Little River flows through the oldest coal mining area in North America. They've been digging up this odious sludge since 1635 within its watershed, and if you happen to fly over, the view from the cabin would show areas that look as if they were brought back from the Moon during the Apollo flights and dropped here. The black coal mined here is laced with so much sulphur that the best thing to do would be to dig it all up so you can bury it deeper.
Still, once you're on the river after driving in from Durham Bridge on the Nashwaak, you could be on any other New Brunswick forest river. Its proximity to Fredericton and Minto makes it a nice day trip for beginners, as there are no serious shoals, and I've never had to carry around or over a sweeper in the four or five times I've paddled its length down to Highway 10 at Ripples. There are no clues that open-face coal pits yawn deep, steep and wide just over the tree line.
A white owl perched on an overhanging branch has fixed me with his haughty, all-knowing glare from on high as I ease my canoe under his throne, and deer have bounded before me as I glide beside them on glassine pools. Fishermen still drown their worms in its waters, pining for the good ole days when fish were a nuisance, not a novelty.
Paradoxically, it's because of this long history of intensive strip mining that Little River has managed to remain undeveloped and isolated, and will remain so for generations to come. After all, no one can build a community on dusty slag heaps and coal-fine piles. The flora and fauna that thrive in the strips and swatches of undisturbed habitat along the stream are protected as a consequence of the same pillage and plundering that has rendered the area inhabitable for homo sapiens.
It was a mixed crew from Fredericton and Minto who put in above Clare Brook that May morning, with plans to float down near to Bear Brook and set up camp there for the night. Beer lined the gunwales of several crafts, and thick steaks were set to simmer on the grill above glowing embers. Most of the boats were canoes, with a few home-made John-boats along for the ride.
The day was perfect, and several stops were taken to enjoy the sunshine and good company. At one grassy meadow, most of the crew was on shore, enjoying a beverage and soaking in the sun. Some were still in their boats, casting to the perfect sea trout they believed lurked in the dark pools and shady cutbanks. One of the boys stood in a John boat laying at anchor downstream a piece, to afford himself a little elbow room to cast a lure between the alders and his fellow hopefuls.
We all had a big belly laugh when he leaned out a little too far in his boat and splashed into the shallow water near the shore. "Can't handle a few beers, eh buddy!? That last trout a little too hot to handle?"
Our mirth did not lessen as he staggered and fell again, all the time murmuring something purely unintelligible at the top of his lungs, and pointing at his feet. "What is it? Has the fish got you instead? Serves you right!"
All he could manage in reply was a series of barely audible grunts and muffled curses that made no sense at all. When we realized he was not going to get up without help, and he began flailing like a beached whale on his back in the water, we went down to see what was the matter.
Our poor friend had somehow gotten the anchor chain wrapped around his ankles and couldn't bring himself upright against the current to untangle himself. It was a simple matter to haul him in and free his ankles. When we asked him why he didn't tell us something was wrong, he slipped his hand in his hip pocket, hauled out a full set of plastic choppers, and popped them into his mouth.
"Can't say a single word without my new teeth in my head."
This wasn't the only odd character on this trip. Our plans to camp at Bear Brook were not unanimous after all, as the two jokers in the lead canoe sailed right on by our perfect campsite. We might have let them go, but they had most of the beer and the keys to the car at the end of the trip.
It soon became apparent that they weren't going to stop at all. What had been planned as a huge party on the river soon became a dull drive back to town as we pulled up to the takeout at Route 10 late that afternoon.
I've ensured I have everything I need in my boat to be independent of the whims of others during a trip from that day on. Limiting the number of boats in a trip (preferably to two, if not one) also provides for a greater measure of flexibility and relaxation.
Another youthful memory of Little River still lingers vividly, the image of my father soaking wet and streaked with red dye from his hunting cap after an all-night episode stranded on the stream. It had been a dry fall, and the river was little more than a stretch of cobblestones, but he had taken my older brother Mike (he was twelve at the time) and left for the river late in the day to scout for deer along its banks from a canoe. It was a gorgeous day for November 30, warm and sunny when they started out.
Once they got on the river, the weather took a turn for the worse. The mercury plunged and the rain began to fall in curtains. Twice, the canoe fetched up on rocks and dumped them in the cold water, chilling them to the bone.
Soon Dad found himself hauling the boat along behind him with little Mike on the back seat over the rock gardens. The sun sank all too soon below the tree tops. He remembers trudging through seemingly endless swamps, pushing through thick tangles of spruce along the steep banks, and slipping over tumbles of hard, slick granite to ford the stream again and again.
Eventually, they found a tree to hunker under for the night. The alternative, hiking out through abandoned strip mine country in the dark, was not on. They left the canoe under the tree and struck out overland at first light, and met a search party as they emerged out on the highway later on that day. I still remember my mother frantically pacing the floor all that night, and my bedraggled father and brother coming home, shivering, starving and exhausted, at last. I can only hope it never happens to me.
How many years had it been since I last paddled on Little River? Twenty? Far too long.
This spring, I decide to start canoeing season earlier than usual, after several consecutive springs of low water. The freshet is near its peak, and the weatherman is calling for sunny skies and cool temps. But Biff and I are both free, and John has decided to come along as well, for a day trip on Little River.
I'm choosing a different access road this time, the Slope Road through Minto. The shuttle is much shorter than the Durham Bridge access, and comes out onto the river at the same put-in place, but directly across the stream. This shuttle is about 40 miles or more shorter, at least!
The road is superb as long as we stay on the NB Coal haul roads, fairly dry, level and hard-surfaced. The last five or so kilometers, however, are not maintained, and a four-wheel drive, high-slung truck is a must.
This was my first time in the woods with my Xterra four-wheeler … imagine my misgivings when we came to a murky lake of unknown depth covering the road about 100 meters across, with snow on either side. After gnashing of teeth, we grimly set the course for the other side. Steam rose as the icy water rose to meet the hot engine block, and vital organs contracted as the truck lurched and slid in the sunken invisible ruts … and then we were across. Whew.
Snowflakes swirled around us as we arrived at the put-in, untied our boats and loaded them at the water's edge. The snow soon stopped, and for the most part that day, it was warm as long as we stayed in the sun. The wind was so cold that all the rock faces where water dripped into the stream were strung with gleaming icicles. Several times that abnormally cool day, I was gladdened by our decision to wear our winter jackets.
The stream was bankfull, and lively. Although there were no rapids wild enough to tip a boat, the current sped along briskly, and rock gardens topped with tossing whitecaps prompted us to plot a careful path around several sharp bends. The stream was much wider than I remembered, and there was so much water that I didn't hit a single rock all day.
There was no white owl perched on an overhanging branch to watch us glide by this time, but an eagle shrieked in the pine, and hovered over us as we floated by. Perhaps it was too early in the season for other migratory birds to begin nesting and patrolling their stretch of the stream.
The last five kilometers or so of Little River are wider, a little slower, and open to the wind. In total, it took us a full eight and one-half hours to run this stretch, in high water, counting lunch and the odd beverage break. So I wouldn't plan on running this stretch in a day if I don't make it onto the river in the early morning. The take-out is directly under the Highway 10 bridge in downtown Ripples.
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