my next canoe     A Tough Time on the Bartholomew
    by Laurie Corbett

"I really need it, Laurie."

Normally, when another man says that to me, I get a little uncomfortable. But this was Bill Cabel, one of my closest friends. No, that was not the biggest reason I wasn't uncomfortable. It was because he was talking about needing our annual canoe trip.

We had missed our annual May canoe trip for a few years, through no fault of mine.

Bill had chosen to get married on the long weekend in May, thinking one year off would not be a big deal. I guess newlyweds don't think much about anniversaries. Then, after a couple of anniversaries, when the novelty might have worn off, we missed another year while his first daughter was born. I forgot to mention - Bill married a girl from Prince Edward Island. This resulted in the construction of a cottage on the Island; which is best opened up each year on that wonderful long weekend in May, since it is 7 hours away. All wonderful stuff, but hey, what about our canoe trips?

Billy Bogan and author Laurie Corbett
Billy Bogan and author Laurie Corbett enjoy a morning campfire on the Nepisguit.

Our favourite river is the Bartholomew. From our home in Fredericton, the crowd of us would typically depart mid-afternoon on a Friday, after trying since dawn to get the lawyers of the group out of their beds and offices and get them packed. We would travel up the Nashwaak valley, switching over to the Miramichi valley near the middle of the province. After touching base with Keith Pond at Pond's Chalets, and picking up drivers, we would head for the Bartholomew, where it crossed under a small wooden bridge on the Storeytown Road. We would follow the River for at least two full days until we got to the fish control station just above Blackville.

Bartholomew River
The Bartholomew is small, narrow and twisty, but runnable if you watch the alders.

So, this year he was serious. We were going on a trip come hell or high water. I guess that could be modified to "hell and high water".

May rolled around, but Bill expressed his need to do it a couple of weeks earlier, so he could still get his cottage opened up to meet the family's summer schedule. No problem; we could do that. What about companions? The old gang who used to do the river had kind of splintered, and no one seemed interested at all this year, let alone 2 weeks earlier than normal. No problem; we could still enjoy it alone. We were unstoppable.

We arrived at Pond's Chalet, and organized with him the details of who was to drive us up Storeytown Road and where they should leave the truck for us. Keith suggests that it is too early to do the Bartholomew and that we should just enjoy his hospitality; but we will have none of it. Bill suggests that the truck could be left at Weaver Siding.

Bartholomew RiverThe stream does widen out. Here, Laurie guides his boat with his will, like Hiawatha.

No way, says Keith; and he maps out our problem. "Look, this year, spring is running about three weeks late, and here you guys are, coming up two weeks early to run the Bartholomew. Maybe you can run the river, but you may not see your truck again until you hit Blackville. We just can't get in there for the snow, water, and mud!" We have to demonstrate our stubbornness before Keith says he will try. If it is not there when we arrive, we are told to keep looking for the truck downstream.

So we accept the possibility of a longer run, and pile back in with our driver, who just will not stop talking about all the rain we are having. Along Storeytown Road, we notice all the snow; both piled along the road, and in little drifts through the woods. We don't do the math involving us being 2 weeks early, and spring being 3 weeks late! We certainly do not voice our misgivings to each other, even when the driver makes cracks regarding our mental state.

The options for canoers in the Bartholomew area are numerous. We typically take a logging road from behind Ludlow and Keith Pond's Chalets to a connection to the extension of the Storeytown Road. When the sideroads are still impassible, like this year, we get on the Storeytown Road at Doaktown. This road crosses the Bartholomew at the highest point any sane person would try to canoe the stream. The road also continues on for just a few miles to the Dungarvon, another excellent canoeing river. Both of these rivers head parallel to each other all the way to the great Southwest Miramichi River.

Bartholomew River
If it's late in the afternoon, don't pass up a suitable campsite. They are hard to find on the Bartholomew. This was our second night's site.

The Bartholomew meets the Southwest Miramichi at Blackville, after 2 to 4 days of paddling, depending on your schedule. Two intermediate points, the Davis Landing Bridge and the Weaver Siding Road, divide the river into three good day runs; providing optional launchings or haulouts.

It starts to rain as we approach the little bridge across the Bartholomew, and turn down the road paralleling the stream to the gravel pit and launch site. Maybe we should listen to the nay-sayers. The truck comes to a stop. A tree has fallen and blocks our way. No one has been down this road since the winter storms! Surely we should take a hint. Instead, we get out and chop with hatchets in the rain for 30 minutes, and move the trunk to the side. Our exertion causes sweat, which turns cold and steals some of our insulation under the rainsuits.

When we finally get to the brook, it is so high that we do not recognize it. The driver pleads with us and shakes his head as we load the canoe. He looks curiously as we load beer, rum, and food, and then rig up a double-headset cassette stereo system. This makes him quiet; as if he comes to the realization that we are not sane. He says "See ya", with no conviction, as we push off in the pouring rain; feeling the temperature drop as the best of the day has slipped away.

We glide through the tops of alders along the stream. Normally, along this area, the water washes us into these trees just centimetres from their roots, where they are thick and strong. They grab the canoe, while the current spins and twists the stern in evil ways. Often they block your passage, forcing you to drag the canoe upstream to try another channel. No problem this year, as we are contacting them at least a metre from their roots, and they just don't have the leverage on us.

a pan-full of trout
A rare pan-full caught in an alder bogan on the Bartholomew.

The rain is relentless, however, and the wind whips at you whenever more than 30 metres of stream is visible before a bend. "Bill, did you bring your wetsuit?" I ask.

"Nope. Dragged that along on every trip so far, without needing it."

"Same here." I add. It seems we have left more than our brains behind.

We realize that we are leaving lots of land behind too, as the current whips us along. We try to stop at one point for a "beverage", hoping to turn this idiocy into the fun trips of the past. However, stopping is difficult, as the alders are not much to hang on to, and the stream and we are really moving. After a few attempts, involving alder branches ripping through our freezing cold hands, we come to a stop.

This is better. We are tied up, albeit precariously within the flow of a fast and freezing river, and having a nice beer. It is cold and wet and lonely, but we are warm and thirsty and willing to say whatever will increase the other's courage. After the beer, we feel better, and are ready to go. We talk a bit about previous trips, and what we did on this stretch of the river.

The first time we had joined Bill's legal peers, we stopped near here to remove large trees which had blocked our path. George Yeamans had his chain saw along with him. It must have been dull, because it took more than one beer to watch him saw through the trunk, and much see-sawing of the tool as well. He was just about done when the wrist action freed up a very expensive watch. There was blue air as he watched it disappear.

Another time, within two hours of putting in, we stopped on one of the alder islands and had a fish fry. We had already caught a meal of fish, and there were enough fiddleheads on just that little island to supplement them.

That isn't this story though. It seems like moments later, we are roaring along with the water, paddling hard to stay out of the alders and away from the banks as we round the sharp turns. Turn after turn, we make it, but with no small effort.

Suddenly we see real danger. A birch tree, about 100-mm in diameter, is growing out of the bank almost horizontally, right in the middle of a turn, and right in our path. We connect with it just at gunwale height. Things happen fast, but it seems to happen so slowly. The tree rakes across Bill at the bow, bending him back, but finally letting him pass under. It tries to do the same to me, but with me flat against the stern, the tree on top of me, and the water trying to push the canoe into the shore, the leverage twists the whole canoe. We find ourselves and our canoe below the tree with the starboard gunwale 600-mm under the water.

The water is freezing, and our instincts tell us to flee; to get out of the water. But we know that we are miles from any help, and everything needed for our survival is with the canoe. We hang on, trying to figure out a way to get out of the flow with the canoe.

The decision is quickly removed from us. We round another bend, and are pushed quickly to the inside of a sharp turn on the port bank. There, waiting for us, is the most ugly stump of a tree, two metres long, and half a metre wide, sticking up out of the bank at about 30 degrees to the horizontal. The lower side of the stump is submerged about 300-mm. I watch the canoe, with us at each end, being pushed at high speed into the stump. I expect it to pin Bill into the bank, but he is squeezed out of the slot between the canoe and the shore like a slippery watermelon seed. We clamber onto the bank and survey the situation.

We are soaking wet, and the temperature is just a bit above freezing. Everything we own is tied under this green plastic canoe, with only one small end sticking above water. We don't even voice our fears. Bill says: "Whatever we are gonna do, we should do it quick!"

Bartholomew River
The stream may branch into ever-smaller channels. This can be fun until you need to haul your loaded boat overland back to a deeper channel.

We jump back into the icy water. I feel around under the canoe for a line, and tie one end to the canoe and trail the other downstream and tie it to a tree. I wade back upstream and we wrestle with the canoe, trying to break the combined grip of the current and the stump. Miraculously, it floats free, spins around its new leash, and comes to rest against a low, muddy shore, with the two of us still hanging on. We grab at the few floating items, rescuing what we can. We pull the canoe onto the muddy land and look around. It is pretty obvious to us that we have no choice but to make camp and get dry.

The land slopes up at least 50 degrees on both sides of the river with fairly mature pines. As foreboding as it looks, we pull the canoe over a patch of mud and ice and tie it to a tree to signify our resolve. We climb up our side, and reach the top of the slope at about 40 metres. It is a desolate clear-cut in all directions. Between the stumps, the land forms small bowls, with snow and/or water in each bowl. We pick the most hospitable looking bowl, and start pulling our gear up the slope. By the time we have made the 3-4 trips each, there is steam coming out of our collars and cuffs.

Bill works on a fire, while I make camp. I grab a hatchet and start cutting spruce bows to fill the hollow in our chosen campsite. When it looks like we might be able to keep the tent floor out of the water, I try to pitch the tent. When that is done, I jump in, and put on dry clothes. I set up the air mattress and unroll our dry sleeping bags. When I stick my head out, I notice that Bill has successfully built a fire in the middle of this cold, sopping wet mess. We sleep rather soundly, and fairly warm and dry, no thanks to the rain that continues to make white noise on the tent, and fog all around us.

You see, readers, Bill and I are not dummies, even if we are stupid enough to get into this mess. We know a thing or two about canoe trips. I think Bill could get rocks to burn under water. Further, we know how to pack. Never, after our first wet canoe trip in our teens, have Bill or I ever not had dry gear. Every item is double bagged in plastic, and stored in heavy canvas to protect the plastic. This time, it really pays.

As Bill gets out of his wet things, I take stock. We have all our gear, but our coolers were compromised in the river. We laugh as I call out our salvage. We have all the meat, and all the hard liquor. The vegetables and the mix are well on their way to Blackville.

So supper isn't so bad, but we turn in early; a little tipsy, but very tired. They say the sun takes a lot out of you. Well, so does fear, freezing, and hard labour. We sleep rather soundly, and fairly warm and dry, no thanks to the rain that continues to make white noise on the tent, and fog all around us.

Morning looks like the day before. We get enough to eat, but as we drain the tent and pack our things, our morale becomes somewhat drained as well. The bottom of the tent is indeed wet, and the air mattress and sleeping bags are damp. It dawns on us that if we spend another night in the woods, it might not be comfortable. If we want comfort, we will have to set some sort of Bartholomew speed record.

However, by the time we pack and make the same trips down and up the hill with the gear, it is mid-morning. Once more, we pack the canoe, using more rope than usual. Damp or not, we may yet need our shelter and bedding. We start to feel the chill, as we discuss how strange it is, that our stereo is gone, and the wires are broken, not just pulled out at the jacks. A violent spill indeed.

Bush-whacking skills may be called for around any turn on the Bartholomew. Here, Laurie demonstrates his skill.

We push off. Immediately, the hard work continues, with strong strokes needed to keep us away from the banks and alders with the sharp turns and strong current. We have some close calls, but make good time. By noon we have reached the Davis Landing Bridge, and the hard work has warmed us.

We have often camped here for the night, at the end of our first day on the River. Many boaters put in here for a shorter trip. The bridge is quaint but solid, made of very large trees used as beams, with heavy lumber as the bridge deck. There is usually a two-metre clearance between the trees and the stream. This year we portage, as even the canoes cannot fit under.

When we get the canoes to the other side of the bridge, and stop to rest. We pull some food and a beer out of the cooler, and make light of our predicament. We notice the chill in the air and the snow falling at about the same time. It is another 40 minutes or so before we are again warm. The snow slips into rain and back into snow. Our bare hands are white and often tingling, as the water drips down our sleeves, over our hands, and down the paddle.

In past years, we have had great fun on this part of the trip. There were fish to be caught and fiddleheads to pick, and great feeds of trout, lobster, steak, potatoes, and greens. There were roaring bonfires, and outrageous hilarity. Bill's legal buddies had an unspoken contest as to who could bring the most foolishness. Steve McKnight and Reigh Sweezie brought a card table, linen, crystal, and champagne; just to annoy others. The most dangerous thing that happened seems to be when Timber Tom Kearney got swept into a pile of debris and got swamped. He stood up in the 400-mm of water, then mumbled in disgust all night about his wet pipe tobacco.

Bartholomew River
Laurie uses his paddle to show how high the water was way back then. He says Bill and he pulled ashore right off the water onto this lawn.

If we were thinking about it, we would realize that where he stood was probably 5-6 feet below us, this year. As the river widens we tend to favour the curves. Did we get better in the winding turns, or is it that the straight stretch lets the cold wind get a clean shot at us? It is truly hard to tell. We don't discuss it. We don't talk much at all, even when we break for rest and fluids. Two more hours go by quickly, and so does Weaver Siding. We had told Keith to put our truck at Weaver Siding, if he could. Whether he could or not, it doesn't matter. He is expecting us to be there tomorrow, and probably has not even tried yet.

Another fast hour goes by, but we are getting tired. At this pace, we might get close to Blackville soon after dark. But can we keep up the pace? My arms are like rubber and my morale is already in the water. Bill decides to time our travel between the kilometre posts along the River. Although the missing posts due to beavers and washouts make it difficult, the elapsed time comes back between five and seven minutes per kilometre. That works out to about 10 kilometres per hour, but the trees seem to be going by faster than that. We continue making strong, mechanical strokes; wondering if our hands will work if they need to, and wondering how this will end.

Like a strange, happy ending, we all of a sudden find ourselves whizzing by a small settlement. We see at least a half dozen homes and cottages. Where did these come from? By the time we get control of the canoe enough to hit the bank, we are almost past them. We jump out, pull the canoe to safety, and sit on the bank, exhausted and bewildered. These are not new homes, yet we have never seen them before. Finally it comes to us. We are travelling at least 1.5 metres higher than any other year. We just couldn't see them over the bank in the past.

As we sit steaming by the wood stove in a small, very old and quaint home, the aged old gent who is our host tells us that we are at a settlement named after the river. We called to get the truck, explaining that we were in Bartholomew Settlement, on the shores of the Bartholomew River, at the end of the Bartholomew Road, 10 kilometres from Blackville.

I thank you for taking the time to read of our adventure, and leave you with a tip. There are no blackflies when you canoe in these conditions.

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