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
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.