I had been scheming to explore this stream for a long time. I talked with the outfitters on the phone, I examined the aerial photos, googled "South Renous River"¯ a dozen times, cruised the message boards for references, and got almost nothing. A kayaker's video lasted about ten seconds long, and a few sentences in a salmon fishing book called the river "pretty."¯ And yes, a distant acquaintance told me he hooked a salmon a few years back in the Narrows pool ... the place I wanted to start my downriver run.
So when my brother Laurie suggested we go on a trip this spring, I suggested the South Renous. The only available window of opportunity we had in common was the first weekend of June.
Usually, you can't count on deep water this late in the spring. But Laurie and I decided we were going hell or low water. A quick call to older bro Mike enlisted him as well.
The South Renous lies entirely within a protected area, and the only road in is only used once or twice a year. Needless to say, it is never maintained or upgraded. We called our outfitter, Jackie O'Donnell, for a lift out. He said he had never driven any canoeists out to this river, and he didn't know what the roads were like. I've used Jackie a lot, and he was considerate enough to send his son out on a scouting party out that way.
We followed the son's map down narrow rutted roads somewhere out back of Storeytown. Jackie brought along his trusty chain saw. We used it several times on the way in to cut away fallen trees, until the road became impassible due to washouts. We had to lug our canoes, gear and food in the last half-mile or so under the hot sun. At least it was downhill.
We came to the Little South Branch at the bottom of the hill, a small stream that ran down to the main stream maybe a third of a mile below. We had a choice ... ford the stream and work another 600 feet of trail up and down a hill and to the main South Branch, or work our way down the Little branch till it met the main stream. If we forded the little branch and followed the trail, we would be putting in above the Narrows ... a fearsome gorge choked with rocks.
Well, we chose the stream. It involved pushing, poking and floating our loaded boats down the shallow, rocky gulch, which was littered with fallen trees, twisting turns and four-foot drops every twenty feet or so. But I had tied long ropes to the stern and bow of my canoe, and by pulling on them judiciously in turn, I was able to line my craft down the rocky trench without too much difficulty. Just watch my step, I reminded myself at every corner.
It was a relief to make it down to the main South Renous. The little branch came in right at the foot of Narrows Pool, just where I wanted to be.
I cruised up to the top of the pool in my boat and got a glimpse of the end of the Narrows rapid. It was well-named, for the river constricted to just a few feet, and crashed between stones and high rock walls. I took a picture, but I would have had to clamber up a cliff to appreciate it righteously, and we were anxious to start on down the river.
I didn't know what to expect at the start. The topo maps and the aerial photos strongly suggested there was "some"¯white water out of Narrows pool, but we were essentially flying blind. The river flowed over rocks down and around a cliff face and out of sight. Only one way to find out -- and we sure were not going back upstream, up that rocky trench. Coming down had been hard enough.
The rapids were fantastic. Several sets followed each other with only short pools in between. I don't know how many, I was too busy to count or take any pictures save one. We did our best to see farther down each rapid, but they were steep and we couldn't see far around the turns whenever we had a chance to take our eyes off the rocky drops in front of us.
I was following solo behind Mike and Laurie in their canoe, and at the foot of one rapid, I saw they had pulled over to bail water. I looked downriver, shouted "Whoa Nellie," and tucked in behind them in the eddy. Ahead of us was a staircase of foaming granite-choked drops in a small canyon of rock walls.
I was able to climb up onto a rock and scout the section below. There were at least five sheer drops of six feet or more in maybe fifty yards of river, in a crooked sequence of jumbled slabs. No way a loaded canoe could make it through there without spilling its occupants and exposing them to maiming injury or drowning.
We ferried over to the other shore of the river and climbed to shore. I held on to my bow and stern ropes, and repeated the lining exercise I had done down the Little Branch upstream. The big difference was, I had to clamber over bigger, steeper rocks, then wade into the current up to my midriff several times to make my way to the bottom of the gorge. Finally I was able to hop into my boat and finish the last drop in my boat into calmer water.
We reminded each other several times to step carefully down the defile. There are no roads into this neck of the woods, no cell phone coverage, no people. If one of us broke a leg or gashed a foot, it would be a long hard trek through thick and trackless forest back to civilization. I guess that's the flip side of "getting away from it all"¯ -- just hope you don't need help from "it all"¯after you make it out there.
This staircase marked the exit of the South Branch from the central highlands of New Brunswick. Sure, there were more rapids, but they were smaller and farther between as our first day drew into afternoon. The river soon settled into the wider, pool-punctuated pattern typical of Miramichi salmon streams.
At one point, we had to climb out and pull our boats down a long shallow stretch of gravel bottom. I was worried that our trip might turn into a slogging, back-breaking haul, but shortly afterwards the stream narrowed once more and became deep enough so that we could avoid most of the sandbars and make good progress. I guess we were fortunate, for the stream level guage on the main Miramichi I use as an indicator of water flow was quite low the day before we set out.
We began later on to check the gravel sandbars that lined the shores for a decent campsite. We found a fair one, but on closer inspection, we saw it was already occupied -- by turtles. There was a sand turtle every few feet, digging out a hole to lay her eggs. We found a spot by the river they weren't using, and set up our tiny tent town. By the time we finished, we went back to observe them once more, but they had finished their reproductive ritual, and all scuttled back into the stream.
It was cool that night, as a nor-easter weather system was stalled offshore of Nova Scotia, and was spinning cold air off the Gulf of St. Lawrence into New Brunswick. We didn't mind, we had warm and dry clothes for day and night, and since it was cool, there were almost no bugs, a rarity in this neck of the woods.
But the same weather pattern sent strong headwinds up the main Renous river for the remaining two days of our trip, with occasional spitting rain. Often I'd be lined up sweetly for a gap between the rocks, then have to fight viciously to stay on course as a gust hit the front of my canoe and sent me sideways to the current. Other times, the wind would force my boat out of the deep water channel and onto a sandbar, and I would get out and grunt my way back into the current. But I'm not complaining, just telling you how it was.
After the North Renous rolled in on river left early on the second day, we were back into more settled country. Fishing camps and swanky lodges began to appear here and there, and truck traffic on nearby Route 180 was heard a few times. The river widened considerably, and although we still had the river to ourselves, the intimacy and isolation of the South Branch was left behind. We finished our trip near noon of our third day at the Quarryville bridge, crossing the great Miramichi River to where our outfitter had left our car waiting for us.
In a nutshell, I wouldn't recommend the South Renous to folks unless they were ready to push their bodies to the limit, then alert and able enough to catch the eddy above the unrunnable staircase. If you miss the eddy right after the pitch above the canyon, injury is inevitable, and there are no roads into this protected area to go for help.
You can see more photos of our trip at Google+.
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