Crossing an Ancient Portage: The Cains-Gaspereau River Portage Trail
Portage Trail – the mere muttering of these words can send painful memories radiating down the necks of canoeists. Combine those words with a unit of measure greater than a few hundred yards and the ‘memories’ become crippling.
Such was my case as I began planning to complete the Cains – Gaspereau portage trail solo earlier this year. This 8.5km portage is the realization of a project undertaken by Canoe Kayak New Brunswick starting in earnest in 2008. There are now six traditional trails near completion in the province, joining watersheds and connecting major rivers. The project is a continuation of work completed by W.F. Ganong, who spent his time in the early 1900s mapping traditional canoe routes that aided his exploration, cartography and scientific documentation of New Brunswick’s vast wilderness. The trails were the mainstays of First Nations peoples long before his time and Ganong understood the cultural significance of the routes.
My plan was simple. I arranged an early morning drop-off at the Cains River bridge on Route 123 and a late evening pick up at the Burpee Bridge on the Gaspereau River. Almost 40 km of self-propelled travel stood between me and my goal, but I was optimistic I had the “stuff” to complete the journey.
The Cains River is a tributary of the Main Southwest Miramichi River. In its own right, the Cains is a storied fishing river known for plentiful trout and cold dark waters. Sporadic camps dot its banks, most of which were empty this early in May. With a wide channel and meandering turns, this section of river offers a relaxing paddle. Likely sensing my self-doubt, a couple of friendly beavers slapped their tails along side my canoe, perhaps offering encouragement of my hopeless pursuit.
The portage trail head sits in a spruce-hemlock forest roughly 10 km downriver from Route 123, river right. I eddied out shortly after 8:00 a.m. and immediately tied my paddle into the canoe. I hated to rush the landing but I felt I needed every minute of time to complete the journey in one day.
I slung my pack and canoe onto my shoulders and was off. The trails begins by ascending 150 meters out of the river valley. On this day, there was a bonus of shin deep snow. I felt every ounce of my 50 lb load as I crested the hilltop. What the hell I was thinking?
The first 1100 metres of trail crosses two logging roads, a small bridge over an unnamed stream and transitions through two different forest stand types. The trail showed signs of use, but not of the bipedal variety. Moose and smaller game have welcomed the 30-inch wide path and have left their respective marks on the landscape.
The first true milestone is a bridge over West Branch Six Mile Brook, roughly half-way across the portage. En route, I plodded through a managed softwood forest and skirted the high ground adjacent to a large bog. The methodical creaking of my improvised 1″x 3″ yoke — my Old Town Pack was not equipped with such an amenity — soothed my ears as my shoulders and neck cried for attention. Soon I began descending into the lowlands and the bridge emerged ahead. I checked my watch and was pleasantly surprised. It was 10:00a.m. and I was portaging at a pace of 2 km/hr.
I was doing better than expected. As I rested, the satisfaction of being ahead of schedule allowed me to fantasize about a supper more palatable than the squished cold cut sandwich in my pack. With a newfound sense of purpose and a belly full of beef jerky, I crawled back under my over-sized hat.
The next landmark, the final bridge of the trek, lay 1.5 km down the trail. The swale between the two branches of Six Mile Brook are choked with Labrador Tea, entangling your every soggy step. Crossing the Main Branch marks the transition into Gaspereau River watershed.
With approximately 3 km remaining on the portage I was beginning to feel real signs of fatigue. My shoulders spasmed as I shifted the canoe, desperately trying to find a comfortable hold. Further, my pace was starting to slow. I managed to find several trees to use as canoe rests for much needed breaks. As I leaned against a tree, I contemplated the historical significance of the trail. Before roads this trail connected the north and south of New Brunswick. Many a weary traveler had likely found themselves right where I stood, mustering the motivation to push on.
The trail intersects another two logging roads before entering the last leg of the hike. Gravity was pulling me down through a mature forest when I spotted the Gaspereau River through the trees. A euphoric “WOOO!” emerged unconsciously from somewhere inside me. I managed to cross the trail in just under six hours.
The trail concludes on a grassy flat flanked by robust white pine and sandstone boulders. In early May, the Gaspereau flows purposefully from it’s sources. The river offers some energetic water before widening as it approaches the community of Upper Gaspereau. Bald Eagles watch over these waters for dorsal fins and wary travellers, as they have for more years than I can fathom. Back in the canoe rhythmic paddle strokes and a helpful current propel me through this serpentine oasis.
The 20 km paddle on the Gaspereau was a challenge, especially after an 8.5 km portage. For the bulk of the journey, the wind was blowing upstream. I rounded the final bend before the bridge around 6 p.m., and again, I thought of those who traveled before me. After much longer journeys than my own, how did they feel when they arrived at their destination? How did their families feel when they arrived home? I wondered if someday my son would do a similar trip of his own. Or, perhaps carrying a canoe on your head will become an action of history, only spoken of in the deepest recesses of the internet.
Download Geo-Referenced PDF here: PortageTrailMap
The resurrection of the trail is a great thing. Good for you having the ambition to actually make that carry. You may have been the first one to carry a canoe on the trail in 170 years or more.
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Thanks Brad. Yes, my goal was to be the first in a long while for sure. Someone else may have done it but they have yet to contact me! haha.
Hi Brad, I am gradually completing the portage trail system in NB. I plan to complete it this year. I have run the Cains and would like to do the section which you completed. Can you provide me with the best time to run it? Thanks. Michèle
Hello Michèle. Quite an undertaking you’re doing! Congratulations on your efforts to date. As far as timing for the Cains River, you’d be fine any time but if you plan to run the Gaspereau river as well you’ll need to run it before early June. Water levels in that system drop quickly. But you’ll want to wait until later spring for snow levels to drop in the woods. Alternatively, you could go after the fall rain season. I hope this helps! Any other questions feel free to reach out. Good luck!
Hi Brad, As I am planning to run the Cains-Gaspereaux River Portage for two days over the next few weeks, I have a question about the terrain. Is it swampy, boggy, or forest floor? Mixture of all three? If so, can you give me an approximate percentage of each? Also, any good camping spots along the way.
Hello, Matt here, author of this post. I’ll do my best to answer your questions. You’d be right to assume a mixture of forest floor conditions but I will say that the trail does a good job of staying up on the drier portions of land. As far as camping spots there are many places that would suffice. Only places I’d avoid would be anywhere near the logging roads you cross just from an experiential perspective.
What was your indicator for the trailhead on the Cains? I have read in books about W.F. Ganong and this trip of a “portage rock” on the Cains River section on River Right, is this true?
Hello Jacob. Thanks for reading and for your question. To be honest, I scouted the trailhead from the Acadia Forest road to the south. The trail crosses approximately 7km in from the pavement. Because I was planning to make the crossing in one day I needed to be 100% sure of finding the trailhead and not meticulously looking for other natural indicators. There was a small yellow Portage sign there as well. Canoe Kayak New Brunswick is still in the process of restoring this trail and one can assume that signage at the trailheads will be on their work list for the upcoming seasons. Happy Paddling!