birchbark oldie     Saint John River

The Saint John River is not a canoe tripping river. Its length is blocked by dams, and its reaches are wide, windswept and uninviting. Yet it was the first river I ran, as a teenager out of high school.

Mactaquac headpond
The long windy reaches of the Mactaquac headpond represent serious hardships for canoe trippers.

We put in above Woodstock, and paddled to Fredericton in three days. I won't bore you with details ... it was hard work paddling down the windy headpond in the heat. Yet several incidents still stick with me long decades after this trip.

Mactaquac Dam
Mactaquac Dam. We carried our boats over and down its rocky 100 foot high face.

The Mactaquac Dam had been built only a few years before, and there were many upstream communities where the residents had had to leave their homes behind, as the rising waters had blocked roads and flooded villages. I remember we stopped for lunch by a derelict farmhouse where the doors had been left open to the wind. Everything had been carted off to some other home, except for this one large three-piece mirror. You know the type, there was one main central glass, with two panes on hinged wings for side views.

Who knows why it was left behind. My buddy Bob in the bow decided he would take it for his mother.

Saint John River
The Saint John River flows through the heart of Fredericton. On the left is the walking bridge, and the dark monolith is the swing span pier, now in disuse. Centre, the spire of Christ Church Cathedral, right, the Legislature building.

Bob was cursed by a particularly bad case of facial acne, so bad it was ruining his life. He got the idea to spread the mirror out on the bow cap, and angle all three panes to reflect the sunlight back onto his face. Perhaps the sunlight would dry his acne out, and smoothen his complexion, he thought.

Unfortunately, the reflected sunlight burnt his face to a crisp. He was left with permanent scarring and swelling, and lasting disfigurement. I remember he fled to Toronto two days after we got home, and no one has seen him since. No one needs to remind me about the dangers of excessive exposure to sunlight since that, lemmetellya.

sunsetboat (160K)
Sunset paddlers on the Saint John

I also remember the Nackawic Reach. The river is two miles wide here, and runs straight for almost twenty miles towards the dam. It is perfectly angled to catch the downstream wind. Bob and I were paddling a 20-foot cedar and canvas Chestnut with a square stern, which I swear must have weighed 150 to 200 pounds easily.

We were borne along the screaming wind like an oil tanker in an Atlantic storm. The front end would pitch up the side of the waves and slam down with a splat into the trough, then begin the dizzying climb once more. We made good time that day, at least until the lake swung back towards the northeast and out of the wind's main drag.

When we got to the dam, it was late afternoon, and we decided to carry over the dam and camp on the flats below. It was no trouble carrying the other boat, a small 16-foot Chestnut, down the rock face of the dam. But it took all four of us over an hour to grunt the 20-footer up to the top, over the highway and down the rock-strewn slope with about 125-foot vertical drop. When I drive over the dam now, I am reminded of the risk we took and the hardship we suffered with the heavy awkward load. We swept well that night, under the stars without a tent as I recall.

kayaks on the Saint John River
These kayakers enjoyed a warm afternoon in January to paddle on the Saint John River in Fredericton.

My last recollection is waiting for the ferry at McKinley to cross the river. It was a car ferry, which used to join the community at the mouth of Keswick with Kingsclear. It isn't running now. It traveled along an iron cable strung across the river, just at the height where we couldn't float past.

So as we waited for it to get to shore and drop the cable back into the water, I looked down in about five feet of water and saw a large silver-sided salmon on the bottom. I couldn't tell whether it was alive, resting or dead. I reached down with my paddle and gave it a tiny nudge.

Saint John River
The Saint John River at Fredericton is wide and windswept. Fine for a leisurely paddle on a calm day, but not a tripping river.

Well, it was dead, lemmetellya. And the stench that rose up from the river bottom was mortifying, enough to gag all four of us for several minutes. It was something I'll never forget, no matter how hard I try.

Ever since then, the only thing I reach out and touch with my paddle is a rock.

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