestic Cains River. Earlier in the month I had paddled the lower Cains, so to make things more interesting we decided that we’d paddle the often-ignored upper section. We thought access might be an issue, but after some local advice and extensive mapping we located an accessible put-in about 30-40 km above the 123 Highway bridge.

On the hot and sunny morning of June 30th my truck – along with my Old Town Disco ’69 — rumbled up Randy’s steep gravel driveway in Gaspereau, N.B. Randy was in the yard preparing his Old Town Discovery 17’4”. For something different, we were both bringing our own boats. It was going to be my first overnight solo trip, and I was pretty excited. The Upper Cains is shallow with intermittent deep pools, and no real rapids — basically a perfect candidate for a canoeist’s first solo overnighter. Randy is also a certified canoe instructor, so I reasoned that if I was struggling I could – begrudgingly – ask him for a few pointers.

Our shuttle driver was Roger, Randy’s big, burly, soon-to-be father in law. We loaded the boats into the bed of Roger’s 1990’s GMC pick-up – stacked on top of each other – and strapped them down tight. Our excessive strapping prompted Roger to note, “we ain’t gonna be doin’ a hundred mile an hour boys, she should hold.” After which we hit the road, promptly travelling 99 mph.

The road to the put-in was rugged, and likely inaccessible by car. Thankfully, Roger’s truck weaved us through the patchy landscape without much trouble. The landbase in the area is mostly industrial. Fresh clear-cuts from harvesting resulted in unnatural, yet intriguing views of the forest interior. The understory of the spruce-fir forest appeared dark and barren. I wondered whether or not I would notice the cuts from the river — or would I be lured into imagining contiguous, untouched wilderness. Regardless, the area is wild country — fishing camps serve as the only human habitation.

The put-in was at a site where an old bridge used to be. The water was easily accessible via a gravel trail where four-wheelers cross the river. We bid our adieu to Roger and hit the water around 10:30 a.m. The temperature was already well above 20°C with expected highs of around 32°C — the forecast calling for sun all day. Thankfully we were both equipped with the finest headwear known to man, Tilley hats.

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Not a soul to be seen on a long weekend in July on the Upper Cains River

Roughly half of the trip was through crown reserve – no fishing — waters and the remainder was catch and release only. We fished the upper stretch before arriving at the no fishing area. The trout were taking on bombers. I landed a couple of beautiful 6-8” brook trout – with their signature vibrant blue and red speckles. After moving into the crown reserve zone, we put our rods away for the rest of the trip and just enjoyed the scenery and sunshine.

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One of New Brunswick’s most beautiful resources, the Brook Trout

Canoeing conditions were fantastic — the water level in Blackville read 1.0. We drifted under the glaring sun along side shale cliffs and past sentinel white pines – seemingly deep in the Acadian forest. My only complaint was that I was sitting turned around in the bow seat. The seats in my boat are moulded plastic, so they’re a tad uncomfortable.

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Amazing how they grow seemingly right out of the cliff

At one point in the early afternoon I realized Randy and I had spoken in over an hour. I paddled up alongside him and asked, “How are you making out buddy?”

He replied, “It’s hot, I think we need to get out of the sun for a while.”

I agreed, so we pulled our boats up on a nearby gravel point with some shade. In the hot sun, our beverage of choice was not doing us any favours in terms of hydration. I relaxed in the shade, staring up at the sky through the leaves of a silver maple tree and eventually dozed off. After about an hour Randy woke me up, “Hey GV, we should get going.” The shade break was exactly what we needed. We hit the water with a new-found sense of vigour.

At some point I realized that I forgot to take a waypoint at the put-in, so we had no idea how far we’d gone. This was problematic because we were looking for a certain site – famous amongst locals — known as ‘The Pines.’ Without having set foot on the site, we were searching based on a description. The site was supposed to be flat and shaded by majestic white pine. Without fishing, I became obsessed with finding it – it became our holy grail. Much to the chagrin of Randy, every cluster of white pine resulted in me asking, “do you think this is it?”

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“Hey Randy, do you think this is it?”

Eventually we reached what “had to be it.” It was everything we expected — shaded, flat, and covered with beautiful white pines. The twin flowers (Linnaea borealis) were in full bloom – they have a nice little pink blossom. The site appeared as though it hadn’t been used this year – most things were grown over. A bunch of old garbage was strewn about — why do people think that frying pans, pots, and beer cans will burn in a fire?

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Twin flower, Linnaea borealis

We set up our tent and settled in for the night. After the bugs died down, we sat around our campfire under the starlit summer sky and enjoyed a nice steak with a couple beers. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Behold, the majestic sight known as “The Pines”

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Randy cleans up the fire pit

In the morning disaster struck. After a thorough search I asked, “Randy, where’s the pot so I can boil some water for coffee”.

He replied, “I didn’t bring one, I don’t drink coffee GV.”

I screamed.

I was left without coffee until we could reach the Tim Horton’s in Minto, N.B.

Parts of the river on the second day were striking, nice looking crown reserve fishing camps were situated on deep beautiful looking pools. Schools of large creek chub swam frantically away from us as we drifted over. I liked to imagine salmon and 4 lb trout lurked somewhere in the depths.

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Note the pool I’m paddling through. I spent most of the trip on my knees avoiding the moulded plastic seats.

The heat was intense again on the second day, and the shady spots on the river were most welcomed. We landed at the 123 bridge around 3:00 p.m. After loading up the gear and boats Randy noted, “wouldn’t it be great to do this for a living?”

“Yeah” I replied, “but I’m happy we can do it at all.”

We jumped in my truck and headed back to Randy’s place on the Gaspereau River, another river for another day.

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