|The Nepisiguit River from Mt. Carleton to Bathurst|
The Nepisiguit is New Brunswick's best candidate for an excursion river. Its headwaters are in Mount Carleton Park, far from the province's population centres, and just underneath the tallest hills in the province.
Organizing a trip down the Nepisiguit takes time, planning and connections. Shuttles are long, on rough and winding roads. Still, once you push off at the thoroughfare on Bathurst Lake in the park, you know instantly that all the planning and preparation were worth it.
The hills that ring these lakes are the highest in the province, and no roads, buildings or wires mar their beauty. You are transported into a time before the European imposed the scars of his technology on the brooding, silent forest.
On this trip in May 2007, Scooter drove up from New Hampshire, and Hal came fresh from a trip on the St. John River in Maine. Scooter and I met him at the campground in Mount Carleton Provincial Park. His trip on the Saint John had been cold and wet in the snow, and every article of clothing he owned was hanging to dry above the shelter's wood stove. He wasn't too happy to pack everything wet for the trip on the Nepisiguit, starting right now!
Our first day was cold and wet, with alternating snow squalls and freezing rain in clammy fog. I had previously praised the scenery to Scooter and Hal to persuade them to come up, and it was disappointing to see the shores of the four headwater lakes shrouded in the clouds.
We were glad to see the shelter at the outlet of Moose Lake, a small table with a roof, but no walls. Still, we were out of the rain and wind, and managed to warm up despite the wet sneaking in to all our clothes. I promised them the campsite was not too far downstream.
As we left the chain of lakes and headed down the river proper, it began to get a little worrisome. Hal was wet to start with, and I knew Scooter was thin as a rail and couldn't take the cold too long. The rain and snow began to intensify, and my friends began asking how far downriver the campsite was. Soon after we passed under the bridge at the forks of the Little South Branch, we gathered in an eddy at the tail end of an island.
I knew the campsite was just downriver, but the current was whipping by, and we would have to watch carefully for the break on the left bank that marked dry ground we could tent on. I made sure they stayed behind me. As we slipped back out into the current, a pickup drove by on the woods road to our left, and the driver tapped his horn and waved to us.
Finally, we pulled in to shore, tied up our boats, and clambered up the slope to our site. It wasn't long before everybody was outfitted in dry clothes again, and a small fire was lit in spite of the rain.
Shortly, the pickup truck drove by our site, and two gentlemen and a lady stepped out to pay us a visit. They belonged to a cabin owners' association, and were checking on member's properties in the area.
They proved to be very sociable and friendly, and remarked that they had close relatives living near Hal's home outside of Boston. After much pleasant banter, they re-assured us that the weather was due to turn nice not the next day, but the day after. Buddy actually said "It can get blisterin' hot up here from one day to the next." Prophetic, indeed. They left us with their best wishes and good advice on possible campsites to see us down the river. Much appreciated!
The zipper on my tent froze that night, and I ripped it beyond repair on one of my nocturnal missions. So when I peered out of the gaping tent door at first light, I was greeted by big wet fluffies coming down all around. They showed no sign of stopping, so we took Buddy's advice and decided to spend the day in camp and hope his weather forecast was accurate.
Several times that morning, a ray of sunlight made us second-guess our decision, but a cold wind would always come up and blow snow at us.
It was on this day that we ran short on beer and water. We had enough for five days on the water, but not for an extra fluff day at the start with not much else to do but swill around the campfire. Next time, I'm going to hide a cache of drinking water (and other necessities) downriver, just in case.
The next day dawned bright and warm, just as Buddy promised. It sure was nice to wake up to the sun.
This next day was pure bliss, as we paddled down a wide, quick river between high forested mountains. Although there were frequent swifts and rocky turns, there was no rough water almost all day. We were able to float downstream and enjoy the scenery without a care until we came to Indian Falls later in the afternoon.
I kept my eyes on the trees along the left bank as the afternoon wore on, because the river got steeper and rockier as we approached the falls. I saw the sign for the first drop on a tree at water's edge on river left. Many folks run Indian Falls at lower water levels, especially the first two ledges, but with the river at this height after several days of cold rain, we weren't taking any chances.
The portage trail may not appear too rough at the start, but the carry around the ledges at Indian Falls was long and the going was tricky. It took us several hours to complete the carry. A cautious canoeist might paddle up to the brink of each ledge and carry river-left down to the main drop. We set up our tents in the small clearing above the main drop and finished off the last of our beer as we enjoyed supper later that evening.
I walked out to the river's edge before bedtime that night, stood underneath the "portage" sign, and watched the river roll down the rapids and over the brink in the dark. Looking to the sky, I saw the Big Dipper shining to my right, and for the first time in many years, I could follow the handle of the Big Dipper over to the Little Dipper off to the left. The two constellations were neatly framed between the treetops as I gazed upstream and savored the moment.
The stretch directly below Indian Falls is known as Allan's Rocks. It is quick water for several hundred meters, with a deep hole behind a rock that is hard to miss. We all ran it smoothly, with a whoop or two as we each skirted the brink of the hole.
The high hills began to level out as we approached the Narrows of the Nepisiguit. The gorge is hard to miss, as reapids appear where the granite walls rise steeply.
We elected to carry our gear over the portage on river left. Hal and I left our boats in the brush, so we could return and run the gorge with empty boats in the morning. Scooter chose to hump his boat over the hilly trail, which proved to be steep and seemingly endless. We were all dripping with sweat and exhausted in the heat by the time we reached the campsite, the remains of a lodge with a brick hearth for a fireplace. Hal and I took turns boosting each other's courage for the morning run of the Narrows.
I went first into the gorge. I chose to run fairly close to river centre to begin so I could keep my options open. The waves were big and continuous. The stream was wide enough so I was able to skirt the biggest ones, and finished my run through the gorge on river left by skirting the last major drop. I turned my boat upstream in the eddy just in time to see Hal catch air on the tailrace of the rock's haystack, a wide grin splitting his face from ear to ear.
The river widens into a small lake below the Narrows as it approaches Grand Falls. The portage, as marked on the "official" Nepisiguit River map, is on river left, and runs a few kilometres to the end of the gorge. We weren't looking forward to it. But we met a kindly gentleman at the takeout above the dam, who suggested a shorter portage ... down the cliff face of the gorge immediately beside the powerhouse outlet. Please note, this cliff access is no longer accessible.
With his help, we lowered our boats down the sheer face maybe thirty metres on rope, clinging to rocks and roots as we went down. Our new friend took all our gear in his pickup, and drove to the end of the gorge to wait for us. We really appreciated it.
Hal launched first, and tucked in just downstream, to the right of a small wave train. I went second, and decided to run through the waves. They weren't high, and I even took the precaution to kneel on the floor of the canoe for added stability. But over I went anyway, capsizing to the right.
To make a long story short, I went for a very long swim through the gorge. I tried to hold onto my boat, but there was no way to stop it in the quick deep current. Besides, the walls of the gorge were vertical. At one point, I grabbed the rope attached to my boat's stern, and tried to pull it to the wall where I might get a foothold. But each time I got close, the current whipped me back out into the middle. I finally let go of my boat's rope, and managed to pull myself out of the water and prop myself up on a small ledge against the cliff face. I stayed there until Scooter came through to peel me off and help me into his boat.
I was fortunate there were no rocks or waterfalls in the gorge, as there was nowhere to go but all the way down to the slack water. We managed to push my boat to shore, where I dumped out the water, and borrowed a paddle from Scooter. I found my own paddle on the way to pick up our gear at the end of the portage trail.
The section below Grand Falls to the river's mouth at Bathurst was the roughest stretch on the whole river. The rapids are long and numerous, and almost all end with a sharp drop over rocky ledges. The largest, Pabineau Falls, has claimed the life of several paddlers in recent memory. I lost count of the number of times we chose to line around impassable rocky drops.
It took us the better part of two days to run from Grand Falls to Bathurst. We had run out of drinking water the day before, and all we had to drink the river water from was a jug with a nose-cone-type filter at the business end. It was sunny and blistering hot both days, and it seemed we were drinking the river dry.
I wouldn't normally choose to drink the river water, but we would have died of thirst if not. Hal came down with giardia (beaver fever) once he arrived back home in Massachusetts, but he isn't sure whether he contracted it on the Nepisiguit, or on the Saint John the week before. But he was dreadfully sick, and lost a lot of weight before he finally turned the corner and got better, I'm told.
Our last carry was river left at the Powerhouse, where a ten-foot rock ledge and a concrete dam just below marked sea level. We paddled one final kilometre to finish in the salt water of Bathurst Harbour, where our friend Ralph had left our vehicle waiting for us.
All told, it took six days, including the snow and rain day we spent in camp, to paddle from Mount Carleton to Bathurst. I hope to do it again soon.
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