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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.