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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.

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

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.

A St. Croix River Day Trip

You’ll never guess who was in New Brunswick last weekend, the one an only Matthew Chase – my partner in crime. Young Matthew is getting married this Christmas and he was in town for a fishing trip and his bachelor party – a story for another day. After a successful visit we could only think of one way to cap it off, a canoe run. Unfortunately, water levels across most of the province were too low for canoeing. But — lucky for us — the St. Croix River in southwestern New Brunswick is dam controlled.

For 185 km, the St. Croix River forms the international border between Canada and the United States — the respective boundary between the province of New Brunswick and the state of Maine. The river flows southwards from the Chiputneticook Lakes in the north into Passamaquoddy Bay, in the world famous Bay of Fundy. It is one of three New Brunswick rivers designated as a Canadian Heritage River by the Government of Canada. This designation recognizes that it has “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational heritage.”

The lower St. Croix is perhaps most famous for being the home of the first European settlement in North America north of Florida. In 1604, Pierre Dugua and Samuel de Champlain of France sailed up the St. Croix and established a settlement on the 6.5 acre, St. Croix Island. The settlement was ultimately unsuccessful – nearly half of the settlers died in the first winter – and was moved the following year.

We had never paddled the St. Croix, and didn’t know what to expect. For safety purposes, Matt’s father, Jeff, was kind enough to loan us his Old Town Tripper for the excursion – an upgrade over my Disco ’69. Our game plan was to put in by the old rail bridge in St. Croix, N.B. and run down to ‘Gravel Island Provincial Park’ – a total distance of around 25km. The water level looked good, the flow over the dam in Vanceboro read 960, which was plenty of water — apparently anything over 600 is ‘runnable.’

I’d heard contrasting views on what the river was like, some said it was a “booze cruise” while others said it was “intense.” Given that we were still recovering from the effects of Matt’s bachelor party, if it was a “booze cruise” it was going to be the driest one in history. So, when we were dropping off my truck at the take-out, it was good to hear from a park ranger that, “Little Falls is a bit of a challenge. Just run it on the American side and you’ll be fine.”

We were on the water around 11:30a.m. I was in the bow seat for the first time in a long time and it felt like old hat. Long before I owned my own canoe, I was Matt’s bowman on some wild river trips. I’ve learned a lot since those days — I’ve given up my gunnel grabbing ways. Our map indicated that that there were dozens of Class I-II rapids along the way and one Class III — Little Falls — all of which were broken up by large swaths of flat, slow-moving water.

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Hard to avoid rocks when you’re taking a “selfie”

One of the first things we noticed was the abundance of old pulp wood that lined the river bottom. For parts of the 18th, 19th,  and 20th centuries the St. Croix River was used to drive logs down river to local mills — the last of which was in 1965. Looking down through the crystal clear water and seeing the old logs gives you a sense that you’re paddling right over history.  With some imagination you can envision what a log drive 100 years ago might’ve looked like.

We were lucky to have the entire river more or less to ourselves — we only ran into one other group over the course of the day. With cabins few and far between, the river felt remote — a nice surprise. The natural landscape contained a diverse mixture of Acadian forest stand types along with wide open grassy marshes.

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The view from one of the many waterfront campsites along the way.

We were nervous as we approached our first set of rips — Upper Wingdam Rips. Matt was on edge because he hadn’t paddled in over a year, and I was on edge because well, Matt hadn’t paddled in over a year.  Mercifully, the old chemistry was still there and we made it through unscathed. By the time we reached Little Falls we were a well-oiled machine.

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I don’t have many negative things to say about the Old Town Tripper

At Little Falls we pulled out at the head of the portage trail above the falls — on the Canadian side — to scout it out. The trail would be a easy portage, if you were so inclined. The falls itself had two very different lines. On the right side — the American side — there are a series of ledges that appear to offer little reprieve, after which there is some fast moving water and not much else. The left side — the Canadian side — is longer and a little more complex. At the start of the rapids a line of rocks extends across the river which produces a series of small haystacks, after which rocks are dispersed across the river.

After much discussion, we decided to go against the ranger’s advice and run the Canadian side. We both agreed that ledges are difficult if there is no clear passage — it’s too hard to control how the boat comes over the ledge — and from our vantage point on we couldn’t see one. We ran through the obvious “V” on the far left bank at the top of the rock line, down through the small haystacks, and past a couple of rocks on our right. After these rocks we moved into the centre of the river to avoid what appeared to be another small ledge on the left. After the ledge, we moved back to the left and were home free! Talk about fun!

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Don’t worry, I’m a professional.

After the falls, the rest of the trip flew by. We stopped and marvelled and some of the incredible campsites along the way and discussed how great an over-nighter would be. We docked at the campground around 6:45 p.m., just as the sun was starting to get low in the sky. After loading the boat onto Jeff’s truck back at the train bridge, we shook hands and agreed that the St. Croix River is a river worth paddling.

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Another successful canoe run in the beautiful province of New Brunswick

In Pursuit of the Brook Trout: A Cains River Canoe Trip

My friend Andrew and I had had been trying to get out canoeing together on New Brunswick’s famous Cains River since Spring 2013. When he informed me at the start of June that he had to use up all of his vacation days by July, we knew it was time. June 12th he was in my driveway at 5:30 a.m., ready to hit the road – while I was still upstairs in my underwear of course. Our plan was to spend two days paddling from the bridge at Grand Lake Road (also known as Highway 123) into the Main Southwest Miramichi River and down to the municipal park in Blackville. Approximately 60 km in total.

The Cains River trip is a popular one amongst New Brunswick fisherman because it is famous for its fly-fishing of Atlantic salmon and brook trout. While the salmon typically don’t run through the river until the fall, the trout fishing was supposed to be great this time of year. I’ve never had much luck fly-fishing – my excuse is I only just got into it a couple years ago – so I was anxious to get out on the water and work on my cast.  Note that this does not imply that I was expecting to catch anything!

After dropping a vehicle at the park, we arrived at the put-in around 9:00 a.m. The water level looked good, the gauge in Blackville was at 1.36 m. There’s a nice access point with a good place to leave a vehicle just off the down streamside of the road, on the Doaktown side of the bridge.  When we arrived – along with hordes of hungry mosquitos – an old fella was down there.

“Just checking out the river,” he said. “The trout are running up.”

“Any salmon in the river yet?” Andrew asked.

“Salmon aren’t even in the main river yet,” he scoffed as he got in his truck, evidently repelled by our lack of knowledge.

 

The first thing we noticed after hitting the water was the damage from the year’s ice flows. Many of the trees on the bank – up to 6 ft above the present water level – had their bark stripped off the first 4-5 ft of their trunk on the riverside. The riverbank itself was comprised of mostly lush, green herbaceous vegetation, tall grasses, young ferns, and – as we learned the hard way at our first stop – poison ivy.

“Crap, that’s poison ivy” I said to Andrew.

“Nah, not here” he replied.

“Dammit, I think it is” I said as it dawned on me that I’d just dragged my rope through a large patch of it.

 I’d heard that the fishing was best on the first half of the trip, so our rods were out shortly after we set sail. It’s always a little nerve-racking to me when two guys with 9ft fly-fishing rods are casting in opposite directions in the same 17 ft canoe – the math just doesn’t add up – but miraculously we both went unhooked. I was lucky enough to land the first fish of the trip, a 6-7″ brook trout with a beautiful, dark body and vibrant blue and red speckles. It took on a blue-winged butterfly in a little eddy adjacent to where a spring flowed into the river.

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Mind the Poison Ivy

Afterward things went quiet. At some point Andrew put on an orange bomber – a dry fly – and everything just clicked.  I put on a green one soon after and the 3-4″ trout were plentiful.  Our best spot was on the backside of a grassy island in a narrow channel. As we approached, Andrew said “I like the look of that spot, lets get out.” We beached the boat in the rocky shallows above the island and I decided I was in a good dry position to fish from the stern.

A drop in elevation at the head of the island resulted in a series of small standing waves – followed by what looked to be a promising little pool.  I was in position to fish from the over hanging grassy bank above the island, down into the waves.  I worked the bank first, then released some additional line to let my fly drift down through the waves. A 8-9″ trout was there waiting for it on the first pass – talk about exciting!  Andrew eagerly walked over to the pool and of course caught a beautiful 12-13″ brook trout almost immediately, and several smaller ones thereafter.

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Not bad for a guy that doesn’t know what he’s doing

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Andrew’s trout – there’s no jealously here at all.

When the pool went quiet, it was time to make a big push down-river. Our intention was to camp somewhere near the mouth of the Sabbies River – which we estimated to be near the halfway point of the trip. We paddled hard through the old-growth pine, fir, and spruce, past the fishing lodges, through the steep river valleys, and arrived at the mouth of the Sabbies around 8:00 p.m.

Finding campsites on a canoe trip can be a bit of a chore – the grass always seems greener on the other side. Making the decision more difficult is the fact that on a river — a lot like in life — the current only flows one direction and travelling upstream isn’t always possible. Lucky for us, we found a great site on a point on our second try.  The spot showed signs of many years of use, few of which were positive. Garbage everywhere, everything from 30-year-old beer cans to recent plastic water bottles – clearly, some people have no respect. We did our best to tidy things up, but there’s only so much you can do when you don’t have any extra garbage bags. If you’re reading this and planning on doing a similar trip, bring a couple extra garbage bags and help keep our province beautiful.

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Keeping a 120L dry-bag organized takes some practice

After a night of dreams about the boat floating away, we awoke to a wet tent and overcast skies. With oatmeal in our guts, we were back on the water around 8:30 a.m. As the Cains approaches the Main Southwest Miramichi it gets much slower, wider, and deeper. Much of this stretch of river is flagged as ‘private fishing’ so we were left to observe our surroundings and discuss the pros and cons of ‘private fishing’. While it seems unfair that any water should have access restricted to paying customers only, the conservation benefits are undeniable. It’s in the best interest of guides and outfitters to maintain a functioning ecosystem  in order to preserve their livelihood.

The landscape was dominated by pines in many areas, red pine, white pine, and even jack pine.  Things were so quiet on the river that we drifted silently within 10ft of a deer standing at attention on the bank. Unlike other tributaries of the Miramichi River I’ve been on, the geology surrounding the Cains River is mostly comprised of a grey shale. When exposed, smoothed, stair-like stacks of shale appear on the banks and up the river valley.

We hit the Main Southwest Miramichi with the wind at our backs and no need to even touch a paddle.  Drifting through, it was hard not to look at the wall-to-wall houses and wonder what it was like 100 years ago. Was it forested or fields? Regardless, it looks like a small municipality today.  We landed in Blackville around 2:00 p.m. loaded up the boat, and discussed wetting a line back at the 123 bridge.  However, when we were confronted with hordes of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, I changed my mind pretty quickly.  Rather, we shook hands, congratulated each other on a well-executed trip and headed back to Fredericton.

Duct Tape and the Double Run: Taxis River Canoe Run

The morning of Sunday, June 1st  I woke up on a futon at Shane’s camp on the Renous River to the smells and sounds of fresh brewing coffee. I sat up and worked my arm and shoulder in a throwing motion. “Feels as fresh as that coffee,” I thought. Today was Part II of my ‘elusive double run.’ I was heading down to Boisetown, and up Route 625 to run the Taxis River. Originally my plan was to run it solo and I was a little nervous. I’d run the Taxis before and thought that it was a good, safe candidate for developing my limited solo paddling skills. So I was somewhat relieved and simultaneously disappointed when I called the group and found out that someone had bailed at the last minute, and that I had a bowman.

The bowman was a professor friend of mine from the University of New Brunswick. He was born and raised in Poland and had only been in a canoe once before – on a run we refer to as ‘Karnage on the Keswick’. It’ll be fine I thought, I’ll teach him the draw and cross-bow draw strokes and tell him when to use them and we’ll get by – and if that doesn’t work, I’ll tell him to put the paddle down and I’ll paddle solo!

Route 625 is a bit of a rough road, it’s a wide gravel road that is easily accessible via car if you take it slow. There are numerous holes and rocks that could easily result in a leaky oil pan — and they will sneak up on you if you aren’t paying attention. I made it to the put-in by around 10:00 a.m. and the guys were there waiting. The water level from the bridge looked like there would be enough to get by, barely. The gauge in Blackville read between 1.3 and 1.4 m — which was fine for the Renous.

Marek easily had 75 lbs on me, and if I was more-or-less paddling solo, I wanted to be paddling a well trimmed Disco ’69. I grabbed my small 30 L barrel, loaded it up with miscellaneous gear, and jammed it behind the stern — which levelled things out nicely. Only later did I realize that this was the make-shift backrest I’d been waiting my whole life for!

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Note the guy with his arm raised, clearly loving his new-found backrest.

Two other boats were along for the run — two friends, and a father-son team. John — the father — was debuting his new (to him) Mad River Escape inflatable folding canoe. These canoes are very similar to the famous PakBoat folding canoes. I had never seen one in person, so I was interested in seeing how it performed on the water. John didn’t seem worried about rocks or his dog’s claws, so I figured they were pretty tough.

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If you haven’t seen one before, they have a PVC body with inflatable sides, and an aluminum frame that breaks apart into 32 pieces. The floor is covered in a foam pad.

It was another great day on another one of New Brunswick’s world-class rivers. The Taxis River is much smaller and shallower than the Renous. We scraped bottom in quite a few places along the way — if Marek didn’t have a natural eye for finding the deep water we probably would have had to get out and walk a little bit. The scenery surrounding the Taxis can be quite stunning. There is some beautiful old hemlock forest in a few places and some large white pines that are seemingly growing out of bare rock. New Brunswick’s signature red sandstone cliffs were also prevalent along the way. I was particularly impressed by the sandstone that extended underneath the river and formed the river bed. When paddling over sandstone, it appears as though you should be able to reach down and grab a handful, but one of nature’s most powerful forces has taken millennia to carve out its present form.

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There are bigger White Pines growing on more barren looking sites than this along the way

Unfortunately for John, the PakBoat didn’t do so well. It performed admirably all day, but as we were paddling the bow seat became dislodged and poked two holes in the PVC shell. Marek and I paddled along side John and I asked him “hows the inflatable boat, John?” and his son responded by yelling, “WE’RE TAKING ON WATER!” Thankfully, I remembered one of the items that was in my barrel was a roll of duct tape. We slid over to the bank and I surprised John with it as they were emptying out their boat. “Oh god, you’re a life saver!” he exclaimed. We applied duct tape patches on the inside and outside of the boat and they held up nicely for the rest of the day.

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Bottom side of the patch job at the takeout point – not bad!

We landed in Boisetown — after a short run down the Southwest Miramichi — around 4:30 p.m. along with a group that just finished running the Southwest Miramichi, a run that I’d like to check off my list one of these days. I took one look at one of their canoes, with plastic lawn chairs as seats, and thought, “I bet those guys used a little duct tape this weekend.”

Renous River Canoe Run

I had big plans for the last days of May and first days of June in 2014, I was going for what I was referring to as the ‘elusive double run‘. The double run consists of two separate day trips on two separate rivers in a single weekend. It may not sound like much but, my last attempt didn’t go so well – I blame my good friend James Ready for that. Two day runs are a little trickier to execute than an over-nighter, there’s twice the shuttling, driving, canoe lifting… etc. But in my mind it would all be worth it — I was going to be all over the watershed of the world-famous Miramichi River.

My plans were to run the last leg of the North Renous River into the Main Branch of the Renous and down to the mouth of the Dungarven River – where my friend has a camp. After a night’s rest at the camp, the plan was to jump in the truck, head up Route 625 from Boisetown and run the Taxis River down into the Main Southwest Miramichi. A five river weekend!

My bowman Shane and I left Fredericton at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Conditions were perfect — the waterlevel gauge in Blackville read 1.5 m. After a quick stop at Shane’s camp, we were at the put-in around 10:00 a.m. As we were unloading my Old Town Discovery 169, a couple locals stopped by who were heading up the North Renous to fish, sure enough they owned that same boat. “But mine doesn’t say Disco ’69 on the side” the old fella said with a big grin. I groaned, “I didn’t make it that way, one of my buddies and his friend Alexander are responsible for it”

We shoved off the bank at 10:30 a.m. Based on a little map work, we estimated the run to be around 30-35 km — and we expected it would take all day. The ride down the North Renous was bumpy, I was anticipating it to be the hardest part of the trip. It was Shane’s first time as my bowman so we hadn’t worked out all the kinks yet — and there was no where to practice.

The river gets really narrow just before the Renous Forks and there are two back-to-back blind corners with steep banks that gave us a little trouble. We failed to execute two maneuvers, first we wanted to upstream ferry across the narrow channel, but we couldn’t get the angle right. Second, I wanted to perform an eddy turn on the corner to avoid slamming into the steep bank. I instructed Shane to draw hard into toward the eddy as we came around the bend, but we missed it. We didn’t slam into the bank though, so we didn’t miss it entirely!

We stopped at the mouth of the North Renous to take in the scenery and take a couple photos and again at the gravel pit salmon pool to try a few casts. From gravel pit on down it was a great run, lots of sun, lots of fishing. I hate to be this guy, but I caught a beautiful sea trout 15-16″ — but couldn’t get it into the boat!

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Renous River Forks

The Renous River is a wide, calm, meandering river that doesn’t present much difficulty to the average canoeist. There are no rapids to speak of, just some rocks to watch out for. We even successfully executed a few eddy turns in the wake of some of these rocks!  At this water level we scraped bottom in a couple of places, but weren’t forced to get out of the boat and drag it. There are a couple of particularly beautiful places with New Brunswick’s signature high, red sandstone banks and others with thick mature cedar and spruce. There are plenty of nice looking camp sites along the way as well — one in particular, called McGraw Brook, used to be a campground.

We arrived at the mouth of the Dungarven River at 6:40 p.m., just at the sun was starting to get low in the sky. My thoughts drifted to the next day — Part II — and what a great weekend I was having in my beautiful adopted province. Shane’s parents had a couple of burgers and a couple of beers waiting for us as we slid up to the sandy bank at the camp – now that’s how you end a day run.

Welcome to Spring: Return of the Brook Trout


After – probably – the longest winter in New Brunswick history spring has finally arrived! The robins are back, the grass is green, the buds are bursting, and the water levels are high. Fishing season opened here way back on April 15th, but winter pressed on. It’s May 10th and there’s still a couple of feet of snow in the woods in many places. Consider this, I have been fishing on the Renous River on opening day – April 15th –  in each of the last two years. This year fishing on April 15th surely would have resulted in certain death. Actually, last year nearly did too.

Just as an aside on the importance knowing your limits. Last year on opening day I was wading out into a small channel of the Renous River and took one step too many.  One extra step was all it took. In an instant ice cold water was rushing into my chest waders. A friend of mine was 20ft away and was powerless to do anything but hear me cry out “Oh man, I’m swimmin'”. Thankfully, I reacted quickly and was able to swim to shore before being pulled under and washed down river. But the message was received, respect the power of water and know your limits.

This year, as April turned to May I still hadn’t had the opportunity to wet a line. With every passing day I grew more anxious. I started to feel like I’d never get to fish again. Mercifully, last Sunday a friend of mine suggested we go out and scout out some new spots. We settled on the Nashwaaksis Stream, just outside of Fredericton. Neither of us were that optimistic – we figured why bother driving for hours if we’re not going to catch anything anyways.

I spent Sunday morning getting my gear ready. I Loaded up my fishing vest – struggling to remember what goes in which pocket – and rigged up my $20 telescoping rod with my expensive Shimano reel. I was a telescopic rod cynic for years but I could no longer ignore their potential convenience, so I purchased one last year.  While they have many issues – e.g. the last guide is rarely straight, sections get stuck, they are cheaply made, casting performance is poor, the action feels uneven, they feel weak…etc – they make your life infinitely easier when hiking through the woods into a fishing spot. I suppose after years of getting rods/line tangled in branches or having to cary a rod case on long hikes, I was just trying to preserve my sanity. Also, considering that brook trout don’t typically get that big, I reasoned things would be ok.

We arrived at the spot in the early afternoon – of course I forgot my rubber boots – and started to hike in through the mature silver maple, willow, and alders. Signs of the spring flood were everywhere, the forest floor was covered in a layer of pale branches and large logs, grass and other debris had accumulated in the trees/shrubs 4-5ft off the ground, the water was high and murky, and large chunks of ice had been deposited randomly around the floodplain. Most of the snow in the area was gone, only remaining in the shadiest of spots.

We stopped at what seemed like a nice looking spot and set up our rods. I have a favourite spinner I like to use for brook trout;  it was given to me by a friend of mine on a day in which I was ill equipped for trout fishing. It’s nothing special – it’s plain silver in the willow leaf shape, about an inch long. The kind of spinner blank that allows you to build your own lure – they come in a 3 or 4 pack.

I’d love to tell you that on the first cast of the year I hauled in a beautiful brook trout, but I’m not that lucky. Rather, the first cast of the year was just a quiet, serene moment. I was happy to have the cork handle in my hand, to open the face of the reel and hear the click, to watch the lure soar out over the river and land with a familiar plop, and to feel the tug of the river on the line. Fishing was back!

I worked my way down river – casting across river at 45° angles and letting the lure work its way back across toward me in the current while slowly retrieving. After about an hour and a half we had nothing to show for our efforts. I noticed a small brook running into the stream a few hundred feet ahead – that I would have got to eventually – and decided that it was a spot I needed to try immediately. I set myself up just above where the brook flowed in and let one fly just into the water just above where the two merged. The perfect cast – I thought – but nothing. I kept casting into that same spot, over and over, hoping something would take the bait, but nothing. My mind started to drift – as it often does when on the water – I stared up river and watched my friend Shane cast and retrieve. I drifted further – still working the river from the same spot – and I wondered whether or not this will be the year that I finally catch an Atlantic Salmon. I was thinking about what that would be like, when I felt a tug on the line.

I pulled up the rod tip – attempting to set the hook – and instantly felt the heavy, pulsating pull of an opposing force. I looked from the tip of the bowing telescoping rod down to the end of the taught line and saw a large, bright silver flash. I involuntarily barked “WHOAAA!” and I heard Shane yell, “is it a fish?!” I don’t believe I replied. Any time I hook a fish that I think is going to be memorable, there’s always a slight pang of anxiety. Concern about the being the guy telling the story about the one that got away. Never truly being able to verify the specifics, species, size, etc. Thankfully, I managed to keep my wits about me, I kept the tip up, kept the line tight and got the fish up to bank.

First trout of the year!

It was a beautiful brook trout around 13-14 inches in length with a fat belly that was full of meal worms. Needless to say we were both in disbelief.  We fished for another hour or so and caught nothing, but it didn’t matter. Here’s hoping the rest of the season goes this well – and that there’s a salmon in my future.

 

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