|The Northwest Upsalquitch
For every canoeist there is a special river, a river that affords him what he prizes above all. It can be good fishing, bountiful hunting, breathtaking scenery, or cascading white water. For me, it is the peace of mind imparted by a remote river with a gentle nature, and I found that river in the northern reaches of New Brunswick. It is the Northwest Upsalquitch, winding along a magnificent course through the foothills at the northern terminus of the Appalachian range.
Our put-in was at Twenty-Five Mile Brook, in a meadow beside the game warden's hut. It was late afternoon when we finally completed the shuttle, and after rounding the first bend in the river, the setting sun spread a sheen of scintillating silver caps on the water, a wide set of rippling wavelets. Shallow and swift, the character of the river wasted no time in asserting itself ... it would be a relaxing run with plenty of time to absorb the surrounding wilderness while the canoes carried us forward with effortless ease.
We set camp on a sand bar about five miles downstream. There was no need for hurry. We had two days to finish the run and no expectations of difficulties, like the need to portage. A few times, we did have to walk the canoes for short stretches through shoals, but these were welcome opportunities to stretch our legs.
Within an hour of setting camp, we heard a rustling in the bushes behind us. We froze and listened. A few seconds later, a young doe stepped gingerly out of the alders less than twenty feet behind us. She had not yet learned to fear the two-legged predator who all too often shot her kind not out of need, but for sheer sport alone.
Carefully, I gathered some alder shoots from the bushes, and slowly, quietly approached the graceful innocence. She too took several short and timid steps, until, ultimately, we were face to face. Ken and I held our breath as she accepted and ate the alder shoots from my outstretched hand. Then she turned and retreated with a noiseless bound into the alder thicket. She remained there for a few moments yet, coyly observing us before finally forsaking our camp for her own element. The river had just greeted us.
The next morning, we put in shortly after nine o'clock. Ken admonished John and me for having missed the magical early morning, which he maintained were the best hours for canoeing. Perhaps he doesn't appreciate the relaxing, soporific effect of fresh air, gently running water and primeval quiet as keenly as I do. The forecast had been for cloudy skies with a chance of showers the next day, but the weatherman must have had a crack in his crystal ball because we enjoyed clear sunny days for the duration of our run.
Within minutes of setting out, the river's mood penetrated us. The icy cold water (it was the first week of June) flowed with crystal sharpness, refrigerating the bottom of the canoe. We wound down the river, past cedar islands plump with mature ferns, with the primordial silence of the hills rolling down to the river and enveloping us with a sense of quiet awe.
Ken ventured ahead of us and disappeared around a bend. John and I spoke little; words seemed out of place, like a taint on the beauty of lush evergreens, birches, and poplars growing down to the water's edge, and at times, tipping precariously over the river.
As our canoes glided ever closer to these huge luminous and animated quiltwork images, we could not tell whether the river would turn left or right until we were at the hillside's very foot. Then, with a quick right angle bend in the stream, the image disappeared as our craft pointed to a new perspective, another verdant tapestry which in turn loomed ever closer, ever more vibrant and magnificent with every stroke of the blade.
The water was shallow, one to two feet deep, and the river bed, thoroughly leeched of silt by the rapid passage of water over the ages, was strewn with colorful, almost gaudy rocks and pebbles in pastel hues of reds, greens, blues and yellow, like a brilliant bed of jewels sparkling in the gin-clear water.
We came to our first large pool. A solid rock cliff, casting shade over the river, descended into deep, green water. We could trace the ledges of rock stepping down eerily for twenty, thirty feet or more, and there was movement at the bottom. I bent over the side of the canoe to take a closer look. The movement turned out to be a lone bottom-feeder, startled by the shadow of our canoe.
This was the only fish we saw. It was not yet the season of the salmon run, when this pool would shelter shoals of salmon, all at different depths. I am told the Upsalquitch salmon average a weight of twelve to fifteen pounds fully mature, and offer a fierce fight when caught on the fly.
On hiking up the hillside to enjoy the long view up the valley, Nanook came upon the tool of the poacher, a wide net of fine mesh used to scoop out the salmon on the sly. We buried it under scrub and scree, hopeful to foil those who would imperil the survival of this noble species already in dire decline.
We paddled on, and around the next bend, we saw a dark shape lumbering from the right hand shore, making its way across the river. It was a bear, the largest I'd ever seen in the wild. We came closer and closer as it continued to ford the wide stream. It moved slowly through the swift water and sharp rocks, and we were within two or three canoe lengths before it reached the bank, crashed into the bushes, and disappeared.
Then I did a very foolish thing. I wanted a picture. I didn't have a camera with a telescopic lens to capture an image while the bear was still in the water, so we put into shore where it had landed and I rushed into the woods, looking for the bear.
About thirty feet into the woods, I thought I saw movement ahead of me, and a thought crossed my mind: "Remember, if the bear is standing, turn the camera sideways to get a full picture." A second thought raced through my mind, erasing the first: "A standing bear is usually a dangerous bear." My camera fever quickly subsided and I beat a speedy retreat back to the canoe. Regrets for the missed picture soon dissolved and washed away as my mind turned once again to the lulling flow of the river and the blue sky topping the rising hills.
As we continued down the river, flocks of ducks soared over the water's surface ahead of us in twos and threes, reeling from bank to bank. Blackbirds called from the banks, urging us on, past their nesting places. The sense of remoteness deepened.
Towards evening, we encountered more salmon pools, the water deepening somewhat, fed by an increasing number of streams and brooks, bubbling into the river. At one particularly large and deep pool, nets were strung in fences, closing off the access to the upstream reaches to salmon. In this manner, the provincial government collects the fish, counts them, and allows them to disperse upstream to their spawning beds under the wardens' careful supervision later on in the summer. Other wardens guard the upper pools, binoculars in hand, to prevent poachers from plying their unsavory trade.
We camped that night above the Upsalquitch Forks, on the last meadow before the riverbed narrowed into the canyon above the river's confluence with the Southeast Branch. Thoughts of mortgages, deadlines, and mercenary managers were dispelled by the camaraderie only a riverside campfire and a clear wilderness night can conjure.
Early on the third day, we passed through the short canyon leading to the Forks of the Upsalquitch. High granite walls loomed on either side, and the watercourse narrowed to less than half its earlier width upstream. We bounced and buffed in the quick current from the shoulder of one rock to another in quick turns, never in danger of capsizing, until at the Forks itself. Here the nature of the river changed, as it received the Southeast Branch and shifted course to head towards the larger river in the north, the Restigouche.
The current was still swift, but deeper. The hills no longer reared to lofty heights, but sloped in gentler, rounder contours, no longer offering the grand verdant tableaux in shimmering sunshine of upstream. The woods became lusher, yet less majestic, sparser in evergreens. Fewer blackbirds complained at our passing.
The rock bed, though still gem-like for the most part, lost some of its sparkle as if covered by mud and the water seemed murkier. Here the salmon pools had kitschy names like Puncheon Bar, were flanked by log lodges sporting barbecues, satellite dishes and station wagons.
Roads intruded to the water's edge, flanked by picnic tables and cottagers cozy in their bug-free gazebos. Soon the tangle of telephone lines completed the rout of wilderness, and left us with a wistful longing for the untamed, untrammelled open spaces of the Northwest Upsalquitch.
We finished our run at Robinsonville. I had a three-hour wait with the canoes while Ken and John retrieved our upstream shuttle vehicle. The promised clouds were beginning to roll in now. Let them, I thought, as I lay back in Ken's canoe, munching a chocolate bar. The canoes were stored just under the Robinsonville bridge, the same one that Long John Baldry sings about when he croons "You can't cross the Upsalquitch until you pay the toll, so don't try to lay no boogie-woogie on the king of rock and roll." The sounds of cars and motorcycles rushing back and forth with Saturday night madness soon disintegrated into a far-away rumble as my thoughts centered on the previous two days.
Upsalquitch is a MicMac word for "small river" and surely it is, when compared to the Restigouche and Saint John. But no other river has impressed me more than the Northwest Upsalquitch as being so majestic in unfettered spirit.
I wondered how long the lonely peaks would protect this small river. For the time being, a gentle princess flows proudly through her remote domain of lofty hills and verdant glens, polishing her crown-bed of jewels. And I almost feel glad about missing that picture of the bear.
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