birchbark oldie     Nashwaak River

oDay 1: Nashwaak Lake
oDay 2: Gorby Gulch
oDay 3: Napadogan

The Nashwaak is not known as one of New Brunswick's prime canoeing rivers, although it runs for 113 kilometers in the south-central part of the province. Perhaps it's because it doesn't run through any population centres on its way from Nashwaak Lake to Stanley ... or perhaps it's because of the length and roughness of its rapids above and around Narrows Mountain, or the dangerous gorge on the flank of this same hill.

Nashwaak expedition 1996 crew members
Nashwaak expedition 1996 crew members
Shane, bros Laurie, Paul and the author

Many times I've been reminded of this, as the road to the put-in at Nashwaak Lake winds past the Half-Moon stretch of the Big Southwest Miramichi River. Here, I've seen scores of canoes congesting the put-in for the Miramichi, and thought how fortunate we were to be heading over the ridge and floating down our own private stream. It's true that most of the other well-known New Brunswick canoe routes boast scenery arguably more pleasant than that of the Nashwaak, but these party rivers can be so congested that the solitude and tranquillity found on the upper Nashwaak impart a peace of mind few of these other rivers afford.

Day 1: Through the Thicket

New Brunswick has been blessed with a wet early spring almost every year since I took up the paddle, but this year it outdid itself with drenching rains. As the truck that carried the four of us - my brothers Laurie and Paul, my buddy Shane and me- and our two boats left the blacktop at Deersdale and approached Nashwaak Lake on J.D. Irving's haul roads, we marvelled at the volumes of water filling the ditches and spilling over the road at every dip. On several occasions, we carefully skirted washouts that had left the normally high and dry roadtop a gaping dropoff.

Nepisiguit River
Scout the rapid first, then run it in confidence!

Our optimism began to fade as we turned onto the last leg of our trip in, a two-mile stretch that led to the lake's outlet. Even the high-powered four-wheel drive truck could not negotiate the deep mire that threatened to swallow the front of the truck axle deep. We scouted alternate approaches to the lake on forestry haul roads, but each time the way to the lake was blocked by stumps, drop-offs and boulders. We were left with one alternative ... to carry our boats and three days' worth of supplies down the washed-out road into the lake on our backs.

After one trip in with the heaviest packs, our luck changed. Two good ole boys appeared on the scene with four-wheel drive all-terrain vehicles, and a trailer ... and we didn't dither too long when they offered to lend us a hand. All we had to do then was steady the boats on the trailer, and marvel at the snowdrifts that still filled the woods at 1000 feet above sea-level this abnormally cool spring.

After profuse thanks and a proffered six-pack, we loaded our two boats on the bridge. Our good ole boys shook their heads as they considered the alder-choked stream that led off into the thicket. They had the courtesy not to say what I'm sure they thought ... what manner of insane men would set off down such a crooked alder jungle as that?

My dream of actually paddling on the lake and exiting over the beaver dam and under the narrow bridge to start the trip were denied by the late hour of the day and the thick cross-hatch of alder bushes blocking the culvert under the bridge. Even if we had run the culvert, an evilly-placed tree branch would have impaled us on our exit. Maybe next year we'll arrive earlier and I can do some creative, gentle landscaping to make my dream come true.

Source of the Nashwaak
The river emerges from the lake, rushes under a rickety bridge and enters an alder thicket.

As it was, our descent to the stream itself was difficult enough, and a preview of things to come. We slid the boats over boulders and between brambles and alder bracken directly down to the mouth of the culvert. Here, we chose different tactics ... my brothers in the other boat stayed in their craft and pushed and weaved through the dense tangle of alder grabbers. I jumped into the stream, warm in my wet suit and neoprene booties, and grapped the painter rope and bow of our canoe. Shane paddled when water permitted, and I pushed the nose between the trees and over the logs, carefully choosing what seemed to be the wider, or deeper, course. Now I know how Humphrey Bogart felt when he towed the African Queen through the leech-infested jungle delta way back then ... only I doubt Shane would have been flattered to know he was sitting in for Katherine Hepburn.

Ever so subtly, the stream deepened, and we were able to float for longer stretches each time the alders shrank back from our bow. After 20 minutes or so, we reached the first deadwater ... a pocket lake with a view to a denuded hillside strewn with boulders and stumps, and carpeted with occasional snowdrifts that had so far resisted the spring rain and sun.

However, our open water didn't last too long ... just enough to quench our thirst. Soon it was back into the thicket, pushing and lifting over beaver dams and fallen logs. The stream eventually widened to allow us back into our boats, but the alders still tugged at our gunwales and plucked at our sleeves.

uppersnow (147K)
Nashwaak in springtime

As soon as an alder branch slowed our progress, we had to act quickly. If we didn't power out of its grip within seconds, it would tip us over and fill our boat, in spite of our spray skirts. In two places where the current quickened, with barely enough space to run between the grasping branches with our heads down, we flipped, and at a third spot, were saved from a third dunking by quick action from my brothers in the other boat. Each time we did flip, we frantically grabbed the boat and muscled it upright, guiding it to shore where we could bail it and begin again. If we hadn't acted fast, our boat would have been hopelessly entangled, pinned by a thousand alders.

As the thicket receded, and the stream showed us more frequent and longer rapids, our next obstacles proved to be the fallen trees that stretched across the stream at the foot of every sizable drop. Usually we had time to stop and manoeuver over, under, or around with ease ... but on one occasion, as we rounded a quick curve, a spiked fir spanned the entire width at chest level. There was no time for any evasive manoeuver but to clutch a fistful of alders ... and as we hastily reviewed our options, the alder branches began to give way and swing us sideways against the current.

As I let go, I screamed at Shane to duck. He was too close to the tree to lean forward, so he leaned back, exposing his neck, face and chest to the ripping broken-off branches. Just before he went under, he had the presence of mind to slide his wide-brimmed hat over his face, and was spared a frightful gouging. We emerged unscathed on the other side, and as luck would have it, just moments later our buddies were able to slide right through the hole we had carved for them.

As we emerged from the thicket and the river finally widened enough to reduce the hazards of fallen trees at every quick turn, we came to our first big drop. There was no portage trail visible on either side of the ledge which spanned the width of the river for 40 feet, and the bank was steep and impassable. The drop was about six feet high, and its outrace was guarded on the right by the usual twisted tangle of fallen trees.

The bros went over in the first boat as we hung back. With a whoop, they dropped out of sight, to reappear several seconds later as their blades flashed high to signal us they were still afloat. As we plunged over the brink, our bow sank deep into the froth, and I was also under water to my neck as we teetered for balance in the plunge pool. Our boats remained level thanks to our spray skirts, but were nearly brim full of water. Only a herculean effort kept us from being first swept back into the keeper wave, then from meshing with the guardian tree as we finally bobbed up to the surface and were pushed out into the tail race.

We paddled our boats, brim-full with water, to the far shore to bail them out and try to warm up a bit before starting out again. Shane was beginning to shake with cold, as he was the only one of us four without a wet suit. I reassured him and the others that the campsite was just around the bend, as the power lines near Gorby Gulch were visible in the distance.

There was one more drop to be negotiated before we made it to camp ... a former bridge site where the channel had been pinched by the bridge abutments. The fall was not great, but the outrace was rocky and irregular ... and we were too cold and it was too late in the day to risk an upset. Fortunately, a side channel on river right not too choked with alders gave us a reasonable alternative to unloading and muscling our way through the thick alders and spruce. After pushing and poling down the gulch, and pouring it on to push past the ever-present tangle of broken trees at the rapid's exit, we were once again on our way. Just downstream, the bridge at Gorby Gulch came into view.

Day Two: Gorby Gulch to Napadogan

Our campsite was 15 minutes past Gorby Gulch, on river right. You have to watch carefully, there aren't many more spots for quite a ways downriver, and as dusk was beginning to darken the day, we were glad to set up camp for the night. This is, in fact, where most Nashwaak River travellers begin their trip ... and where you should, too.

We began our second day in fine spirits, knowing that the alder choked passages of the day before were behind us for good, and that the river would steepen in its run toward Narrows Mountain. The early stretches were punctuated by fishing lodges along the banks, in various states of repair. I wondered how the fishing for salmon and sea trout would be up here later on in early summer.

The rapids became more frequent, longer and more intense as we paddled down river. At three locations, cables crossed the stream at neck level, obviously used to transport people and goods from the road across the river to the camps on the other side. Since very few canoeists run this river, this is not considered a risk, so be forewarned ... they were easy to pass by staying close to the right hand bank. Fortunately, the water is relatively calm at these spots.

As we approached Narrows Mountain, the rapids grew steep, and wound around several bends in the river before running into pools. I remained attentive for the moment when the valley opened up to show the broad expanse of the flank of Narrows Mountain itself, as this is the cue to get ready for the Grand Portage around the Narrows Gorge.

It's an unmistakeable sight ... the mountain rears up to fill the whole viewscape downstream. At this point you know you can run one more rapid ... a long one with several sets of haystacks which wind from bend to bend and spill into the Little Basin pool, which gives you plenty of time to head for river right as you approach the gorge. I think this rapid is called the Dumplings, but I'm not sure.

Be careful!Be careful ... there is no obvious cue that the next set of rapids is impassable. There are large rocks on river right to look for as you float down the pool. I strongly suggest you pull over in the calmer water on the right hand bank above these rocks before the current quickens, then walk down to the next bend and scout the drop. If you are still afloat approaching the drop, especially in high water, the swift, rocky nature of the approach may not afford you the time to pull out above the drop. It's highly advisable to carefully line your boats along the right-hand bank until you reach the top of the first step of the staircase, and begin your portage there.

Nashwaak River gorge
This is a shot of the entrance into the Gorge, taken a bit farther upstream.

You don't want to trifle with this rapid ... it's long, approximately a quarter-mile, frightfully steep and unforgiving. Usually two or three parties are rescued from this one rapid every spring. On this high-water weekend in May, the passage was an aerated froth of fury with only the tops of the jagged rocks showing. This has been the spot for several dams, all of which have been swept aside by ice and freshet over the years. Bulldozers once used to build these works of folly have jumbled the rocks all the way down through the rapid into random piles. Even at low water, downstream vees which seem like possible channels down the centre slam into rock faces, so that even an intrepid, hellbent kayaker could not find a safe path through the maelstrom.

Nashwaak River gorge
Looking up the Narrows Gorge halfway through the portage. It is an aerated froth of fury.
Thanks, Mitchell Amos.

In May 1977, a flotilla of ten canoes carrying 20 innocents flailed through this gorge, and all boats but one were flipped and smashed on the big boulder in midstream, just into the rapid's entrance. The paddlers in the only canoe that was not broached were able to make it to shore just at the brink of the first ledge, as they saw the arms of my bowman waving in the air as he stood on a rock in midstream, where the current had tossed us, the first boat in the flotilla. I had fortunately been dumped into an eddy at streamside, and was able to make it to shore, where I watched helplessly as eight other heavily-laden craft came to grief before my eyes.

I remember watching Dave Mason come swimming down after being ejected from his craft and grabbing a piece of wreckage -- a former Coleman canoe -- that was twisted around this rock, which we now respectfully call the canoe crusher. Meathead (Andy MacLeod) was standing on the rock above him, trying to warn him to get off the rock, pointing at the current above. Imagine Dave's surprise as he turned to look at what Meathead was pointing at and saw his own boat hurtling at him, pinning him onto the rock right behind him and wrapping itself around his ribs. The fact that he was wearing a thick old Army surplus parachute package as a lifejacket was all that saved him from being dashed. It absorbed the impact, and let him squeeze out of the boat's grip and bob down the rest of the rapid to the Big Basin pool ... but I recall him nursing really sore ribs that evening and long after as well.

before the dam
The approach to Irving's Dam in high water. You can see which sluice we took in the next picture.
into the sluice
Paul and Laurie's bow dips into the trough as they slide over the sluice

The portage is not marked by any trail, you just have to muscle your boats and gear down to the next pool several hundred meters downstream through the brush. I understand that there was a well-marked trail here before, when fisherman didn't have all-terrain vehicles and had to use their feet to travel from pool to pool (Imagine ...). There was still snow ankle-deep at several spots on the trail we had to trudge through, and fallen trees across the path at two or three spots gave us a chance to catch our breath and rest our arms as we toted our heavy loads. We each had to make three or four return trips for our gear and boats.

The other reason for not wanting to run this gorge, aside from the palpable risk of mortal danger, is the prospect of the best rapids on the river just downstream ... Hayden's rips, which run for several kilometers almost all the way to the Valley Forest Products bridge.

There are four sets of rapids, of which the first is the shortest, a mellow introduction to the wave-tossed trains of turbulence to come. They're long, and I feel a spray skirt is required to run these ... in fact, I wouldn't venture on any stretch of the river upstream of the Valley Forest Products bridge without a spray skirt. All these rapids culminate in long stretches of deep haystacks ... especially, of course in high water. And each one ends in a calm pool where we stopped to bail out before venturing into the next rapid.

Shane was grateful for the wetsuit top which kept his upper body dry, as the waves splashed him repeatedly in the bow when we dipped into the troughs and crested the rooster tails. Paul and Laurie had the nifty idea of duct taping the edges of their spray skirt to the sides of the canoe between the snaps, especially at the bow, as this is where the water makes its way under the spray skirt and into the canoe between haystacks. See below.

emergence from the dam
Laurie, in the stern, and Paul in the bow, celebrate a clean run with paddles held on high. They avoided the temptation to grab the gunwales.

My next canoe will have a velcro flap on the spray skirt, so I can reach into the storage space for cold drinks, food, or whatever without having to go ashore and unsnap the spray skirt the whole length of the boat.

The river begins to level out at the Napadogan bridge. There is a campsite on river right just past the bridge, and another one about a mile downriver also on river right.

Trail's End: Napadogan to Stanley

The only rapids of note from the Valley Forest Products bridge to the Stanley bridge, which is a day's paddle, are Irving's Dam and Hell's Gates. We ran the dam through gate number 3, after carefully scouting the four sluices from the top of the dam. Hell's Gates was anti-climactic, just a long class II, nothing like Hayden's rips upstream. As we progressed downstream, the cottages began to appear more and more frequently. We pulled out upstream of the bridge at Stanley, just behind the fire hall and park.

nashwaaksm (27K)
Upriver from the Valley Forest Products Bridge, in typically low autumn water.

Another day's paddle through mostly calm water, except the fast water under the Stanley bridge and a stretch just downstream, would have taken us to the mouth of the Nashwaak at Fredericton ... but we had to return to the workaday world. I've been fortunate to paddle the whole length of this river, but not all on the same trip, yet. I'll have to realize my goal of paddling the length of the Nashwaak from source to mouth on my next trip.

Other Nashwaak stories:

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