Nashwaak River trip report

You'd think I'd know better by now that the upper Nashwaak is a hardship river. Oh, it's an enchanted stream, I'll grant, but each time I've ventured down its waters, the river has put me to the test. Low water, log jams, torrential downpours and freezing cold, I've seen it all upstream of Stanley.


It's never fun cold and wet on the river

May was cold and wet this spring all along the eastern seaboard. Following the severe floods in the Saint John River valley at the start of the month, a rainy, cold gloom set in right up to the last weekend. I swear I can count on the fingers of one hand the sunny days we had, and they were not warm, either.

We - my brother Paul and his buddy Joel in their boat, and I running solo in mine - put in at the Gorby Gulch bridge early Saturday morning, under leaden skies and cool temps. The water was at a perfect height, and we enjoyed the calm waters of the highlands without worrying about having to drag our boats. It was too cold for bugs, so we enjoyed several breaks down the river to swap stories and enjoy a cold beverage or two.

There are several long rapid stretches that lead down to the Little Basin, and you must pay keen attention here.

It's a unique feeling when you thread the boulders down the last rapid before the portage. This rapid is not like the ones you ran upstream.There's an element of risk in every rapid, but often the consequences of a flip in many upstream stretches of fast water are a short swim and a scramble for boat and gear at the bottom.

Not here though. Many have come to grief in the Narrows Gorge. I am reluctant to encourage others to paddle here, because it is so easy to keep going out the end of the Little Basin. There is no telling that the next drop is full of canoe-crushing and bone-jarring rocks. It is a fearful sight when the stream is in spate.

On this day, there was no sun, and the gloom was deepening as I started down. Even though there were no strainers on this rapid, it is long, and I was leading my bro and his friend down. They were not sure where the takeout for the portage was, and I assured them that I couldn't miss it.

stealthcanoe2 (25K)
A stealth canoe cruises the Nashwaak at Fredericton

Of course, I didn't miss it. It was a great run, long but not endless, with lots of easy ledges all in a row. We all took out river right above the big rock in the Little Basin pool at the foot of Narrows Mountain, the last calm water above the Narrows Gorge, at dusk.

There is no obvious sign that the next rapid includes an unrunnable drop just around the turn. The tricky part is guiding your boat on a rope down to the big rock that marks the start of the Grand Portage, as the shoreline is uneven and rocky. This involves careful footwork. At one spot, we had to step out almost into the current, and guide the boat carefully around a rock out there with our hands and the rope. If you lose your grip on your boat, it will be smashed on the rocks just around the turn.

We had just enough daylight left to pitch our tent on the path between the alders, and ate cold rations, sandwiches we had prepared before leaving. Supper was cooked and eaten by headlamp that evening. It was turning cool and windy, so after a brief fire we turned in. The rush of the nearby rapid and the wail of the wind through the trees were the music we slept and dreamt by on this night.

The rough portage leads by a rock we fondly call the Canoe Crusher, on which many a boat has been impaled in high water. The next morning, we put in beside the Crusher and ran the rest of the rapid leading into the Big Basin. A cold rain began to fall as we glided across the pool and into Hayden's rips.

Hayden's rips are exciting, long rapids in high water, with many ledge drops. They run for several kilometres from the foot of Narrows Mountain to the Valley Forest Products bridge, and were the high point of our trip.

It was here at the bridge that the Nor'Easter began in earnest. It was a steady driving rain that blew upstream in a cold wind, and soaked us to the bone. I was wearing a wetsuit and full rain gear, yet soon got the chills that would not let up all day.

before the dam
The approach to Irving's Dam

We kept to the right as we entered the headpond for Irving's Dam, which was a mistake. The river breaks up into several channels among low islands. We ended up taking the channel into Lower Nashwaak Lake, and had to backtrack to find the downstream channel again. Perhaps river left might have been the wise choice here.

We reconnoitered the dam, and chose to run the first gate on river left, which has a turbulent, yet fairly straight route to the pool below. The other two gates lead to a steep ledge with a curling wave. We weren't long looking at it from shore, as the wind was sucking the heat from our wet bodies. I was getting quite a shiver.

into the sluice
Paul and Laurie slide over the sluice

I went first towards the dam. As I approached the lip of the gate, the wind sent a fierce gust upriver and turned my bow crosswards to the opening. I teetered on the edge of the drop, and barely avoided pinning against the concrete pillar side left. Thankfully, there was a miniature eddy against the dam beside the sluice I could back into, and peel back upstream for another run.

Again, the wind caught my bow as I drove for the sluice, and I was turned sideways and scraped against the tree that was snagged on the right pillar of gate number one. I summoned all my power, and made it back up to calm water. I signaled Paul to go ahead, and he slipped through the gate cleanly.

So I decided, no turning back this time, and leaned into my paddle, beating back the wind to slide through the gate, brush against the concrete wall, and splash into the pool. Close call.

emergence from the dam
Laurie and Paul celebrate a clean run.

The rest of the river down to Stanley is wide, with frequent class I rapids, but no challenge for a paddler with average skills. We kept doggedly paddling in the cold, and were treated to several close-up sightings of eagles as we progressed downriver. We were overjoyed to pull ashore behind the fire station in Stanley. It took a while to warm up in the cab of Joel's truck. Once again, I was reminded that the wind can be even more dangerous than the rocks to a paddler especially if it is full of freezing rain.

Sorry, but it was too wet and gloomy for pictures. But I feel compelled to mention the moose we drove by at Napadogan as we ran our shuttle. I swear it was the same moose in the same place I saw exactly one week earlier on my way to run the Miramichi. Or was it a case of déjà moose? I'll be looking for him next time, then I'll know for sure.

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