birchbark oldie     Little Tobique

The Little Tobique takes its source from Nictau Lake in Mt. Carleton Provincial Park, which is home to Mts. Carleton and Saganook, respectively the two highest peaks in New Brunswick.

Nictau is a splendid sheet of water nestled under the brooding brow of Saganook. The early riser, rousted from the tent by the fall frost, watches the sun rise on the lake's eastern arm, dappling Saganook's slate cliffs, flaring the hardwood foliage on its flanks, and polishing the lake's mirror surface.

The canoeist could begin his/her descent of the Tobique here, camping overnight after a long drive, enjoying the park's amenities and starting off fresh in the morning. We, that is Biff, Pete and I, chose to start at Goose Pond, a small widening of the river just past its exit from the lake. We took turns paddling the old Coleman solo, and teaming up by two in the Old Town.

Biff and Ken on the Tobique
Biff and Ken on the Tobique. It was early May in the high country, and the alders and the grass had not yet greened up.

The river is small, and the current is steady, with a regular and pleasant tempo. We started late in the afternoon, and as the day wore on, we began to worry about the lack of promising campsites along the upper stretch of the river. However, as luck would have it, we found a perfect site just as dusk was falling.

In the wee hours of the night, a camper can watch the stars wheel overhead in all directions, in this remote valley far from the light pollution of the megacities. On this occasion, the clouds formed a near-perfect bank over the lofty treeline, and a multitude of stars crowded the gap between its edge and the horizon. A full moon straddled the trees, casting a ghostly glow on their crowns, and playing its radiance on the slow-moving undersides of the clouds, seemingly from below. I called to my companions to come share the spectacle, but to no avail.

There is no lack of campsites as you progress down the river. One of the Little Tobique's nicer aspects is the near total lack of fishing camps and lodges, like the ones that crowd every turn on the Restigouche. The perception of isolation is heightened by the intimate character of the narrow stream, as it meanders through tight turns, alternating with quiet meadows full of birdsong. The current remains quick yet smooth the whole stretch, even when it seems to loop directly back upon itself so it seems you can see where you were a few minutes ago through the alders. There is almost always enough room to manoeuver your boat around leaning cedar trees and fallen lumber, and the stream usually obliges with a side channel into open water.

log jam
It takes a team effort to dig a way through this logjam.

jumping over the log
Sometimes you meet a jam on a turn and have almost no time to react. On this occasion, the boat slid under the fallen tree. I hopped over and jumped back in to my seat. Watch those spikes!

Don't let yourself be lulled into pastoral complacency, however. On several occasions, especially on the last day, we rounded a sharp turn to come face to face with an impenetrable logjam, and had to make split-second decisions to head for the shore or end up in the tangle. One stump lodged in the center of the stream upset Biff and Pete in a flash. Fortunately, they were able to wrestle the boat to shore before it was lost in the current, and I spun the other canoe downstream to corral the loose coolers and gear that nearly got away.

Getting past some of the jams involved careful and daring footwork, as we trusted our weight to slippery branches submerged in sharp-spiked tangles, and wrestled the boat through with brute force. It was unsettling to watch the spiked branches turn slowly toward my anatomy as I gathered my balance to reenter the boat. Another time, we were able to pull key logs out of the jam and slide neatly through a small gap into open water.

Fiddlers on the Tobique
Fiddlers on the Tobique

At another turn, we had beached the boats and stopped to enjoy the scenery on the meadow. Suddenly, Biff looked to where we had hauled our boats up, and noticed we were short one boat. The three of us all piled into the one remaining craft, and paddled furiously to retrieve the Coleman, which was just disappearing around the bend. In our haste, we swamped the rescue boat as we drew near, and were just able to run down and grab the Coleman with no time to spare.

All we lost was one paddle that slipped out of my boat as we took on water. One moment's inattention, one pull too few up the bank when we landed, and we almost ruined our trip. There are paths out of the valley, but it could have been a two-day hike with no food. Yipes.

There are no dangerous rapids, except for several ledgy runs on the first day, shortly after you leave Nictau Lake. There is a long stretch of slow water where the stream widens out into bogans and deep pools as it approaches Forks Pool where it meets the other main branches of the Tobique, namely the Serpentine, Mamozekel and Sisson branches.

Nictau Lake
An intrepid explorer of yore poses on the shore of Nictau Lake, the head of Tobique River.

At this point, the stream seems to triple in size, and the isolation enjoyed in the trip down from the park comes to an end. On every riverside lea, strollers are picking fiddlehead ferns. Cottagers beckon us to stop and chat about our trip, and offer us cold beverages to help beat the heat.

Our trip ended at Riley Brook. Canoeists can continue down to Plaster Rock and on to the headpond below, if they prefer open, settled country. I would recommend this trip for novices, naturalists, and those interested in placid, calm water boating, provided they watch for tree debris on the turns.

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