Tag Archive | Solo Canoeing

Meandering Downstream: A Little Tobique River Canoe Trip

In New Brunswick, at Springtime, all eyes turn toward the rivers. They watch as nature forces snow and ice downstream to make way for change. Winter resists like a toddler at bedtime, it throws debris and jams itself into corners,  making life miserable for those nearby.

The spring freshet is essential for canoeists, it makes the impassable passable.  But, it can also present extreme danger. Strong currents carry fallen trees that get held in the river. These trees create dangerous obstacles.

The Little Tobique River is a narrow, meandering river in northwestern New Brunswick with a reputation for collecting logs. Paddling stories from the river describe careening toward shore after encountering impenetrable log jams.  The river emerges from Nictau Lake near Mt. Carlton. For 60 km or so, it snakes its way through the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains before it merges with the Tobique River near Nictau, N.B.

In the past, the current of the Little Tobique carried logs to downstream sawmills. The river also served as a highway of sorts, linking the St. John and Nepisiguit rivers via a portage trail between Nictau and Bathurst Lakes. Mapped as early as the 1600’s — and developed by First Nations far earlier — hikers can walk the trail today in what is now Mount Carlton Provincial Park.

On our first attempted ascent, a local outfitter questioned our sanity when Matt and I inquired about conditions in early May. Stories of sweepers — a log blocking passage — and log jams scared us away.  A year later, we decided running the Little Tobique in mid-May was manageable. People paddle the river all the time, after all.

Regardless, I was anxious when we pulled into the Riley Brook General Store on a cool, mid-May morning. The folks at the store had arranged to shuttle us to our put-in —  near Mt. Carlton Provincial Park.

At the put-in, the water was moving fast, but it was only 1-2 ft deep. I expressed my concern about the level to our shuttle driver, and he assured me that we would have a clean run. I later learned that the closest river gauge in Riley Brook read 2.32.

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.

It didn’t take long to reach our first obstacles, two established beaver dams. The dams caused the river to branch out into dozens of little channels. Finding clear passage proved difficult. Promising channels ended in alder swale barricades. I came face-to-face with a confused bull moose in one of the swales — we were both tempted to ask for directions, but being males, we continued on, half lost.

The river was a technical challenge despite a lack of rocks or rapids. Miss the inside eddy on a meandering turn, and you’d tangle with a sweeper on the outside bank. Get too close to a logjam, and the current may pull you underneath.

The sun emerged in the late afternoon as we set up camp. Our campsite was on a gravel deposition on the inside of a tight corner. It offered no cover. We built a fire-pit from soaked driftwood because the area was devoid of large rocks. Damp gravel underfoot suggested the area was recently underwater.

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.  

Ever the innovator, Matt decided to sleep in his canoe on the final night. An idea I  supported for no reason other than I welcomed the extra room in my two-man tent. After a spacious sleep, I was up and eagerly awaiting this photo op.

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

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Mid Summer Brook Trout: An Upper Cains River Canoe Trip

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.

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Not a soul to be seen on a long weekend in July on the Upper Cains River

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.

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One of New Brunswick’s most beautiful resources, the Brook Trout

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.

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Amazing how they grow seemingly right out of the cliff

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?”

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“Hey Randy, 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?

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Twin flower, Linnaea borealis

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.

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Behold, the majestic sight known as “The Pines”

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Randy cleans up the fire pit

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 screamed.

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.

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Note the pool I’m paddling through. I spent most of the trip on my knees avoiding the moulded plastic seats.

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.