|Miramichi River with Paddlin' Hal|
Scooter and Hal and I hatched the plan over the cold winter --- a five-day trip on the Machias River in south-eastern Maine. It had been too long since our last trip together. We were unstoppable, the dates were set in stone.
Then Scooter fell off the roof of his Humble Hovel down in snow-bound New Hampshire, effectively scuttling his paddling season for 2011. Tough break. But Hal, true to his word, made the long haul to New Brunswick from Hubbardston, Massachusetts, and off we went, on the Main Southwest Miramichi in mid-May.
Now, Hal is a veteran paddler who has run countless rivers, an accomplished woodsman and a fine friend as well. Scooter, however, claims Hal always travels bringing in a headwind before and a rain cloud right behind.
Maybe Scooter's got something there. The sky was overcast when we launched on the north branch at Juniper, and soon a cold, misty drizzle rolled upstream into our faces on a chilling breeze.
But first, we gazed upstream from our put-in at Juniper into forbidden territory --- Irving's private domain. The forestry giant owns a sprawling swath of central New Brunswick, and all roads into its wooded domains are gated. You don't get in unless you're on company business, or if you « know » someone. That leaves me out, and probably you too.
The upstream stretch holds long stretches of paddling bliss, and fabled streams abounding in trout and salmon, or so I'm told by those in the « know. » Hal and I had brought along our long poles, and we planned to push our way upstream, at least a little ways just to say we did.
I got my twelve-foot wooden pole out, planted it firmly on the stream bed, and worked it hand over hand, making good progress … until the fourth push. The pole snapped in two pieces between my hands. I guess it must have dried out, waiting too long for me to get it out of my garage and into the river. Anyway, I shrugged once and tossed both ends into the river, and we headed on downstream instead.
The current is strong here, but there are no rapids, as the river winds through alder grounds past several small fishing lodges. I guess you could call them camps, they are small, cozy and quaint, not sprawling and pretentious like the log-walled estates that brood over every pool on the Restigouche River up in northern New Brunswick.
We stopped frequently to swap stories and refresh our energy levels. Sure, a warm sunny spring day would have been preferable, but I think both Hal and I were happy enough just to be on the water, deep in the woods, away from the humming traffic and off the grid. Despite the cool wind and the constant drizzle, we were warm, dry, and in high spirits.
We stopped at Half-Moon Pit for our first night. It's not easy to spot from the river if you're unfamiliar with the lay of the land, but if you pass it and then see the train bridge downstream, it's only a few feet back to the landing. There was a launching ladder lying on the bank to guide boats up and down, and to prevent erosion too, I imagine. That's what caught my eye.
On the drive up to Juniper, I had stashed a big load of firewood here under a tree and wrapped in a tarp, so we were able to enjoy a cheery fire despite the wet. It would have been impossible to find dry wood here otherwise, every path and patch in the forest was a running stream of puddled water. Besides, all the wood here had already been scavenged and burnt over the years.
Many of the rapids we ran the next day after Half-Moon were washed out due to the high water, and many rocks that might have called for fancy paddle-work were submerged. On the other hand, many rapids featured big ledge drops and long haystack runs around corner after corner. We were able to choose a smooth run and dodge or ride over top of the worst rocks on every turn.
We kept our eyes peeled on the right bank for a glimpse of Miramichi Brook. It's easy to miss it among the alders. My buddy Sue had told me a story about when Everett and she poled up the stream into a glorious meadow, and Hal and I wanted to check it out for ourselves. Actually, I lie, Ev and Sue had a small motorboat … but we could do it on the paddle, no problem, right?
Sure enough, the stream was wide and deep enough for us to paddle almost effortlessly up against the current for turn after turn. We pushed on up until the current got a little too fast and a touch too rocky to continue. I wished I hadn't broken my pole, or we could have gotten a lot farther up, eddying behind the boulders right up to the secret meadow, I'm sure. Next time, I'll bring a stout pole, and I'll budget enough time to go upstream all the way, perhaps on to Miramichi Lake itself!
The cool drizzle persisted that second day and on into the third. We tented on the grounds of McKiel Brook camp, totally respecting the property. Looking across the river where the torrent of McKiel Brook met the Miramichi, it seemed we could see a fair-sized drop farther up the stream. I recalled an old map which showed McKiel Brook leaving a lake and running as a long stretch of whitewater to the Miramichi. It's another one of my fantasy streams, I confess, although it's almost certainly too small and rough to run and Irving has already refused me entry to even look at it!
We left McKiel early the next morning and immediately ran the long rapid that ends in a pool with a big island with a number of nice campsites. I thought I was safely through the rapid when my boat ran up against the last rock and wedged itself fairly tight. I could have climbed over my gear and pushed off it, but Hal came back and rammed my bow with his boat's bow at just the right angle and speed to tilt me off the rock. Hal says that was a rock he's seen many times before … the « thought I ran it clean » rock.
When we reached the mouth of Burnthill Brook, I bade Hal to wait until I ferried against the current over to the far shore of the brook's mouth. We'd go ashore there to scout the rapids just downstream.
I always wonder why they call the Burnthill a brook. It is nearly as wide as the main Miramichi itself, it seems. On this day after several days of heavy rain, it was running high and fast into the forks.
Even as I began the crossing, I felt the relentless downstream tug towards the « feared » Burnt Hill rapids. It took all the strength I had to maintain my course and make the ferry to the far shore. I didn't even dare look downstream to where the current made its curling waves over the sharp ledges by the left bank, for fear I would lose my resolve and be swept downstream backwards into the main meat of the rapid.
I made the tiny cove with no room to spare. One paddle stroke fewer, and ... well, I would have had to swing my bow downstream and go through Burnt Hill rapid on its terms, not mine, over the ledges where the waves beat back on themselves. Oh, of course I would have come through okay, you know ...
Hal profited by my example, and worked his boat farther up the bank of the brook before starting his ferry. He gained the landing in the tiny cove no prob.
I confess I took the safe route, but the water was c-c-c-cold!After we scouted the rapid from the vantage point of the left bank, Hal set himself up on a high rock on the left bank to film a video of my descent. I went down the centre, avoiding the steep ledges. The current was so strong that I could not avoid the big rock in the throat of the rapid where so many other boats have broached, but the water level was so high that I passed over it cleanly, burying the bow of my boat into the hole behind it and coming out again with a whoop and a holler.
The skies began to clear up shortly after, and we enjoyed a fine evening at the mouth of the Clearwater. I recounted stories of many previous trips I had made on the Miramichi with Biff, Pete, the Perth-Andover gang and many others, as if the mere telling of our exploits would bring my memories to life, and conjure all my paddling buddies of yesteryear into flesh and blood figures before me.
We enjoyed a warm sunny day for the most part on the last day of our run to Boiestown. Hal and I hiked in to see Falls Brook Falls, a broad curtain of silver dropping sheer into a wooded gorge on the left bank. Not much farther downstream, we stopped at Trout Brook, and began the longer trek up the brook to view the double-tiered cascade that many folks feel is even more scenic than Falls Brook Falls upstream. But the water in the brook was too high, as we would have had to ford the stream several times, and the rushing current of ice-cold water would have been up to our waists. Maybe next time, Hal.
As we neared Hayesville, huge drifts of snow and ice hugged the banks where the sun never shone, left over from the ice-run several weeks before. I was downstream of Hal, and when I went to shore to look at one particularly large ice-castle, he slipped by me downstream, without me noticing.
I climbed back into my canoe, and looked upstream for Hal. I saw a flash of color and thought it was his boat just beyond the « look, » so I settled in to wait for him. When he didn't come down after a while, I tried paddling upstream to look for him, but the current was too strong. Then I went to shore and walked as far as I could to look for him, but the shore narrowed and petered out in a tangle of alders and rocks.
Just as I began to actually worry, and decided to head downstream, Hal's boat appeared as a speck at the end of the downriver look, as I saw him wave his paddle. I had wasted an hour or more mistakenly waiting in vain. It goes to show you have to keep your buddy's boat in sight, and not nod off at the switch.
All's well that ends well. We made it to our take-out at Boiestown by five o'clock, then back to Fredericton for a deer meat barbecue hosted by Sammy Solo and other Freddy-based friends of Hal.
We missed the company of our buddy Scooter on this trip, but we'll get together for another adventure, I'm sure, as soon as Scooter recovers from his injuries. Maybe in the fall ...
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