|A Nashwaak River Trip in the Fall of 1999|
We had high hopes to run the upper Nashwaak in the fall of 1999 when first Hurricane Floyd rolled through New Brunswick. But we couldn't get our ducks lined up in a row, Léonel was trapped at work. Then Hurricane Gert and Tropical Storm Harvey washed over, leaving flooding all the way up the Eastern seaboard, and I was nailed into my cubicle in the corporate anthill. I finally got the green light the next weekend, and off we set, Léonel in his solo Appalachian, and Biff and I in our 16 foot Mad River Freedom.
There was lots of water, they all said, in the Miramichi, just one hill north of the Nashwaak. There was no one to call and check on water levels on the Nashwaak, as there are no settlements in its first 60-odd kilometers from Nashwaak Lake down to the village of Stanley. We'd just have to hope there was enough to float our boats. Surely, after all the rain over the last two weeks, the river would be more than deep enough for an autumn trip.
When we arrived at Gorby Gulch, my fears took solid form. Rocks we had glided over in 1997 now loomed large and ugly in the narrow stream bed. But here we were, having already paid the shuttle driver, and doing our best to stay optimistic.
Actually, we did fairly well in the upper meadows. Indian summer graced us with a blue sky and warm breeze. The river glides gracefully from pool to pool, and we were able to push over the connecting gravel bars with a gentle push of our paddle. However, as the morning wore on, it became apparent that our margin of floatability was shrinking. The water level was dropping even as we made our way downstream through the upland meadows towards the rocky reaches of Narrows Mountain.
"A kingdom for my stout pole," I said to Léonel. Yes, it was still lying under my deck at home, useless to me up here on the river. I made a mental note never to leave it behind again.
As the river grew in volume, so did its pitch. Soon the gravel bars gave way to longer and longer rock gardens. Our reflexes and strength were put to the test again and again, as we were called on to make tight turns to follow the narrow chutes where the water was deep enough to carry us down.
We flailed frantically with our paddles to gain the momentum to scrape over the rocky drops, and swing across the breadth of the stream to find the elusive deep water channels. The sun sped toward the treeline to the west … the long days of spring and summer were but a memory.
Soon, we began to snatch glimpses of Narrows Mountain looming over the ridges as we approached. I knew our arrival under the Mountain would signal that the river was ready to leave the uplands and begin its run towards the lowlands of the Saint John River valley. When Narrows Mountain's broad expanse heaved up before us directly downriver, I knew we could run just one more rapid before the Nashwaak began its race to skirt the mountain through Narrows Gorge.
The flanks of Narrows Mountain flared scarlet in the late afternoon sun. The river obliged us with a long straight and placid pool to admire its multi-hued grandeur in the clear autumn air. Deep bands of vivid green spruce and fir vied for ascendancy over the glowing reds and yellows of the hardwoods on the mountainside.
We were able to scrape and bang our way down the last rapid before the Gorge, and found ourselves in the Little Basin. Léonel fared much better than Biff and I, he was lighter in the water and could manouver with comparative ease through the rock gardens.
Here at Little Basin, we pulled over to the right bank in the pool before entering the next rapid. There is a wicked drop one-third of the way down and around a turn, so it is not visible until you have committed yourself to running the rapid. If the water is high and fast, there is no way to exit the rapid above the drop.
The drop goes by several names … Hell's Gate, the Narrows, and sometimes Devil's Gorge. Some may say they can run it, but I don't see how. Huge pudding granite blocks choke off all possible runs down the chute. It drops at least six vertical metres over a run of fifty meters.
There have been dams built at this site by the lumber companies. The rocks have been jumbled by heavy machinery such that even the most hell-bent hair boater will certainly flatten his craft against the big stone in the rapid's throat we call the Canoe Crusher.
The portage is no cakewalk either. There is a rudimentary path, but it's been blocked by blowdowns and overgrown with thorns and maple saplings. You have to watch where you put your foot as you lurch from granite boulder to boulder with a load on your back. If you step on what looks like terra firma between the stones, the moss is likely to slip away and reveal a deep black hole just big enough for your leg to get jammed in.
Since the water level was low and not too pushy, Léo was able to ease his craft to the very lip of the drop, and shortened his portage nicely. Biff and I chose not to take the pitfall path through the woods, and muscled our boat down the shoreline and along the steep rockpile until the rapid ended in the Big Basin below. We couldn't have done this in high water.
Here we paused to catch our breath, and enjoy the sensation of being deep in the quiet hollow surrounded by autumn's bittersweet glory. Hayden's Rips began at the exit of the Big Basin, four sets of rapids totalling roughly seven kilometers in length, separated by short pools. I wasn't looking forward to them, they are long, steep and rock-choked in the extreme.
In the spring freshet of 1997, these rapids were a roller-coaster race of haystacks, and we ran them at freight train speed in our spray-skirted Old Town 16-9 Discoveries, floating high over every rock. But on this day in the fall of 1999, there was not enough water to go farther than a boat length before fetching up hard against immovable granite.
The first rip was short and not too bad, I think we had to push off maybe two or three rocks. But the next three were pure hell. It seemed we would make progress paddling for ten seconds, over maybe twenty feet, before the boat was stuck on a rock, and all our pushing and grunting would not budge it. We soon gave in, and climbed out to walk down the length of the rapids pulling our boat.
Up and down on the slippery granite we went for kilometer after kilometer, sometimes sinking to our hips in the deep eddies, risking our necks to jump up and over to the next stepping stone. We continuously prompted each other not to step sideways in the current as we fought for our footing so we could heave our boat over and around the rocks.
I lost count of the number of times we slipped and fell in the stream. We quickly learned to avoid getting between the boat and the rocks in the swift current. The light began to fail, and it became more and more difficult to plot our path through the rock gardens. There was no use going to shore, the banks were steep and slippery rock piles, thick with brush.
Again and again I said to myself as I gathered my strength for another push with Biff, "I'm a mature, older man, old enough to be a grandfather several times over. What am I doing in this rock-infested gorge in October?"
The sun was setting when we finally made it to the Valley Forest Products bridge, our campsite for the night. What a relief it was to step on the soft needle-padded forest floor, and rest from our ordeal. I looked down at my shins and feet, bruised and bloody. How would I explain those to my wife? To my water polo buddies? At least Biff and I hadn't broken anything.
Our plan had been to paddle down to Stanley the next day. But neither my nor Biff's heart was in it. Léonel and I rose early the next morning and hitchhiked and walked into Williamsburg, and my friend Shirley was happy to drive us the rest of the way into Stanley to our cars.
As I told my colleague Donna at work on Monday about our misadventure, she eloquently answered the question I had posed to myself deep in the hollow. "You're a crazy man." I guess there's some truth in that. It hurts to admit it, though.
I know now that my enthusiasm to get on the water overrode my common sense. Yes, I know, it'll likely happen again, all too soon. My advice to you is, should you decide to run the Nashwaak, go the day after it rains … and watch your ass down under Narrows Mountain.
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