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 Spring, Rachel 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.