The Miramichi is not one river, but a broad basin of countless streams, each steeped in lore and replete with legends. Of all its myriad branches, the Main Southwest is the largest, longest, and arguably, most beloved.
Several options exist for beginning one's trip on the Miramichi. There is a municipal park in Juniper on the North Branch, just below the Alder Grounds and upstream of the CP rail bridge. An alternative is to put in at Riverton or Argyle on the South Branch, which I have yet to do, so I can't offer any insight on this stretch.
Most folk, however, begin their trip at Half Moon just upstream of Deersdale, or at Deersdale itself, where the stream is wide and, rains permitting, deep.
My most memorable trip was my fifth down this stream that cuts New Brunswick in half from west to east. It was also, in one important way, a first … the first trip with my teenage son Greg. Usually, the river is far too shallow by the beginning of summer to 'sail' as they say on the Miramichi, but late spring rains coincided with Greg's last day of school, so off we went.
As we loaded the canoe at the water's edge, I was suddenly reminded of another reason so few people canoe the Miramichi in early summer ... the bugs. There were blackflies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, deerflies, wasps and mooseflies on hand to cheer us on as we loaded our bags into the boat and lashed down the spray skirt.
Of all these winged tormentors, the smallest is the no-see-um, and he is well-named .You don't see him until he bites, for he is smaller than a pinprick, just like a tiny grain of ground pepper nestled among the fine hairs of your forearm. But his bite packs a wallop, and the wound swells and itches fearfully, usually lasting overnight and even into the next day.
They didn't bother me so badly, but they hovered around Greg in a thick swirling cloud. Even after a liberal smearing of bug repellent and donning a mosquito head net, they gave him no respite. I guess my skin must be the texture of old shoe leather compared to his. He must have inherited the light complexion and acute sensitivity to bloodsucking bugs from his mother.
Once we are on the water, however, the cloud of bugs disappears, and we surrender our fate to the stream. Here near the headwaters, the Miramichi glides gracefully from one wide wooded pool to the next. It's no accident that it is renowned as the most important Atlantic salmon river in the world. Its dark waters welcome spawners up to 40 lbs and more, as long as your leg with a girth to match. Unlike the Pacific salmon, these fish can return from the Greenland ocean again and again to spawn in their home pool, running the gauntlet of angler, poacher and factory trawler year after year.
There was just enough water in the stream so that we were able to slide over the rounded rocks connecting one pool to the next. If the water had been any lower, we would have been in trouble, I'm sure. As we sailed past campsites I had visited in years past, I felt a strange melancolic sense of despair invade on the bucolic present, a bittersweet blend of nostalgia and reminiscence.
Here, at McKiel Bogan, Pete and I had first seen the Miramichi many years ago, on my first trip on this legendary river. The valley opens up wide to expose a phalanx of broad wooded peaks, surrounding a wide meadow where, if the wind is right, ospreys and eagles ride the thermals, soaring raptors in search of prey. At another campsite, now lying empty and forlorn, Biff, Pete, Angie and I had partied with the boys from Perth, who carried their beer in gigantic ice-filled plastic barrels. Where were they now? Did they know I missed them?
It seemed that every turn told a story of spring trips not so long ago, every rock had already felt my paddle's light touch as I skirted it yet again under the same sun-drenched sky, past the same silent trees. But then I looked in the bow seat at my son, and the mellow-reflective demons were dispelled by the joy I felt in the present. I was surprised that he enjoyed occasionally reaching out with his paddle and gently tapping the rock we just grazed, especially those who gave us an extremely close encounter. Where did he learn that?
There was the birch-bark moose call I found in the crook of the tree at Little Louie, left there by the Maple Grove Gang. Across the pool, I half expected to see Everette and Sue teasing the fish, but there was no one there. Remembering Sue's campfire tale, we swung up between the alders on river right and paddled up the Miramichi Lake stream, a delightful brook only a few feet wide, but deep and level enough so we could have gone all the way up to Miramichi Lake. Unfortunately, Sue's moose was not there this time, maybe next.
A quick glance into the stream as we ran over the ledge at Big Louie revealed a splash of bright yellow, where someone's life jacket lay pinned in the current by a rock. Here on an earlier trip, John and Pete had capsized, and Biff and I eddied behind a rock to grab all their gear as it threatened to rush past. I'll never forget John's look of surprise as he pitched into the wet.
As we approached our first night's campsite, we caught sight of another boat ahead of us. In the front seat sat a gentleman, enjoying the ride without a paddle. In the stern, just ahead of the seat, stood a lady, wielding a long pole to guide her craft through the rock gardens. I admired her balance and agility, as she bent her knees only slightly, pushing deftly on one side then the other, as her boat swung left then right to part the boulders.
Greg and I set up camp at the mouth of McKiel Brook, and we raced to set up our tent so Greg could get inside to escape the hoard of pests swirling about him. It wasn't long after our supper that he was blissfully asleep, and I spent a solitary evening at my campfire, with the wood smoke banishing the bugs.
I summoned memories of Miramichi campfires past, with the faces of friends flickering in the fire's flames and the voices from the rushing stream to keep me company on the longest day of the year. I even retrieved my fly rod from its case, and flicked my green buck bug at the ripples, more to enjoy the scenery than in the hopes of actually catching a salmon.
Up at first light in the morning, shortly after five o'clock. We resolved to make it all the way to Boiestown before nightfall, to spare Greg another ordeal from the flies.
We began our way down as the fog first began to blow off the river, limiting our visibility. However, with the current slow due to the relatively low water, we still had time to avoid most of the rocks. Those we did bump into, we were able to push off with little risk. As the sun cleared the treetops, it cast a blinding reflection on the water before us, adding another element of uncertainty as the rapids followed in frequent sequence. Waiting on shore for the fog to disperse was not an option, because of the hordes of voracious insects which would emerge from the woods to pounce on us.
Rocks appeared out of nowhere, sometimes spinning us around as they caught us under the bow. This only lasted for a short time, however, and the fog and mist dispelled to reveal a picture perfect summer's day.
About two hours downstream, we passed a small lodge, whose owners kept the doors open to welcome river travellers. This is a common practice in the upper stretches, as visitors are asked to leave the modest building in the same shape they found it.There are typically a couple of wooden bunks, a sloping floor, a rickety table with chairs, some random dishes and utensils, a potbellied stove and a sink, and most importantly, a solid roof and walls. Some of these lodges are in better repair than others.
There is usually a guest book, well-thumbed, where you can read the entries of visitors of decades past, complete with lies about the fish they never caught and the beer they drank at the table. At the lodge at the foot of Push-and-be-Damned rapid, an enterprising angler once carved on the wall a profile of a monster salmon he angled from the pool in front many years past, a 40-pounder, with a thumbnail account of the struggle he waged to land it. Way to go, Ernest.
At one of these lodges, we met the couple we admired in the rapids the day before. She was from Boiestown, and had poled down this river so many times she had lost count. It was her friend's first trip down, in fact his first time in a canoe. In the course of our conversation, I asked if she had run any other branches of the Miramichi, … the Renous or Dungarvon, for instance.
No, this was the only river that existed for her, the only one she had ever known or ever needed to know. I might as well have named the rivers Brahmaputra or Limpopo, or any other watercourse on a far-flung continent. To her, the Miramichi was the be-all and the end-all of all rivers, none other mattered. She spoke of her Miramichi with the same reverence others would save for a secret lover. She was typical of all New Brunswickers who live along the Miramichi, in that no other community in the province so closely and fiercely identifies with the river on whose banks it lives.
Starting at Slate Island Bar, the lodges take on a decidedly more well-heeled aspect. The lawns are well-manicured, the buildings are bright, beautiful and spacious, and pickup trucks flank the driveways. These are the domains of millionaires and salmon angling clubs, the wealthy come to try their luck at angling sea-trout and salmon from the depths of the pools. Typically, the 'sport' stands in the pool casting to the fish, and the guide waits on shore, ready to assist in landing the fish, and looking after the various comforts of his paying client.
We stopped at two other places on our journey downstream. The first stop was at Burnt Hill Narrows, to scout our path through the rocky drop that has claimed so many boats on the big boulder midstream. It was pretty straight-forward, our spray skirt prevented the bucking waves from filling our boat.
There are two tight turns immediately following this rapid. At the second, a large rock midstream divides the channel in two. The right channel is a clean, straightforward vee, with no danger of capsizing. But when you go left of the rock, you hit the curl, and the bow dips into a deep hole, so the person sitting in the front enjoys a refreshing cold bath. The next time you come down the river in my boat with me, I'll find out whether you've visited my website as we approach this rock. I'm not saying which path I chose for Greg and me.
Clearwater Stream, Rocky Bend, Three-Mile Rapids, all passed in a dream and a flood of memories. We stopped one more time at Falls Brook, to hike up the ravine and visit the 100-foot-high waterfall cupped in a circular amphitheatre five minutes up the stream.
I know well that a 100-foot-high waterfall is a molehill for many visitors, especially to my readers who live in or near the Rockies, but each waterfall has its own essence which does not lend itself to comparison with others. Statistics mean nothing. The water pulses off the lip and falls free for 80 feet before fanning out on the rock face for the final 20 feet, in a curtain of purest white and driving mist.
To spot the entrance to Falls Brook, look for a woods road leading up a sharp incline on river left, just past an island. It's about half an hour past Clearwater, maybe a bit more. The stream itself is insignificant, not much more than four feet across as it enters the main stream. Some kind soul has built footbridges over the stream leading to the foot of the falls.
Across the river, a few minutes downriver from the entrance to Falls Brook, is the mouth of Trout Brook, with its fantastic campsite. You should spot the Balm-o'Gilead tree which marks it as soon as your boat is pointed downstream. A twenty-minute hike up its bed rewards the visitor with a view of a double waterfall, each cascade forty feet high. If you climb up the left bank (right bank if you're facing upstream), and venture your weight onto a tree branch hanging out over infinity, you can get a grand view of the upper falls, from whose plunge pool the lower falls takes its leap. Careful!
From this campsite, after the Long-look-um stretch just downstream, the Miramichi re-enters civilization at Hayesville. Forty-five minutes from the first house, the Hayesville bridge comes into view, a convenient and popular take-out spot. One more hour from here will see you down to Boiestown, with no serious rapids, but many stretches of rocky quickwater from pool to pool. This is where we finished our trip, after spending twelve hours on the water that day, emerging a little weary and sunburned. It's hard to say when I'll be back.
Paddlin' Hal and Nanook run the Miramichi
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