campfire tales!    Chaos on the Nashwaak

I'll never forget my first whitewater canoe trip. It was on the long weekend in May, way back in 1977, on the underrated and seldom travelled upper Nashwaak.

My mother sat up the night before we left, sewing quilted fabric together into cushions, so my two brothers and I could rest our knees on the bottom of the boats. She was thoughtful and supportive that way. My father, wiser in woods lore than my mother, shook his head gravely and said, "You'll all come to grief on that rocky, wicked Nashwaak."

Nashwaak River
Here is a shot from the bottom of Little Basin, looking down the Narrows, taken at the start of the portage trail. If you're still in the river at this point, you are doomed to crash through Narrows Gorge.

Meathead had managed to convince his buddies on the varsity rugby team, 14 of them, to stage a big party on the river. Six other friends and acquaintances rounded out the group, and we all jumped in the back of a moving van with our paddles, gear and beer. The ten boats followed in a huge trailer behind us on Route 8, through Stanley and up the Napadogan haul road.

We had rented the boats from my neighbor the boat-maker, and they were not meant for whitewater. Their hulls were fibreglass of practically eggshell thickness, and were wide and stubby, meant more for a leisurely lake fishing trip.

Nashwaak River
Looking up the Narrows Gorge, standing on shore halfway down the portage trail.
It is an aerated froth of fury.

Meathead reassured us that there was just a little white water at the start, and the rest would be a calm paddle, perfect for rowdy rugby players and hangers-on to indulge in cold beer and camaraderie. We turned in to the last stretch of woods road late in the evening, and at several spots, we had to climb out and muscle fallen trees off the muddy track. Some of us began to doubt Meathead's scouting skills at this point.

Finally we came to rest in a broad meadow trailside, and spread out our tents and sleeping bags as best we could. A semblance of a trail led down through the alders to water's edge, where the Nashwaak lingered in a dark pool on the flank of a steep slope named Narrows Mountain.

It wasn't long before a fire was lit, and young men gathered round to imbibe, spread lies and indulge in shameless rugger machismo. Several of the rugby players started playing head-butt, so if you weren't watchful, you found yourself sprawling headlong in the bush, or tackled by two burly ruggers from opposite sides at the same time. What fun.

And then it began to rain, a rain so hard and heavy we were all safe in our tents within minutes. Soon the campsite lay quiet in the drenching rains, in a chorus of drunken snoring.

I woke up at first light, wondering why I was so cold. It wasn't long before I discovered why. The meadow was under water, and I lay in a puddle with water up to my chin. It seemed we all staggered out at the same time, cold, drenched, and starving. Did I mention hung-over?

It was far too wet to start cooking fires, so we all wolfed down what first came to hand, and carried our boats and gear to the riverside. Our narrow trail had become a rollicking stream, and the river had risen appreciably.

In my mind's eye, I still have a vivid picture of all ten boats lined up in the broad pool, loaded to the gunwales with tents, sleeping bags, and beer, piled higgledy-piggledy. I doubt if anything was tied in.

Nashwaak River
Biff and Bill celebrate a successful run through the dam below Lower Nashwaak Lake.

This time, with the second canoe, they aren't so lucky!

Our first rapid was long, and ended in standing waves at a large pool. All of us made it through intact, but we had to come to shore to bail out the water which, in my buddy Lefty's boat, for example, was up to his seat.

From where we bailed out our boats, we could look down the valley and see that the river took a right turn at pool's end. I don't recall a horizon line, just some rocks. My boat, with Son'o'God in the bow and me in the stern, was the first around the turn. My first clue that something was dreadfully wrong was the sight of the rock shearing our hull at the waterline, ripping through the length of the boat down to my feet.

We were quickly pitched out at the top of the rapid. I managed to catch an eddy and flail to shore, and Son'o'God clambered onto the top of a rock in mid-stream. I still see him waving his hands above his head, warning those to come to get the hell off the water, but it was too late. I stood powerless shoreside as boat after boat pitched into Hell's Gates, dumped its cargo and passengers, and slammed into the big rock river-center we now call the Canoe Crusher.

crushed-web (45K)
A Coleman canoe is pinned somehere on the Nashwaak

Meathead managed somehow to climb atop the Canoe Crusher itself, and had just enough time to warn Dave Mason, who had grabbed onto a smashed boat on the rock's face, to get off quick. Dave was not quick enough.

Another memory comes to the fore Dave's mask of abject horror as the 17-foot-long boat pins him to the rock face, and folds against his torso. If it hadn't been for the Air Force surplus parachute packing he was wearing as a makeshift life preserver, I'm sure he would have been dashed against the granite in the fearsome fury of the torrent. For weeks after the impact, he complained of sore ribs.

Derek and his buddy were flipped on river right, and Derek still swears he didn't come up for air for the longest time, trapped under his boat as it toppled down the ledges to the pool below.

Only one boat remained unscathed, the last one carrying Fang and my brother Laurie. Laurie remembers seeing Meathead from afar, perched on the rock, only his head and shoulders visible from the brink of the drop. Only the most feverish, panic-stricken paddling got them to shore in time.

We all gathered at the foot of the staircase, at Big Basin Pool. Except for a few bruises, broken glasses, and bewilderment, no one was seriously hurt.

Nashwaak River Narrows
A paddler flips in the Narrows Gorge.
Downstream we can see the Canoe Crusher.

We used the last intact boat to ferry the stranded on the right bank over to the left bank near the haul road, and began to salvage what we could from the flotsam and jetsam in the pool. Backpack after backpack was plucked from the backwater, and it seemed every last one was full of beer, with the more than occasional 40-pounder whiskey bottle greeted with a cry of triumph.

As luck would have it, a Government forestry pickup found us on the woods road, and ferried us and our salvaged gear to their trailer downriver. Several lads got a lift into town to fetch the furniture van, and we settled into the trailer to dry out and wait. Soon we were into the beer and whiskey, and here my memory fades. The trailer did not emerge unscathed, but was not demolished either, just a broken window, I seem to recall.

We were so cold in the truck on the way back we started fighting over the packing blankets, and ripped them all to shreds. Once home, I had the unpleasant chore of telling my neighbor what happened to his boats. We didn't put him out of business, but it was close. I never did rent another boat from him.

Nashwaak River
Nashwaak River by Ross McLaughlin

That was the last canoe trip for many of us. I, however, bought my first boat shortly thereafter, a stubby Coleman (high-tech at the time) and never looked back except with a whimsical grin.

It's funny how you forget the cold and discomfort you experienced as time goes on, and remember just the best parts. They're always good for a chuckle and a knowing grin around the campfire. Even today, when I mention this fateful incident, people will turn heads and ask incredulously, "You were on that trip?"

Carm, every time someone mentions the Tobique, you start to shiver. Why is that? Tell us a tale when your teeth stop chattering.

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