birchbark oldie     St. Francis River

The St. Francis River is the northernmost branch of the Saint John River, which drains large expanses of Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick. The ruisseau (stream) Castonguay runs from the small lac St-Francis only a few miles south of Rivière du Loup on the Saint Lawrence River. Our trip would take us eight days and seven nights to finish at the town of Clair in New Brunswick.

St. Francis River
The author, Hal and Scooter mug after loading up and before hitting the highway for Rivière-du-Loup, P.Q.

We, Scooter, Hal and I, were re-tracing the first leg of the Flight From Quebec that Scooter and Hal had made three springs earlier, on their month-long trip to the mouth of the Penobscot River in southern Maine.

I was astounded at how close the put-in was to the town of Rivière-du-Loup. Another ten minutes on the highway would have put us on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Yet the height of land between the St. Lawrence and the Saint John River is just south of the town.

ruisseau castonguay (38K)
Hal is nearly ready to set out on Lac St-Francis.

To get to the small lake and begin our trip, we turned east off the Trans-Canada highway and drove through a small Maliseet community. Arriving at the lake, we found the lakeshore shore lined with cottages, some cozy, others opulent. We chose one cottage with a launch dock that wasn't too hard to back down to, made sure no one was home at the time, loaded our boats, and off we went onto the wind-blown lake.

ruisseau castonguay
The Ruisseau Castonguay, as the river is known at its source, was narrow and lined with alders.

Luck was with this on this lake, as the wind blew straight down toward the outlet. The wind would be a major factor later on in our trip. For one thing, our route would take us through several major lakes, and many smaller ones, as the St. Francis intersects several large bodies of water and many not so large ones as it follows the international boundary between Canada and the United States. This was actually one of the main reasons we chose this route for our spring canoe run, as almost all the rivers in the northeast which had no large lakes were running shallow and rocky due to drought that spring of 2004.

ruisseau castonguay
Hal prepares to slide under a fallen tree. Narrow streams can be notorious for deadfalls like this, especially around turns.

As we threaded our way out of the lake and left the cottage country behind, we entered the low-lying, expansive valley of the St. Francis River. It was a narrow creek this high up in the basin, and wound through alders, often only wide enough to thread around the meanders without getting the bow into a tangle of alders.

ruisseau castonguay
Scooter exits a rocky stretch shortly after we left Lac St-Francis.

Our first rapid was heralded by a tree trunk which lay across the stream, balanced on stones on either bank and leaving a gap just high enough to slide under. Unfortunately, I had installed my wooden canoe seat, and had to perch my boat on a rock just in front of the log and unhitch it, otherwise my boat would not fit under the tree. I'm afraid poor Scooter had to sit and wait, as there was no room for him to get by me in the narrow stream. Funny, all those devices which are supposed to provide comfort are usually the first to get in our way and cause us more bother than they're worth, more often than not.

ruisseau castonguay
Hal threads his way though a gap in one of the many logjams we encountered on the upper stream.

So I finally got the seat unhitched and pointed my boat under the log. As it began to slide under the log, I jumped in and arranged myself in the fetal position, it was either that or decapitation. Unfortunately, I waited too long to get back up onto my seat and grab my paddle, for the next thing I knew I was headed straight for the huge rock wall and had no time to change course. My boat was dimpled in at the bow by this collision, and carries the scar to this day.

We didn't make it too much farther that first day, as the long ride from Fredericton to Rivière-du-Loup had eaten up much of the available daylight. We chose a site just downstream from the access road to the Maliseet community, at a beaver dam where the snowmobile crowd had erected a bivouac complete with makeshift bunks and a rubber carpet floor. We built our campfire in a washing machine tub left there for that purpose. Rather inelegant and unromantic, but it sheltered the fire from the Arctic wind and kept the wet wood burning.

ruisseau castonguay
A washing machine ring may have looked unelegant, but there were few stones here to build a fireplace. It was actually a good use for the piece of scrap.

The only sunshine we enjoyed that day came just at sunset, when the last rim of the sun slanted in horizontally over the trees, firing the undersides of the clouds and silhouetting the spruce trees. I vividly remember the three of us huddling around the fire, feeling the sharp fingers of the north wind cut through our jackets. Whenever we looked at each other and agreed just how cold it was, it seemed there would be a gust even icier than the one before. We weren't long in finding the relative warmth of our sleeping bags that night, lemmetellya.

The next day's paddle featured more calm water paddling on this narrow stream. There was one major hurdle to pass, the culvert under the Trans-Canada Trail.

The trail follows the former railway line, and the embankment is a solid earthen wall crossing the stream. Its slopes are steep, high and treed. Yes, we could have hauled our boats and gear over it, but it would have taken several hours of dangerous back-breaking work.

St. Francis River
A thick barrier of dri-ki, or tangled driftwood, blocked our passage through the culvert.

The approach to the culvert was guarded by a football field of dri-ki, uprooted trees, boat docks and waste lumber that blocked all forward paddling. We had to venture our weight onto the floating woodpiles, grunt the boats ahead another few paces, then hop back in before we slipped under or between the logs. A truly nasty bit of work.

When we finally twitched all three boats up to the opening of the culvert, a gnarly stump wedged in tight occluded three-quarters of the opening. Our hopes of paddling through the culvert to the open water at the other end were dashed. We had to unload each boat, carefully insert it into the mouth of the culvert, repack it at a jaunty angle, and send the boats unmanned through the culvert. Scooter waited at the other end, to catch the boats and hold them till we climbed over the embankment and regained our craft.

Shortly after this hurdle, we came to the crossing of the Trans-Canada highway. The driver of a semi highballing down the road waved and played his horn as we approached the culvert.

St. Francis River
Alderboy is always the first to dive into the logjams, driven by some strange need to dance on the bobbing logs and find the easiest route to twitch our heavily-laden boats through the tangle. Here, he grins in anticipation of the next debacle.

The rest of the paddling that day was punctuated by several runs of quickwater, as well as frequent logjams that obliged us to climb out and muscle our craft over and through tangled webs of branches. This is where Scooter's skills shone most brightly, he was in his element dancing on the bobbing tree trunks. He earned his new name "Alderboy" righteously, and endured several days of teasing and silly singsongs to celebrate his valour in the woodpiles.

St. Francis River
St. Francis River
The author uses his eight-foot pole to snub down a rocky stretch of the upper St. Francis.

We camped that night on the boundary of the Maliseet community, where the property line had been cut down to delineate the dividing line. Seems like a waste of good forest timber, but there was a small clearing which proved ideal for our campfire and tenting needs that night. The next day dawned warm and sunny, full of promise.

St. Francis River
A rustic cabin serves as shelter on a cool and rainy night.

This was to be our last day of pure river paddling for a while. The stream had grown a fair degree, and there were several stretches of quickwater to run. However, there was no water fast or rocky enough to warrant scouting. Hal, in the lead canoe, saw two moose, a cow and a yearling, but they disappeared by the time Scooter and I rounded the bend in our boats. A handful of cottage communities passed by on the left bank, and we traded hellos and a few quick snatches of conversation as we glided downstream. Late afternoon found us leaving the river and camping on the northwestern shore of Lac Pohénégamook, on a sandy beach with a grand view of the lake stretching before us.

St. Francis River
Pohénégamook, the first lake along the border of Canada and the USA. It took most of a morning to paddle down the lake against the wind.

The wind came up during the night, and a heavy bank of clouds obscured the sun. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing in our faces, so we faced a long hard paddle that took us all of the morning to push down the lake. The community of St-Éleuthère stretched along the southern shore of the lake, and the main east-west trunk line of Canadian Pacific Railways snaked through the small town. There was a long train running every hour or so it seemed, to entertain us.

The northern shore was unpopulated, with the exception of a youth group camp. They ventured out on the choppy lake in a voyageur-style canot de maître, as well as a small sailboat, and I hoped we would make it down the lake in time to exchange pleasantries. But the wind kept us from making the progress we would have liked, and it was near noon when we pulled into shore at the end of the lake and headed for a restaurant.

Looking out the back door of the restaurant, we could see the customs gate for entry into the state of Maine a stone's toss away. Despite their proximity to Maine, the local folk spoke no English. The food was filling, the waitress was pleasant, and shortly after paying our bill, we got back into our boats and slipped under the railway bridge and back into the Rivière St-Francis.

From here down to the Saint John River, the St-Francis serves as the international boundary between Canada and the USA. We paddled through wide and slow current the rest of the day, stopping at a small cabin in a meadow. As it had begun to rain, we chose to overnight here. There was enough room for Scooter and Hal to bunk on the tiny cabin's floor, and I set up my tent just outside. Every half-hour or so, the ground would shake as another hundred-car freight train rumbled along the rails just behind the trees, and then its air horn whistle would blare for the next town. Thankfully there were no trains running at night.

The next day, we stopped at the town of Rivière-Bleue to replenish our dwindling reserves. I followed the lead of Scooter and Hal, as they pushed with their twelve-foot aluminum poles up the tributary stream of the same name and into town. My pole was wooden and only eight feet long, so it had less leverage than their twelve-foot aluminum staffs. I found that by following the slower current along the inner shore, I could almost, but not quite, keep up with them.

It was raining hard by this time, and the shores and fields along the river were sopping wet. We were approaching the lake section of the river, and more and more of the real estate lining the stream was given over to marshland. As nighttime approached, we had no choice but to set up camp along the muddy inner bank of the stream. We were unable to get a decent fire going, and the water level began to rise, so we hauled our camp up as high as we could and hunkered down for the night.

The next day dawned cool and windy, but this time, the wind was in our favor. In a few hours, we entered Lac Beau, and Hal was finally able to hoist his green sail and ride with the wind. Scooter and I were able to rudder down the long lake in the wind without any serious paddling, and enjoy the scenery of the wooded hills as we approached the outlet. The clouds finally blew away, and eagles soared above us on the wind.

St. Francis River
Finally, Hal gets a chance to sail down Lac Beau.

In the sky over the lake, a brace of helicopters patrolled the international boundary. No doubt they scanned us to determine whether we were a threat. Ever since 9-11, both the St. Croix River to the south, and the St-Francis-Saint John to the north, are closely guarded to prevent illegal border crossings.

Pohenegamook Lake
After the third day, the St. Francis trip is primarily lake paddling, with short sections of wide river with moderate current.

Soon after we exited the lake, the wind shifted again, and brought a cool rain in from the north. By this time, everything we owned was soaked through, and the cold gusts were robbing us of our enthusiasm. As dusk approached, we passed through a series of small lakes, little more than large eddies in the slow current. We were shivering by the time we came upon a hunters' lodge, poised on the American shore at a narrow headland between two ponds.

There was not a dry stick of wood to be had anywhere, so we borrowed a few punky logs from the pile the owner had on his porch. Yes, we felt bad about taking them without his blessing, but we were too cold and tired to debate any longer than just looking at each other and nodding silent agreement. Soon we were warm around a small but cheery fire, and found a grill to cook our supper on. There was just enough room on his landing to pitch a tent, so the world was a much better place after we dried a few clothes, filled our bellies, and enjoyed each other's company around the campfire that night. A clan of beavers played in the narrows by the camp, and as their tails slapped the water, it sounded like someone was dropping bowling balls from a great height.

St. Francis River
Scooter glides in the sun on the St. Francis. This is my favorite image of Scooter.

I was looking forward to running Cross Lake rapids the next day. An old guide book I had consulted before the trip hinted that the rapids were long and risky, and that there was an easy portage over a headland that formed a cove in the lake before the rapids.

We paddled around the cove, looking for the opening that would lead us to the portage. It appears that someone built a sizeable lodge at the beginning of the portage trail, so we didn't land there to investigate. There was a ribbon hanging from a tree halfway down the cove, where the owner of the lodge had presumably hacked a replacement trail leading up the slope and down to the river on the other side, but it was overgrown and so steep you had to haul yourself up by grabbing tree branches. So we headed down toward the rapids without portaging.

The rapids were little more than an S-turn with a few ripple waves, I don't know why the guidebook had rated them a Class III. I didn't even dip my paddle in the water, just glided down with no effort. There were no rocks or ledges at all. I resisted the temptation to run them with my eyes closed. The same guidebook warned of a ledge with a sharp turn at the junction of the St. Francis and the St. John, but there was nothing to mark the smooth blending of the two rivers, just the sensation that you were entering a stream at least ten times wider and deeper.

We camped that night on the American shore of the Saint John, a few miles downriver of the confluence. As dusk purpled the sky, we became aware of a rising clamor downriver, and watched in wonder as a gaggle of Canada geese winged up the stream and over our heads, a long line of graceful silhouettes honking in unison.

Our last day was spent on the wide and graceful Saint John, pausing several times to carve eddy turns behind shoreline rocks in the warm sunshine. Shortly after noon, we met our shuttle driver in the village of Clair, New Brunswick, and began the drive back home to Fredericton.

This river is ideal for paddlers who wish to enjoy a week-long run in a semi-wilderness setting. There are no serious rapids, however care must be taken to negotiate the logjams which can appear anywhere along the stretch from Lac Castonguay to Lac Pohénégamook, the first three days of the trip.

Visit Hal's photo album for more trip pictures.

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