If you've been canoeing long enough, you've had at least one trip from hell. I know I've had two or three. This jaunt down the Oromocto was my latest, and let's hope it's the last.
This should be a story about the Piskahegan, but it was not meant to be. Biff and I drove all the way in through Blissville to the head of the Piskahegan early that morning of May 5, through cold driving rain. It was far too early in the season for a reasonable chance for pleasant weather. But we were anxious to get on the water after a long winter. I'm sure you know the feeling.
When we arrived at the head of the Piskahegan, it looked good. The stream looked wide and deep enough as it headed between the alders coming out of the York Flowage. But I began to have my doubts, I knew the water was bone-chilling cold, and I had not been able to find anyone who had run the uppermost stretch between the Flowage and Peltoma Lake. I have this healthy fear of running into logjams on these smaller streams, which is heightened when the water's cold.
When we drove the shuttle car to the takeout just a half hour's drive away ... the Piskahegan makes a longish loop north and swings back southwards again ... my fears took solid form. There was more water rolling over the falls under the bridge at the takeout than I had ever seen. I decided, much to Biff's dismay, that we should just run the second half, for I knew there were no alder thickets in the section between the Ducks Unlimited dam below Peltoma and the falls. So off we went, up the woods road toward Peltoma. But within 100 metres, we were mired up to the axle in Biff's International Scout.
Thankfully, my brother and his friend who were running the shuttle for us were able to double back and find help back at the bridge, in the form of a muscle truck that hauled us out without breaking a sweat. So with time running out as we drove all over southern New Brunswick, pick a river, any river, and our shuttle crew anxious to get back to their lives, we ended up late that afternoon on a river in the next watershed over which I knew was a bog river, the North Oromocto.
Biff wasn't too happy about missing his chance to run a new river, and neither was I, but we determined to make the most of it. As we pushed off the beach at Little Lake, I pulled out something I had bought for a song the day before as I was buying supplies, something I was sure would keep us dry, two pairs of transparent plastic suits. Imagine the hoots of thigh-slapping laughter from our shuttle drivers as we sat down in the canoes and the butts ripped out of them. One paddle stroke and the armpits were gone too. It wasn't long before we shucked them, worthless as they were.
The rain seemed to intensify as we set off across Little Lake toward the meander that connected to the North Oromocto. Once on the river itself, we passed through wide deep bogans and alder pools. I remembered them lined with fishermen and picnickers when I went down this stretch in sunnier times. Now the dark pools were cold and foreboding, spotted with raindrops, with patches of stubborn ice and snow glinting evilly on the soggy banks.
We made it down to the North Branch Falls without incident. There's a short stretch of fast water that goes around a turn just before the drop, and a quick eddy behind a rock on river right just before the lip will get you off the water in time. The "falls" are an easy glide when the water's warm and not too high, a five-foot drop spread over a smooth ledge with a clean runout. But a spill in these frigid high waters miles from a road in an alder bog would not make the thrill worth the risk. We were cold enough as it was, and decided to camp here for the night.
Once ashore, Biff went to work, rigging up a tarp and making a fire. I've never seen Biff fail to get a fire going even in the most adverse situations. It wasn't much, there was no dry wood for miles, but there was at least a symbolic smoke to sit around. I think we ended up eating cold beans from a can and soggy wieners. It was raining so hard the tarp kept slipping from the accumulation of water, and if you touched it going in or out in the dark, you got a glacial shower down your neck.
I awoke in the morning with my back as stiff as a board. The plug had popped from my air mattress sometime in the night, and I had slept on the rock for several hours. Breaking camp and loading the boat in the rain were doubly arduous for it, but I was reasonably limber as we pushed off at the base of the rapid. I didn't like the look of the ice rimming the banks. That water sure was cold. The rain was now coming down in curtains from the leaden sky.
Once we set off at the pool below the falls, we entered the Chainy Rapids, a fairly long stretch of quick water that culminates in a ledge where the watercourse is pinched between two outcrops on either bank. We were in my Old Town Discovery 16-9, which is a fantastic craft for running rocky rivers, but has very low trim. Even a Coleman rides higher in the water than the Discovery, which seems to take in water over the gunwales in the bow even in the smallest chops.
When we hit the ledge, the water just poured in, and we were wallowing within seconds. We were thoroughly soaked with numbing ice water, and were fortunate to flounder to shore before we lost complete control of the craft and the feeling in our limbs. We were cold, and weren't going to warm up for the rest of the day.
To make a long story short, we spent the rest of the day cold, tired and hungry in the rain and wind, enduring several more soakings as we hit standing waves at the base of pools. The final insult came as we pulled up at the highway bridge in Tracy.
Just as soon as we hauled the boat and paddles up out of the water, the clouds parted, the rain halted, and the late afternoon sun streamed down, mocking us with its farcical timing. Well, at least it didn't snow.
Next time, I'm going to say the hell with it, and take my chances on the Piskahegan. It couldn't have been much worse.
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