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.