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.
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.