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.
As Grant mentioned I was back in New Brunswick last week for a few festivities leading up to the end of the world as I know it — my wedding this winter. Prior to our St. Croix River run, I had scheduled a fly fishing trip with my father. Dad had won the trip in a draw at the New Brunswick Big Game Antler Show which was held in Chipman — our home town — this past spring.
So, on Wednesday evening we found ourselves heading north on Route 123 towards Doaktown and the storied Miramichi River. We landed at the Betts-Kelly Lodge with instructions to unload ourselves into the Lower Cabin. We soon realized that we were alone on the Lodge grounds and decided to settle into some deck chairs. As we sat and admired the beauty of the mighty Miramichi River, we witnessed a doe and her fawn brave the currents and cross the river just above us.
Just as a bald eagle swooped into its nest at the top of a large white pine directly across from us — possibly showing us where to fish in the morning? — we heard a vehicle approaching. Our host Keith made his way onto the deck as my father and I introduced ourselves. We could see that he was somewhat puzzled and then he said “I’m dumbfounded as to why you are here.” My father chuckled and explained they had spoke earlier last week to confirm the date, to which he responded, “Today is Wednesday!?” He explained he was gearing up for the upcoming bear season and had lost all track of time. We assured him everything was in order at the camp, and that we were very low maintenance so he had nothing to worry about. After a few games of cribbage and a couple of New Brunswick’s finest cold ones, we retired to our beds with our alarms set for morning.
We awoke before the sun — at 6:00 a.m. — and began preparing our fishing gear. Having traveled from Newfoundland, I opted not to bring my rod on the plane. Dad assured me that I had an old rod at home I had forgotten about. As I pulled it from the case I immediately noticed that the rod was on the light side for salmon. Sure enough it was a 5 weight. I also noticed that whoever had tied the leader and fly on last was a complete idiot — wait, who’s rod was this again? The floating line had been tied into a double overhand loop with the leader cow hitched onto it. Suffice to say it required some improvement.
I sent dad on his way to the river and settled in at the lodge table to tie on a new leader and fly. I had read that a nail knot is great for joining leader to floating line but I had no idea how to tie one. Thankfully, I was able to access animatedknots.com to walk me through each step. After a couple tries I had leader joined to line like a professional, with limited experience. I used the improved clinch knot — that I learned on the Serpentine — to attach an Orange Bomber, and I was on my way to the river.
The plan was to enjoy a few hours of fishing in our private pool and then return to the lodge for breakfast. The pool we were working was in the main part of the river. There was a ledge protruding from the left side of the river that created a nice eddy behind it. We were casting into the current and allowing the fly to drift into the edge of the eddy where we thought fish would hold up.
Our guide confirmed that the rumours we had heard were true — it had been a bad year for fishing. As few as 12,000 salmon had returned to the river this year, down from 112,000 in 1990. After several hundred casts, we were starting to believe those numbers. Ever the optimists, my dad and I opted to switch over to smaller flies in hopes of enticing a trout. I fumbled through my fly box and came up with a fly that I had no idea what it was is called. A true amateur fly fisherman had told me to simply add the word ‘machine’ after stating the colour of the fly — making my selection a “Brown Feather Machine”.
Within minutes of making the switch my father’s line went tight. Both of our hearts skipped a beat, we were into our first fish of the day! The trout darted out into the current and, as fast as he arrived, he left after spitting the small hook. Nevertheless this encounter renewed our hopes of taking a fish home and gave us the stamina to push the thoughts of bacon and eggs out of our heads for a few more casts.
On a break between casts, as I stood and enjoyed the view of the sun rising over the trees, I noticed a black object in the river exactly where we had seen the deer cross the evening before. I motioned to Dad and we watched as medium-sized black bear made its way across the river — no doubt on his way up to eat our breakfast. As he lumbered up the bank we agreed that it was time to head back to camp. Sometimes a trip full of beautiful scenery and some interesting wildlife encounters is all you need. As we were walking up the trail, I jokingly said to dad “it’s was a good thing we brought bacon.”
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.