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Cruising the Saint John River in total comfort

From the rooftop hot tub I dash across the ice cold deck of our houseboat to the slide and plunge into the chilly Saint John River. It’s mid October, but for me, this is the best time of year for a leisurely cruise up this wide, deep section of the river from the Mactaquac Dam 90 kilometres northwest to the town of Woodstock.

I surface with a whoop, my skin burning as red as the fall foliage around us, and paddle quickly back to our rental from Lakeway Houseboat Vacations—the only such outfit in Atlantic Canada. Just as I reach the ladder, another whoop and a huge splash sound behind me; then another. One by one, my shipmates—including Forrest, the eight-year-old son of friends along for the trip—are joining me for an especially refreshing dip before clambering back into the hot tub.

A heritage river

The Saint John River is Atlantic Canada’s longest at 673 kilometres, and the most recent addition to Canada’s Heritage River System. Once known as the “Highway to Canada” because it was an important navigation route for European explorers and settlers, it's been nearly 400 years since Samuel de Champlain discovered the river on St. John the Baptist’s feast day (June 24) and named it in honour of the saint.

Houseboat rental from Lakeway Houseboat Vacations

So vital was the river to the existence and identity of the Maliseet, the First Nations people who still live along the river, that they refer to themselves as the Wolastoqiyik or “people of the beautiful river.” In fact, our houseboat, the Meductic, is named for an historic and once strategically important Maliseet village midway between Nackawic and Woodstock. A plaque now marks the location, which was completely submerged following construction of the Mactaquac Dam in 1968.

My friends and I—seven of us on a craft that sleeps 14—dry off and head below for beers in front of the gas fireplace. Before leaving port, we stocked up with a variety from Picaroons, the province’s biggest craft brewing company. I’m savouring a Dark and Stormy Night while others are sampling Melonhead wheat ale, their dependable Irish Red and my favourite, Yippee IPA.

We run the craft aground and secure it in Jewett Cove for the night—the pontoons keeping it afloat are built for such a manoeuvre. Someone lights the propane fireplace and gets a live concert playing on the flatscreen TV. Promising aromas waft from the kitchen (that my wife and I agree is better equipped than our own). After appetizers of bruschetta with tomatoes from the garden and homemade mozzarella, it’s Acadian Roasted Lobster Tail with Ginger Dipping Sauce, a recipe adapted from the Acadian Fishermen’s Co-op in PEI—rather than roasting the tails in the oven, we grill them quickly on a hot gas barbecue, which helps seal in the natural flavour and juiciness.

We hit the “high seas” again after lunch, this time with all our friends aboard. The kids take advantage of the hot tub, ordering up a round of drinks—milk and orange juice. Too soon, it’s time to ground the houseboat again so our guests can disembark, but we carry on, cruising upriver to Nackawic, a town built specifically to serve the forest industry, a fact that becomes monumentally obvious as we approach its signature landmark, a three-storey, yellow-handled axe with the shiny 55-ton head sunk into a 10-metre stump.

It’s a bright, crystal-clear afternoon by the time we reach Nackawic, and the sun still has some heat in it, so Forrest—who seems to have all the fun—dons his little wet suit and climbs off the houseboat to try some wave boarding. Trouble is, this craft is built for leisure, and the four knots we manage isn’t enough to lift the kid out of the water. Oh well, back to the hot tub on this, the last weekend before Lakeway pulls their houseboats ashore for the year, a glorious way to wind down summer.

Editor’s note: a valid Canadian boating licence is required in order to operate a houseboat.

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