birchbark oldie The North Renous River

I was pretty unsure I would run this river when I finally decided to research it. It's one of the many streams that run from New Brunswick's central highlands in the Miramichi watershed. Over two days, our route drops about 700 feet from North Renous Lake to the bridge over the Plaster Rock-Renous highway about an hour's drive west of the settlement of Renous on Highway 8.

renousfromvid (46K)
Low water means lotsa rocks on the North Renous.

I finally spoke to the district forest ranger, who confirmed that the stretch was rarely run, if run at all. He had himself filled his boat somewhere on the upper stretch and not completed the trip. The map did show some rapids on the second day, but there were several points where the thin blue line with two visible banks contracted into one narrow band ... food for thought for sure.

Add to this concern his opinion that there were few, if not no, suitable camping spots along the river. He was kind enough to proffer the name of a gentleman who had a cabin midway downriver, and upon phoning this gent's residence in nearby Miramichi, we were assured a dry spot to spend our night on the river.

The trip got off to a roaring start when, after the ranger had kindly ferried us up to Renous Lake and helped us carry our gear to the shore, I realized I had forgotten our paddles on the lawn back at the ranger's office. So much for my self-esteem. I chewed myself out bitterly all the way back to the office and back again to the lake. Never again will I intone a smug chuckle when I hear others confess to this most trivial and numbskull manoeuver.

I felt much better when we finally got underway. Biff had cooked up a marvelous breakfast in my absence, and once well fortified, we set out across this small lake, about two kilometres long to the outlet at the other end. The wind soon kicked up swells and whitecaps as we neared the midpoint of our traverse. The waves broke time and again over our gunwales as we ducked into their troughs and crossed over their tops. We were kept warm and safe from swamping by the taut spray skirt. As we entered the cove where the outlet left the lake, we passed the major inlet to the lake on the right, the lake branch of the North Renous.

North Renous
A good soaking rain and a spray skirt come in handy on the North Renous.

The outlet seemed innocent enough as we poked our bow into the stream. It's not very wide here, and turns to the left so you can't see very far down the stream. Before we knew it, the water was boiling, and rocks reared high all around us. It was all we could do to keep the boat upright, and then the world disappeared behind a wall of brilliant white as brief as it was beautiful.

We came to rest in a small pool at the foot of the slot. Biff turned in the bow, and we shook our heads in silent appreciation and wonder. The drop was not great, perhaps only five feet, but the speed, tightness and abruptness of the drop were incredible.

I know, I committed yet another grievous sin of canoeing here, not checking out a blind corner. If there had been a tree wedged between the walls of the slot, we might still be there today. But we had started later than desired due to my earlier paddle blunder, and could not possibly walk every turn before venturing down. I also knew that there would be long stretches of rapids that would have to be run without scouting on this trip, this was the first of many we had to shoot on speculation that weekend. I made a mental note to scout this first rapid on my next trip, just to ease my conscience.

North Renous
The North Renous is not for beginners. Here, an intrepid kayaker runs a heavy rapid in high water. Pic by Craig Wilson.

That first day provided excellent paddling, with only two spots where strainers forced us to haul our boats over or around obstructions. Several wide sunlit pools afforded us the opportunity to rest and quench our thirst, as we approached our rendez-vous with the inn-keeper. We knew we were getting close when the Ottawa Branch of the North Renous flowed in on river-right, on its path down from the Kennedy Lakes.

The sun had set beneath the valley's rim, and dusk was purpling the sky, when I caught the first whiff of woodsmoke on the air. Soon, at the foot of a longish rock-garden which prompted a series of tight turns and twists, we caught a glimpse of bright red bloomers hung from an overhanging branch, and an excited voice rang out, "Ma, they're here! The boys are here!"

That's the first time anyone called Nanook and Biff boys in quite a while. He was a bit taken aback when he saw we were not the Boy Scouts he was expecting. But he was none the less exuberant when he next told us we were the first boat to come down from the Lake in 30 years. Soon we were cozied up in front of a cheery wood fire, drying our gear and swapping stories with Don and Lulu.

Don and Lulu had owned the only camp on the North Renous for over 40 years. They said they had learned to swim in the pool in front of the cabin, and watched their own children learn in their time as well. Don told us tales of the bright salmon he had angled from his home pool and barbecued on the rock overlooking the river on a summer's eve. He was fortunate to have it all to himself, as no one came down the river and no road led to this spot. He confessed he was a little anxious more canoeists would follow in our wake, and disturb his idyllic solitude, but was happy to have us for company that night. Biff says he remembers Lulu gently tucking him in as he fell asleep in the bottom bunk that night.

Renous River
Renous River near McGraw Brook in the fall

The next day dawned cool, and there were even some snowflakes swirling as we pushed off and took our leave of our hosts. It never did warm up appreciably that second day. As soon as we passed a large round slab of granite that blocked our view of the cabin, the rapids began, and continued unabated for a long stretch. They were ledge after ledge of rocky drops. Several times, our boat teetered on the lip of a drop, then pitched forward into the swell. Often, we would run a series of drops each seemingly steeper than the previous one, exchange shouts and share our awe, than clench our paddles tight in advance of the next plunge down the staircase.

Several times, our boat swung sideways in the current, and threatened to hang up on a rock. Each time, only frenzied poking and pushing kept us from leaning upstream and broaching, as the spray skirt kept the initial waves from filling our tumblehome. On several occasions, only a quick leap onto a rock ... sometimes the one the canoe was threatening to merge with ... saved us from a premature hike out off the bush.

The rapids continued unabated the whole length of that day, with some stretches where there was no opportunity to make shore for several kilometres. At one spot, we stopped to make a small fire to chase the chill from our bones. Seized by a sudden strange inspiration, I held up my long-cherished Nashwaak paddle, with its square blade, twine-wrapped shaft and fancy inlaid grip, and sang its praises to no one in particular but Biff and the woods. I had relied on its slightly concave blade face to power me down many streams over several years since my wife first gave it to me. My friends tell me I'm given to random rants on a wide variety of subject matters, but this one rant surprised even me.

typical North Renous landscape
The North Renous follows a steep and steady course, with long ledge runs through a heavily wooded valley. BTW, that's my old buddy Mark Bolden.

After dousing the fire and loading up, I leaned on my beloved blade for the push around the first rock that would commit us to the rapids, and the blade broke in my hands. I threw the shaft on the skirt, and two-handed the stump blade as best I could. The extra paddle lay in front of me, snapped to the top of the spray skirt, but I couldn't let the boat go to open up the snaps and free it. It was a long time before we were able to tuck into an eddy and I could retrieve the spare. I was pleasantly surprised by the range of power and manouverability I still could command with just the paddle's remnant.

I then knew that the paddle had sensed it was dry and feeble, and had contacted me in its last dying gasp. Who says paddles are inanimate tools? They speak the language of the river as they impart our will to our canoes, and channel the pulse and excitement of the stream back into our fingers. They are alive with the promise of rivers yet to run in springs yet to come.

Low water on the North Renous. Thank you, Derek Bradford.

The main rapid on the North Renous, the only one I know has a name, is called Sheppard's. There are two signed salmon pools as you approach around a tight turn to the left, just small eddies in the river. Sheppard's is a looping bend to the right with a large rock in the center of a ledge. The tricky part is that there are several sentinel stones in the approach that compel you to steer right for the big one, and power around it at the last minute if you still can.

Don had told tales about his friend Vernon Goodfellow whose boat come to grief against this rock several years ago. The water was so high that May weekend when Biff and I went that we were almost able to go over the top of it. It's a fair piece back to the highway from this drop, especially if you end up on river left.

The river does not slow down appreciably until you come to the takeout at the Plaster Rock-Renous Highway bridge. There are several spots where you can park your shuttle vehicle close to the water's edge. You'll tell yourself that you'll be back come next high water for another exhilarating paddle on the North Renous.

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