|Solo on the Nashwaak|
I wasn't planning to go solo overnight at first. Especially in mid-July, in the middle of a heat wave and in low water as well.
But when our carefully laid plans for a six-person, three day paddle down the Upsalquitch River fell apart, and I was the only one free to go, I felt I had something to prove. No force on earth, not even wild horses, could keep me off a river that weekend.
First, I phoned an outfitter on the Miramichi, to check on the water level in that river. He used the single word « grim » … low water, no fishing, no boating.
Here I must confess, I was also planning to fish on my canoe ride. I had been unable to paddle all spring because I was recovering from foot surgery, but I could stand on shore, so I had been flicking flies at imaginary salmon and trout all spring.
So I then checked the level on the Nashwaak River gauge … 5.17 m at Narrows Mountain. Yeah, pretty low, I know. No sane man would run the Nashwaak at that level, but I wasn't sane. I was righteously indignant, and I had to prove myself that I could do it … I wasn't going to rot away in a rocking chair at the tender age of 59, after all.
So, after a day of packing, I found myself behind the fire station at Stanley, saying goodbye to my driver and loving partner, Linda. Usually, she is very solicitous – maybe even « fretful » .. but she seems to understand my need to run the river solo on this day.
It's not so bad starting out. I bounce off a few rocks and scrape my way out to the deeper water of mid-channel. The first omen of difficulty ahead occurs as I fetch up on the ledges under the highway bridge just downstream.
Usually, there's enough water to glide and slide over them with a little whoop and slip into the pool below, but not today. I have to step out and heave my boat, heavy with camping gear and food and water for three days and two nights, off the ledge and line it up with the deepest channel.
It can only get better, I tell myself. I reach the pool, go to shore, and relax with a beverage. I get out my rod, and make two or three futile casts over the stony pool. Jeeze, it's hot. Well, I better get going.
All too soon, the river narrows and steepens, and I'm into the 15km or so of class I and II rapids between Stanley and McLaggan Bridge. Usually, in May and June, this is a fun run, with clear blue channels, soft pillowy haystacks and clean ledges. But at this summer low, it is a minefield of a million rocks.
My paddle is useless. The water is too shallow for it to grab any water, and I need to turn my boat on a dime to thread my way between the boulders and sneak down the micro-channels of deeper water. Thank the stars for my snubbing pole.
It's six feet long and one and a half inches in diameter, and I think it's spruce. I've used it to poke and push my canoe over and around a trillion rocks over the years, yet the ends have not broomed and the shaft has not dried or cracked.
Often, well practically always, the only open channel in the rock garden is hard right or left, almost never straight ahead, and a paddle would never do. It would never grab enough water for the tight turns, and it would soon break under the punishment of pounding and pushing off the granite river bed. Indeed, I stowed my paddle away altogether, and never picked it up again until I floated under the McLaggan bridge after four or more hours in the boulder patch in 28 C heat.
Sometimes, I controlled my angle and slowed my speed of descent in deeper water by dragging my pole with pressure on the river bottom, to swing the bow over to the desired angle in as few boat lenghts as possible. Then I would switch sides quickly and repeatedly to fine-tune my route, as each and every rock demanded equal respect, and only one gate led through the granite maze. I admit, I had to climb out of my boat seven or eight times, who's counting, to hump and heave my boat off a rock, point it down the current, and jump in, pushing off with my pole.
How did I feel? It was liberation, just me and the river, with my boat and pole as the medium of communication. No one told me what to do, it was just between me and the river, with only my skills and judgement to guide me down. It felt good, even righteous, to spite the naysayers who had chided me for going alone.
Of course, there was the flip side to consider as well. There was no one to help me if I flipped my boat and broke a leg, or got an attack of appendicitis in the middle of nowhere. I tempered my joy and enthousiasm with this awareness of my vulnerability and isolation.
There would be no other paddlers on the river in this heat, this day or the next. No one would come looking for me until sunset of the third day, as I had told Linda I would be back by then at the latest. And where on the 65 km of river would I be if I ran into difficulty, anyway?
I kept my eyes open for the waterfall, a slender curtain of water that fanned out on the cliff face on the right bank. It was my landmark, a sign that the rocky stretch would ease up somewhat a couple of miles or so downriver. I took a picture, but the sun was too bright and too high in the sky, so my image was hazy at best.
The rocks thinned out and the river deepened ever so slightly as I paddled under McLaggan Bridge and meandered toward Nashwaak Bridge. I found there was usually one deepwater channel running from one pool to the next, but I had to decide fairly early as I approached the rock garden which side the deeper water would be on.
If I didn't pay attention, I'd run aground in the shallows. I'd then have to pull my heavily-loaded boat back upriver into the pool, and work my way over by tugging it to the top of the blue-water sluice. Keep 'er straight, keep her in the deep and blue, work my snubbing pole with speed and agility, and I wouldn't have to get out of my boat to push.
Just downriver from McLaggan Bridge, Cross Creek enters the stream by a scenic pasture on river left. Other paddlers have told me tales of their trips down this stream, starting up where the West and North Branches meet and flow under Route 625. My former colleague Mr. Intrepid told me there were a few alder tangles and sweepers to negotiate in the first twists and turns of the very narrow stream, as well as a non-negotiable swift midway downstream towards the Nashwaak.
Mr. Intrepid also spoke in terms of endearment of the long peevee pole he found on the shore of Cross Creek, all by itself in the grass. Nothing like a little booty to bring a sparkle to a paddler's eye, what?
It was downstream yet at Nashwaak Bridge that I first gave some serious thought to finding a campsite for the night. It was still too early in the day to set up a tent and settle in, but I decided to begin checking out possibilities as I progressed downstream.
There is a landing at Nashwaak Bridge, with a flat and grassy corner up a short step from the water. But there was easy vehicle access, a mudhole very close by, and houses just around the corner as well as a busy highway and bridge just beyoned the alders. It might do if you came to it at sunset and had run out of choices. At least there were no broken beer bottles or garbage to litter the site.
Farther on, many of the grassy plots that might have offered fair tenting in May and early June were overgrown. I may have felt a tinge of worry, but then I went around a sharp turn and found a nice site on the inside bank.
It had a shingle beach with a level sand bench. Perfect to set up my small tent, and set up a tiny fire ring a few steps down on the shore. Best of all, no bugs!
It had its drawbacks for sure. Across the river, which was maybe 15 meters or 50 feet wide, an ATV track ran along the former railbed. A trail bike or two and the odd four-wheeler buzzed by every hour or so. Behind the far trees, jake brakes throbbed as the semis geared down for the curving slopes on Route 8 every 20 minutes, it seemed.
There was a beaver dam in the bogan across the river. As I paddled across the pool to fetch a few surplus beaver-chawed branches for my fire, two younger men came down from the trail with their dogs. One of them identified himself as the landowner.
"Is that your set-up over there?" he asked, pointing to my tent.
« Yes. Is it okay if I spend the night? »
« Well, I don't know, it gets a lot of traffic. well, you look like a mature person, I guess it'll be okay. Keep your fire small and kick it into the river when you're done."
He then teed up a red rubber ball and drove it into the stream with his 3-iron, so his dogs could jump into the stream and fetch them before they floated off downriver. After a few minutes, they all left, and no one bothered me again for the duration of my stay. I took advantage of the solitude to bathe in the pool, a welcome relief after my bone-tiring ordeal in the rock gardens earlier that day.
I stayed up late that night. I fished the pool for a good hour (no luck,) built my small fire, and enjoyed a long and lingering sunset, sipping on a cold tallboy or two. The total absence of bugs was a sweet bonus.
I didn't sleep that well. I kept sliding off my thin foamy, and my mind wouldn't stop spinning thoughts. It seemed the dawn came a couple of hours after I lay down, so I must have slept some, and I felt fairly rested in the morning.
I fished in the dawn light for an hour or so, but still no luck. Fixing breakfast and folding up my tent and loading my boat seemed to take forever, but finally I was ready. A final stroll around the site to make sure I left it as I found it, and didn't forget anything, and I was off.
From here, the Nashwaak took on a different aspect. The gradient, and the current, lessened a great deal, and the river stretched out into long pools that often wound around several bends of the river. There were still rocky stretches between pools, but I no longer needed my snubbing pole. The connecting channels were generally long and straight enough so I could use my paddle to rudder down.
As I approached the bridge at Taymouth, I looked for the set of standing waves on the turn above the bridge. I remembered them not so much as a hazard, but as a brief spot of entertainment in trips of years gone by.
They weren't there. I guess the annual ice jams and the constant current shifted the river bed and rubbed them out. Nothing lasts forever, I guess.
I passed families swimming in the quiet pools, and eagles with white heads, black bodies and white tails flew before me as I came downstream.
My biggest problem below Taymouth was the headwind. I had to lean into my paddle with a forward J-stroke for hours on end without a break, or I would be blown first sideways, then back upstream. I managed to transcend to a Zen-like state of mind, paddling under Durham Bridge, on to Penniac, past the farms and golf fairways.
There was one portage, at the salmon barrier. It wasn't long, just up and around the river-wide fence where the locals counted the salmon. Sometimes they may hold them there until a rain raises and cools the water, so they can go farther upstream. I did see one salmon jump, farther downstream at the mouth of Dunbar Stream, right beside my boat. It was right in front of the cottage with the big wooden salmon nailed to its deck railing.
I saw evidence of the poker rallies that the local yokels organize each spring on this stretch of the Nashwaak. Typically, they race down a stretch of the river, with several stops along the way to sign in and drink a beer. I saw both full and empty cans on the bottom of the pools as I came around one bend, then there were at least forty empty cans lined up on the inner shore where the current had finally dropped them.
Yes, I did pick them up. I don't consider myself noble, I just remember all the times when as a younger man, I made my share of similar messes and didn't clean up after myself. I just consider that I'm paying off my own environmental deficit, thank you. Besides, I got $2 for them at the bottle exchange.
The Nashwaak splits into a maze of channels as it skirts several islands at Penniac. There seem to be three channel openings to choose from as you approach. I think I've gone down each of them at least twice over the years. The channels shift with the ice and silt each year, so it's never quite the same each time.
I chose the middle channel this time, and after several switchbacks following the deeper current, got totally disoriented. Not to worry though, they all end up downstream, and soon all the myriad branches regrouped at the Penniac Farm and headed downstream once more.
As I passed under the Penniac Bridge, I could see downriver into Marysville and the NB Trail trestle, a view welcoming me closer to my goal, the mouth of the Nashwaak at Fredericton. There was one more rocky stretch, the former Boss Gibson dam at Marysville.
Boss Gibson was a robber baron who dammed the Nashwaak and built a sawmill on its banks in 1850. This was at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when they would build wooden boats in every port up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, load them up to the sideboards with lumber, sail them to the booming markets of Europe, and sell the wood then dismantle the boats as well for their lumber, to build or burn. It is said that at one point, there were almost no trees left standing at all in eastern North America. Hard to believe.
Boss's lumberjacks felled every tree for hundreds of miles around the sawmill and fed them through the blades of the mill. The Nashwaak, once the most prolific salmon river in the world, ran milky white with wood waste down into the Saint John River for three years straight. All sea-run trout and salmon native to the river were exterminated, forever and ever.
The few fish that spawn in the Nashwaak now have been introduced from other nearby rivers, and are not ideally suited for the stream as the lost Nashwaak strain was. The river may one day return to its historical prolific salmon and trout runs, but not likely in our lifetimes.
The dam was removed at the end of the last century, and it is now an easy run on river left with only a few small rocks to swerve around. However, in their wisdom or lack thereof, the engineers bulldozed remnants into the river downstream.
What was previously a smooth run out to calmer water is now a crooked zigzag around randomly-shaped concrete blocks and odd rocks, with no rhyme, reason or logic. A few frenzied panicky pokes with my snubbing pole saw me through the maze.
Another half-hour through the final meanders and delta islands of the Nashwaak brought me back at last to the broad and blue Saint John, at 7:30 in the evening. I could cross the item « solo trip » off my canoeing bucket list at last.
Was it hard work? Yes. I had plenty to eat and drink for those two days, but when I stepped onto the scales at home that evening, I saw I had lost five pounds during my trip. But I felt good.
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