birchbark oldie The Cains River

The Cains rises in the alder bogs that straddle the height of land between the Miramichi and the Saint John valleys south of Doaktown. We, that is Biff and I, chose to begin our Cains River trip at the very headwaters, where the stream emerges from under the alders off the Taymouth road.

Cains River
At Black Brook Camp below the Cains River, Southwest Miramichi. Photo Geoff Giffin

Our driver was not prepared for the long and circuitous route needed for our shuttle. By the time we finished, leaving our car at Shinnickburn, and swinging back up the Nashwaak River road to the headwaters, the day was pretty well spent, and we set up camp on the meadow at the put-in. I'm sure he thought we were meeting someone else on the way downriver … after we unloaded our packs of beer and set them beside our boat, it was difficult to convince him they were meant for us and only us two.

Our timing that year was perfect … the first week of June, high water, warm days and cool nights, no skeeters, no no-see-ums. I even used my 16-foot cedar-and-canvas boat, with its flat bottom designed for the ever-hopeful fly fisherman. Usually I'm reluctant to take it out on rocky streams, but I was between plastic boats at the time. It has the added advantage of a wide flat tumblehome, ideal for transporting larger volumes of refreshments.

What a joy it was to set off in the morning, down a stream so narrow that you could often reach out and grasp the alder berries on either side without extending your arms … yet so placid and deep that not once did we have to duck under their grasping branches, nor wrestle our craft through clutching thickets.

songbirdThe only sounds we heard were the calls of the songbirds perched on the branches, and the occasional rush of falling water as we approached the beaver dams that spanned the stream at the downstream end of each long lazy pool. The water was high enough so that we didn't have to worry about fetching up on their lodges and walls, and slid down each alder-strewn ledge with impunity. We saw only one beaver, lurching ungainly on the shore as we glided slowly through his domain.

Ah yes, fishing … well, Biff and I are not the most successful fishermen in the North woods. More often than not, our rods end up more a liability than an asset, and our worms die of boredom before they get to see a trout. But there was one alder bogan that yielded more than a few beauties. For fifteen magic minutes, they struck everything we cast to them, until finally they moved on in that mystical way sea-run trout always do.

I never saw a man so eager to clean the fish than Biff was that day, and the act of frying fish over the evening's campfire was akin to a religious experience … for both of us, I will admit. Even now, when Biff swears that fish are no more than a figment of imagination, or a capitalist conspiracy, I remind him of that brief moment when our fervent fishing dreams were real, if only for a fleeting interlude.

I can't imagine having to share the river with any other canoeing parties this high up in the basin. There are no roads or human-built structures visible from the river on the first two days of paddling, and only one bridge spans this stretch. It's the main railroad line crossing the province, just upriver from our second night's campsite. Twice that night, the long low rumble of hundred-car trains invaded our dreams, and the whistle sounded plaintively as the engines approached the bridge.

As with many rivers, there is an invisible, yet tangible dividing line on the Cains. The canoeist leaves an unspoiled, enchanted, even intimate realm of quiet beauty and passes into the arcane district of fishing lodges, bridges, signs nagging about no-fishing and private property, where others have altered Nature's timeless perfection to suit their own mortal whims. We crossed this magical line somewhere near Bantalor, after our third night on the river, where the stream widened, and first fishing camps, then ever larger lodges began to appear on the turns.

tenting tonight!Campsites were abundant here, usually at the end of a rutted woods road. More often than not, we had to step around huge piles of rusting beer cans, the steel type left behind long ago by thirsty river folk of previous generations, before the aluminum can was introduced. Perhaps they've been cleaned up since, I don't know, but I hope so. At least the aluminum cans are worth a nickel, someone usually collects those for the refund.

A typical catch of days gone by
Now we know why there are so few salmon today in New Brunswick's rivers. In the olden days, you could cross the stream on their backs.

The upper Cains is closed to fishing now, ostensibly to give it a chance to recover from years of over-fishing, when no one left until their creels and bellies were full of trout and salmon. The modern practice of catch-and-release came a little too late for the Cains, but some Miramichi-basin river-dwellers tell me that yes, there are bigger fish coming back to re-populate this remote stream.

We finished our trip at the hamlet of Shinnickburn, after spending four days and nights exploring this placid, winding alder rill. Another day would have taken us to the outlet, where it blends its waters with Mother Miramichi. And no, there wasn't a single beer left, just bags and bags of empty aluminum cans, and memories of quiet beaver ponds, bird song and alder bogans.

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