Crossing an Ancient Portage: The Cains-Gaspereau River Portage Trail
Portage Trail – the mere muttering of these words can send painful memories radiating down the necks of canoeists. Combine those words with a unit of measure greater than a few hundred yards and the ‘memories’ become crippling.
Such was my case as I began planning to complete the Cains – Gaspereau portage trail solo earlier this year. This 8.5km portage is the realization of a project undertaken by Canoe Kayak New Brunswick starting in earnest in 2008. There are now six traditional trails near completion in the province, joining watersheds and connecting major rivers. The project is a continuation of work completed by W.F. Ganong, who spent his time in the early 1900s mapping traditional canoe routes that aided his exploration, cartography and scientific documentation of New Brunswick’s vast wilderness. The trails were the mainstays of First Nations peoples long before his time and Ganong understood the cultural significance of the routes.
My plan was simple. I arranged an early morning drop-off at the Cains River bridge on Route 123 and a late evening pick up at the Burpee Bridge on the Gaspereau River. Almost 40 km of self-propelled travel stood between me and my goal, but I was optimistic I had the “stuff” to complete the journey.
The Cains River is a tributary of the Main Southwest Miramichi River. In its own right, the Cains is a storied fishing river known for plentiful trout and cold dark waters. Sporadic camps dot its banks, most of which were empty this early in May. With a wide channel and meandering turns, this section of river offers a relaxing paddle. Likely sensing my self-doubt, a couple of friendly beavers slapped their tails along side my canoe, perhaps offering encouragement of my hopeless pursuit.
The portage trail head sits in a spruce-hemlock forest roughly 10 km downriver from Route 123, river right. I eddied out shortly after 8:00 a.m. and immediately tied my paddle into the canoe. I hated to rush the landing but I felt I needed every minute of time to complete the journey in one day.
I slung my pack and canoe onto my shoulders and was off. The trails begins by ascending 150 meters out of the river valley. On this day, there was a bonus of shin deep snow. I felt every ounce of my 50 lb load as I crested the hilltop. What the hell I was thinking?
The first 1100 metres of trail crosses two logging roads, a small bridge over an unnamed stream and transitions through two different forest stand types. The trail showed signs of use, but not of the bipedal variety. Moose and smaller game have welcomed the 30-inch wide path and have left their respective marks on the landscape.
The first true milestone is a bridge over West Branch Six Mile Brook, roughly half-way across the portage. En route, I plodded through a managed softwood forest and skirted the high ground adjacent to a large bog. The methodical creaking of my improvised 1″x 3″ yoke — my Old Town Pack was not equipped with such an amenity — soothed my ears as my shoulders and neck cried for attention. Soon I began descending into the lowlands and the bridge emerged ahead. I checked my watch and was pleasantly surprised. It was 10:00a.m. and I was portaging at a pace of 2 km/hr.
I was doing better than expected. As I rested, the satisfaction of being ahead of schedule allowed me to fantasize about a supper more palatable than the squished cold cut sandwich in my pack. With a newfound sense of purpose and a belly full of beef jerky, I crawled back under my over-sized hat.
The next landmark, the final bridge of the trek, lay 1.5 km down the trail. The swale between the two branches of Six Mile Brook are choked with Labrador Tea, entangling your every soggy step. Crossing the Main Branch marks the transition into Gaspereau River watershed.
With approximately 3 km remaining on the portage I was beginning to feel real signs of fatigue. My shoulders spasmed as I shifted the canoe, desperately trying to find a comfortable hold. Further, my pace was starting to slow. I managed to find several trees to use as canoe rests for much needed breaks. As I leaned against a tree, I contemplated the historical significance of the trail. Before roads this trail connected the north and south of New Brunswick. Many a weary traveler had likely found themselves right where I stood, mustering the motivation to push on.
The trail intersects another two logging roads before entering the last leg of the hike. Gravity was pulling me down through a mature forest when I spotted the Gaspereau River through the trees. A euphoric “WOOO!” emerged unconsciously from somewhere inside me. I managed to cross the trail in just under six hours.
The trail concludes on a grassy flat flanked by robust white pine and sandstone boulders. In early May, the Gaspereau flows purposefully from it’s sources. The river offers some energetic water before widening as it approaches the community of Upper Gaspereau. Bald Eagles watch over these waters for dorsal fins and wary travellers, as they have for more years than I can fathom. Back in the canoe rhythmic paddle strokes and a helpful current propel me through this serpentine oasis.
The 20 km paddle on the Gaspereau was a challenge, especially after an 8.5 km portage. For the bulk of the journey, the wind was blowing upstream. I rounded the final bend before the bridge around 6 p.m., and again, I thought of those who traveled before me. After much longer journeys than my own, how did they feel when they arrived at their destination? How did their families feel when they arrived home? I wondered if someday my son would do a similar trip of his own. Or, perhaps carrying a canoe on your head will become an action of history, only spoken of in the deepest recesses of the internet.
Download Geo-Referenced PDF here: PortageTrailMap
Meandering Downstream: A Little Tobique River Canoe Trip
The scars of winter’s recent exit were evident as we slid our boats into the current. Without leaves on the hardwoods, the forest felt lifeless. Overcast skies blended with bare, grey branches giving the upstream breeze a chilling effect. Freshly fallen trees sat perched in the current, branches dug into the gravel river bottom, roots reaching back toward shore searching for dry land.
Conditions were frigid in the morning. Thick frost covered the boats and our water was frozen. There was no need to cover a great distance so we relaxed. Matt landed a couple small brook trout, while I sat by the fire in the sunshine, drinking coffee.
We hit the water around 1 p.m., and throughout the course of the day we encountered several logjams, carrying around two of them. Many of the jams were well established — and likely have been for a long time.
I learned an important lesson about water depth near logjams. I approached a shallow arching turn where logs had entrenched themselves, forming a small jam. In an effort to avoid a portage, it seemed prudent to inspect — what looked like — a canoe-sized opening in the jam on the far bank.
With my snubbing pole in hand, I approached with extreme caution. As I neared visible range I thrust the 12 ft pole into the tea-colored water and the familiar crunch of gravel was strangely absent. The bottom had dropped away. The pole traveled downward until my hand was at the water line. Shocked and off-balance, I tossed my pole into the bow, sat down, grabbed my paddle and ferried into a nearby alder swale. As it turned out, there was no opening, and I — rather shamefully — had to walk the boat upstream.
We elected to set up camp shortly after. The site was on another gravel deposition on what is likely a floodplain. To say it was flat is an understatement. The ground under our tent, 30-40 ft from the water, was roughly 2-3 inches in elevation above the flowing river. The adjoining forest was thick with alders, so we paddled to a grove of mature spruce across the river to get firewood.
We spent the bulk of our third day fishing as we wound our way through more logjams. Pools at the base of jams were teeming with brook trout. The fish were small — in the 6-8″ range — but plentiful. Similar pools further upriver yielded no result. Who can explain the mystical nature of a brook trout run?
There’s an access point and campsite at the bridge located a few kilometers below our second campsite. This point would make a good put-in for those looking for a one-day trip.
By mid-afternoon, we were feeling the effects of two days of sunshine. Unfortunately for us, shady spots were in short supply. With an air of desperation, we pulled onto a gravel bar and rested under an ad hoc shelter of tarp and paddles. Feeling comfortable, we decided to set up camp.
The gravel was finer than the previous night, suggesting the current was slowing down. The river, however, displayed no signs of reduced power as it flowed past in silence. Logs of different sizes had collected along the far bank as the river folded back onto itself.
With the trip nearly complete, fireside conversation drifted between what’s to come and has been. Connections to past travelers became real. It was a privilege to travel a waterway that W.F. Ganong declared “one of the most important routes across the province.” A route that Maliseet and Mi’kmaq people used for thousands of years. Where 19th-century guides brought their aristocratic ’sports’ during New Brunswick’s tourism golden age.
We were on the water early on our last morning. The final leg was just over 25 km — 12 km to the confluence of the Little and the main Tobique Rivers, and the remainder on the main Tobique.
The Little Tobique straightens and widens as it approaches its mouth. With logjams no longer a concern, we expected a dull paddle. But, the beauty of the river valley took us by surprise. Large spruce line the towering valley walls as they slope toward the river.
To paddle from Riley Brook to Nictau is to experience these communities as intended. As we passed through, a small group of locals hunched over on the soft river bank picking fiddleheads. Canoes built by Miller and Chestnut adorned the shoreline. Life on the Tobique, it seems, maintains a natural rhythm much like it has for thousands of years.
Download Map PDF Here: Tobique
A Gaspereau River Canoe Trip: Four Days of Family in Peak Brook Trout Season
Part of the allure of a canoe trip is the bond. Nothing brings people together like shared experiences — and with canoe trips, the experience is all-encompassing. Breaking free from separate day-to-day existences and embracing the collective in the pursuit of adventure can only be about connection; connection with nature, connection with each other. If you’re lucky, these connections strengthen your most important relationships.
Last June, my father and uncle traveled to New Brunswick to connect with my brother and I. I’d been begging the old farts to come canoeing in New Brunswick for years. Both had long-since retired from tripping, so when they finally relented, there were some terms. No portaging, minimal rapids, and plenty of brook trout. Our destination was the first river I canoe every spring: the Gaspereau.
The Gaspereau River begins in earnest in Gaspereau Lake, a small lake that rises from the wetlands of the Bantalor Region in central NB. The Gaspereau is a part of the St. John River watershed and runs about 60 km in total — traveling northeast for 35 km or so before turning southward, where it eventually merges with the Salmon River.
In a time before roads, the Gaspereau served as an important travel corridor between the St. John and Miramichi River systems. Travelers coming from Saint John would cross a grueling, 8km portage trail to access the Cains River, a tributary of the SW Miramichi. Incredibly, the trail can still be used today thanks to the efforts of W.F. Ganong in the early 1900s and more recently an Ancient Portage Trails Committee.
We pulled off Route 123 and onto a logging road on a cool, rainy, mid-June morning. Our plan was to put in at a snowmobile warming hut on the upper Gaspereau and paddle down to the Burpee Covered Bridge. Given the timing of the trip, water levels were a concern. Locals tell me that — when looking down river from 123 bridge — if a large rock is not visible on the last corner before the river goes out of view, then there’s enough for the run. No rocks were visible, so we were feeling confident.
The upper Gaspereau flows through a narrow, well-defined channel. Dark, fast moving water flows between banks lined with thick grass and low-lying forest. In June, the river is home to a healthy population of brook trout. Within a few minutes of launching, we’d all caught our first trout. Within an hour, each of us could have easily been at our limit for the day. The trout were small, in the 6-9″ range, but beautifully colored.
With good fishing and heavy rainfall, our desire to paddle was limited. After a couple hours on the water, and only 3-4km traveled, we started looking for a campsite. Accessing the shore proved to be a saturating experience — 30-40mm of rain will do that. Enormous water droplets sat precariously on the fat blades of grass, waiting for a fool in a cheap rain suit to give them the gift of inertia. Ultimately, we ended up on a long, flat access trail.
We erected a fire pit, poured ourselves some Five-Star whiskey, and debated the best lines from our pre-departure movie, “The Edge” with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. For your information, “most people lost in the woods, they die of shame” and “fire from ice“ were the two favourites.
The next day, as the rain continued to fall, my father and uncle reminisced about their tripping histories. They reminded my brother and I that foul weather builds character, and that camping gear has improved substantially over the last 40-years — no doubt in their day, they portaged uphill both ways. It was fun to watch them fall back into their old routine — the food manager, the chef, the wood collector..etc. In observing their systematic behaviour I had the realization that you can learn a lot from old guys.
Again, the fishing was excellent, so we spent our time casting rather than paddling. We only traveled another few kilometers before deciding to set up camp. Our second site was on a shrubby point off the sharp corner just below the mouth of Mountain Brook. The river slowed as it rounded the bend and formed a deep pool that was full of trout.
The sun finally emerged late that evening. Low angled light glazed the tree tops with a golden hue during the evening fishing session, a hopeful sign for things to come. My father — the grill master — looking on as he tended the cooking fire, noted that “you kids don’t have the experience to cook a perfect steak in the woods.” He was not wrong.
Later, we assembled around the campfire under a star lit sky and told stories of trips gone by — my brother and I struggling to imagine our elders as youths. After a couple whiskies and some campfire pizzas, we turned in.
The sun warmed our faces on day three as we finally paddled under the Route 123 bridge — a common nighthawk swooped to within a few feet of us on the other side. After this point, the Gaspereau widens out, becoming rocky and shallow. We realized that, without the previous two days’ rain, the trip may not even have been possible.
The fishing action quieted down, but we still managed to enjoy a shore lunch. Eventually, we picked our way down river a kilometer or so and settled on our final campsite. The site was nestled under some mature fir and spruce trees, elevated enough to be dry, with lady slippers dotting the understory. After an hour’s work, it was a great site with a nice fire pit and plenty of wood storage. We spent our last evening together enjoying each others’ company.
On our final morning, the sun was shining and the birds were chirping early. Inside my two-man tent, I opened my eyes to my brothers’ bloodshot stare, he mouthed, “The f-ing birds” — clearly sleep had eluded him. My father and uncle had the coffee percolating on the fire when we finally emerged. We pulled our stools up to the fire, poured ourselves a mug and sat together, enjoying a still moment watching the river flow by.
Here in New Brunswick, we’re lucky to have wild rivers right on our doorstep. Personally, I feel lucky to have people to share them with. On the final day of the trip we scrapped our way down 25 or so kilometers of river finally arriving at the covered bridge; a structure standing the test of time, like the bonds created by those who travel the waters flowing underneath.
Download map pdf here: Gaspereau
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Goodbye Royalex, Hello Nova Craft Prospector
Old Town Canoes made headlines in 1978 when they tossed a Tripper canoe from the roof of their warehouse and it landed unscathed. The boat was constructed of a new material known as Royalex — bonded layers of vinyl, ABS plastic, and a foam core. Royalex caught on immediately and companies all over North America adopted it for their own tripping and whitewater canoes.
But it was all over in April 2014 when PolyOne — Royalex’s manufacturer — announced they were ceasing production. Boat builders were left in the lurch as they scrambled to find a suitable replacement. Developing another material compatible with existing canoe moulds proved difficult. A brief glimmer of hope came along when Esquif Canoes announced that they’d developed a replacement material — T-Formex — for release in 2015. But Esquif lacked the financial backing, and they shut down.
Consumers raced to snatch up the last of the Royalex canoes. Not wanting to miss the boat — literally and figuratively — I caught Royalex fever. I had to act fast if I wanted to get my hands on a canoe like my father’s Old Town Tripper. I called several distributors in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and their answers were all the same: they were out of stock and waiting on orders that would never be filled.
Looking online at Nova Craft Canoe’s distributor list, I saw there was a dealer a mere 4 km from my door here in Corner Brook. One quick email to a buddy who just began working at the store and I had confirmation that there was one canoe in stock. Tense hours passed while I waited to hear what model, length, colour and, most importantly, material the canoe was made of before I had my answer late Friday evening.
Saturday morning I loaded this 16-foot Nova Craft Prospector onto my truck, knowing I had just purchased the last new Royalex Prospector in Newfoundland, possibly in eastern Canada!
With proper maintenance this canoe could last me a lifetime, but for added insurance I applied Kevlar skid plates. I laid out a template for the skids with plastic and masking tape and roughed up the vinyl left exposed. I applied a generous coating of epoxy on both skids afterward.
Now I just have to wait for the ice to finally melt in the ponds and rivers here in western Newfoundland to take her on her maiden voyage!
Editors Note: At time of publication Esquif has announced they will reopen and continue developing the T-Formex product. Only time will tell if it will compare to Royalex.
Frosty Spring Paddle: Early Season Brook Trout on the Gaspereau River
As the winter draws to an end and the days begin to warm, I start to see signs that the rivers will soon begin to flow. As an avid canoeist and fisherman, spring break-up brings all the memories of seasons past and the anticipation of memories to be made.
I recall an early season trip back in April 2012, Grant and I were anxious to get the first trip of the year under our belts and to try our luck with the early-run trout. We convened on a Friday evening at the camp with the goal of doing a little stream-hopping — trying a few casts in a couple different nearby tributaries of the Gaspereau River — and getting up early Saturday for an upper Gaspereau River paddling adventure.
McKean Brook was our first destination. To get there we headed north on Route 123 towards Doaktown, and pulled onto a logging road known locally as G-11. The brook meanders east, draining Ackerman Heath, and is known to hold trout in the early season. It crosses G-11 at an 8 foot galvanized-steel pipe — where we parked the truck and baited some hooks. We worked a few hundred meters of stream on both sides of the pipe, but with high water levels and a subconscious knowledge that it was probably TOO early for trout, we decided to pack up and try another stream.
We headed further north, crossing the Gaspereau River Bridge — our take out the next day – turning onto Mountain Brook Road to try our luck on a brook of the same name. Mountain Brook flows northeast into the Cains River. We stopped at a bottomless arch culvert and worked a few casts into the black water. Again, no luck.
Determined to catch something, the right decision seemed to be to head back to camp in hopes that some of last season’s trout were trapped in the beaver pond behind the camp. After a few casts we started to think that leaving the fishing rods behind tomorrow wouldn’t be a terrible idea, when I felt a light nudge at my single blade spinner. A quick retrieve and an aggressive cast back to the same location yielded an instant strike. The fish squirmed and ran parallel to the dam before breaking the surface in a series of splashes while I reeled her towards shore. It was a beautifully colored brook trout that had darkened from overwintering in the beaver pond. It retained pink coloration in its meat — which paired nicely with our strip loin steaks later that evening. A few cold pops enjoyed over several games of cribbage next to the fireplace saw us into our respective beds.
Grant and I arose to a chilly cabin and a silvery landscape. A heavy frost had worked its way into the river valley overnight. Over breakfast we both agreed that this is what spring paddling is all about. After shuttling a truck to the bridge we headed to our put in. From here it was a short portage to the river’s edge where, as the sun began to peer over the tree tops, we slid the Old Town Tripper into the water.
We had roughly 15km ahead of us to the bridge, an easy day paddle with plenty of time for fishing at the best holes. The water was swift and made paddling more of a steering affair – I’m not sure Grant touched a paddle all day. Steering is important on this stretch of the Gaspereau River, it is narrow and turns back to meet itself every kilometer or so. Out of the sunlight the air was cool and most of the trip was through the shadows of the mature spruce and pine. We managed to keep warm by doing the odd 8oz curl and casting our lines.
As lunch time rolled around we spotted a nice bank with a few downed snags and pulled ashore. We worked swiftly to get a little fire going to take the chill off. Thankfully we had brought hotdogs and granola bars along with us as the fish were hiding quite well up here too.
After our shore lunch we continued on down river enjoying the scenery and the day as it was presented to us. Small talk and sightseeing was all that was needed for entertainment. We landed an 8 inch winter trout each before happening upon a majestic pine that the ice had scoured under for years, giving it appearance of being suspended in the fresh spring air. Effortless paddle strokes brought us around the bends until finally, the bridge was in sight.
Bring on the effortless bends.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.