As modern threats close in on the Restigouche the race is on to preserve this priceless natural resource
Three years ago this summer, our so-called “Restigouche Expeditionary Force” pushed off from a riverbank in northern New Brunswick for the first time. We had three days of canoeing and outback camping ahead of us in the headwaters of one of the most glorious and mysterious river systems on the planet.
Our two canoes were loaded with kids, food, camping gear and a small white terrier (who hid terrified one long night in the rainy dark woods while we called for him, finally slinking out of the high grass on the riverbank at daylight when I filled the pot for coffee).
We spent our days navigating the twists, turns and gentle rapids of the Kedgwick River, the flat-bottomed canoes floating like magic carpets on the swift, clear currents, following the flight of eagles through a wilderness valley carved by water and ice over millennia.
We were bone tired at the end of our journey, our canoes spinning in a deep whirlpool where the waters of the Kedgwick collide with the Little Main Restigouche, but we wished the downstream adventure could continue. Our team name, adopted from a charcoal graffiti scrawl on the ceiling of a campsite shelter, became a rallying cry through the long winter ahead as we planned and plotted our next venture.
The main Restigouche River begins at the confluence of the Kedgwick and Little Main, and from there it descends 200 kilometres through gentle Appalachian hills defining the border of New Brunswick and Quebec. Along the way, the river collects the waters of the Patapédia, Upsalquitch and Matapédia rivers and dozens of small brooks and streams before spilling into the Bay of Chaleur.
More than a century ago, wealthy New York sportsman and writer Dean Sage called the Restigouche River “a noble stream” noting that remarkably there are no falls or rapids in its whole course that a canoe can’t navigate. “Its numerous windings and abrupt turns, so favourable for forming good salmon pools, also give a variety and choice of beautiful scenery which it is rare to find on any river,” he wrote.
A first edition of Sage’s 1888 book, The Ristigouche and Its Salmon Fishing, now sells at auction for as much as $25,000. On a bluff where the Upsalquitch River flows into the Restigouche, Sage built a lodge called Camp Harmony, one of the oldest and most exclusive private fishing clubs on the river, where mainly the moneyed, the privileged and the lucky have been allowed to cast a line.
For a century, the Restigouche has been sheltered from the modern world in part because of the presence of powerful private interests on the river. In the upper regions there are few access roads and only a scattering of fishing lodges and warden’s cabins, many accessible only by canoe.
However, in recent years, this protective shield of money and influence has eroded as mechanized logging interests cut further into the watershed to feed local mills, large weekend parties overrun wilderness campsites, all terrain vehicles cut trails for poachers, and jet boats with powerful engines roar obnoxiously through serene salmon pools.
Marie-Christine Arpin, 31, has been paddling these rivers and working as a river guide for her father, André Arpin, since she was a child. André Arpin founded Canoe Restigouche, the family ecotourism business, 25 years ago, and four years ago retired and turned the operation over to his daughter.
“When I go travelling elsewhere, I realize there is no place in the world as beautiful as this river,” she says. “This is a jewel. This is a place worth protecting.”
Marie-Christine is one of a group of local people working to protect the watershed through the creation of a new park called the Restigouche Wilderness Waterway. Her company is a member of a community group, the Restigouche River Watershed Management Council, that is bringing together all those with an interest in the Restigouche River system, to find ways to protect and preserve this natural wonder before it is ruined.
The group has presented the government of New Brunswick with a plan for the potential park. If approved, the new park would extend logging buffer zones around the Restigouche and its tributaries, regulate public access for canoe camping, and create a force of trained rangers on the river system to enforce conservation guidelines. The Management Council’s members include First Nations, private fishing clubs, ecotourism outfitters, and local municipalities.
“It’s a project from the local people,” says David LeBlanc, the Council’s CEO. “We want to keep the full access to the river but in a way that the river is protected and all users are respected. This is a pristine cold-water river within a mountainous landscape. It’s a privilege to still have this, and that’s why we need to protect the whole system.”
The creation of the Restigouche Wilderness Waterway would be a first step in updating a unique management system that has been in place since the late 19th century. In 1884, the New Brunswick government passed legislation that allowed it to lease large stretches of Crown land that borders the river to fishing clubs, and grant them exclusive fishing rights. Because of the quality of the river and the fabulous angling opportunities for Atlantic salmon, some of the wealthiest people in North America purchased the leases and created exclusive clubs. As outlined in the terms of their leases, these clubs must retain river wardens to protect against poaching and limit the number of anglers on each stretch of the river.
The Restigouche Salmon Club based in Matapédia, Quebec, was founded in 1880 and since then has been one of the most influential groups on the river. Among its founding members were the leading businessmen of the day: William K. Vanderbilt, C.L. Tiffany, and Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States. For decades, wealthy businessmen of New York and New England, Montreal and Toronto recognized that the river was a special place—the Rolls Royce of rivers—and treated it as an exclusive, private hideaway. In more recent years, the billionaire Irving family acquired a Restigouche lodge at Downs Gulch and constructed an airstrip nearby to accommodate small jets that the family uses to transport its guests to the river.
This system of management by private clubs limited the harvest of Atlantic salmon and was an early conservation measure to protect the Restigouche from overfishing and development. However, the threats to the river today are less about the overharvesting of fish, and more about the use of the river and the land around it, issues that are beyond the control of river guardians hired by the clubs to protect their pools from poachers.
“The forest industry is pushing pretty hard,” Marie-Christine Arpin says. “We see the effects on the water levels. There is sedimentation. We have flash floods that we never had before.”
On two occasions this year, once in late June and again in late July, I was on the Restigouche after a heavy rain in the headwaters. I saw the flash floods first hand as the river rose quickly, its clear waters turning chocolate brown with thick silt suspended in the water for 50 kilometres downstream from the mouth of the Kedgwick, runoff from deforested land in the headwaters.
On our first trip to the Kedgwick River three summers ago, we saw evidence all around us of the forest industry’s push into the valley. We hired Marie-Christine Arpin’s company to drive us to the Kedgwick Forks where we would unload and camp for the night before beginning our adventure downstream.
For much of the two-hour drive to the Forks, Marie-Christine was on her CB radio, announcing our location in French to the drivers of the trucks that were pulling loads of logs out of the valley. She picked up the radio whenever we crossed a landmark: the Eight Mile access road, the bridge at Clearwater Stream, Falls Brook, the warden’s camp at Fifteen Mile, Rapids Depot—because it’s not safe to share this narrow, winding road with the earsplitting, heavily-loaded trucks without warning the drivers to slow down and stay on their own side of the road.
We turned off the main logging road on to a side road to the Forks, down a long hill through a vast clear cut, a moonscape of tangled stumps and tree limbs. The next evening we camped in a clearing above the warden’s cabin at Rapids Depot and cooked dinner over an open driftwood fire, the kids roasting marshmallows over the coals as we sat by the river until the sun set. From our tent, we heard logging trucks rumble out of the valley all night long.
The Restigouche Watershed Management Council started working on the park project in 2010 when the group held a series of public meetings and completed a feasibility study. The Council wrote a business plan in 2014 that concluded the park would need about $2 million in start-up funding, at which point it would sustain itself through revenue from the selling of services and registration fees. The park would take in 235 kilometres of rivers around which there would be a new 200-metre logging-free buffer zone. This summer, NB Premier Brian Gallant spoke favourably about the potential of the park project. Next steps will require the government to begin consultations with First Nations, hold more public meetings and prepare for a potential Environmental Impact Assessment.
The creation of the park would help outfitters promote and enhance the tremendous eco-tourism opportunities on the river. Last season, Marie-Christine Arpin’s company provided services primarily on the Restigouche and its tributaries for between 3,000 and 4,000 people who ran the rivers with canoes and kayaks and camped at the wilderness sites that have been maintained by the Council for the past decade. She says the park would allow for improvements to the campsites and more services to paddlers and campers through a regulated access system that would create more harmony between anglers and canoeists. The park could also restrict the use of powerful new jet boats that run at high speeds on the river, destroying fragile habitat for juvenile fish.
Danny Bird is the long-time manager of the Kedgwick Lodge, a private club that has operated on the river for 131 years. He sees potential in the park proposal to help address the increasing threats to the river from clear cutting, deforestation and unregulated use of motor boats by some who he says take this wilderness landscape for granted.
“The river is steeped in history,” he says. “It’s always been a controlled river. That was probably as good a form of early watershed management as you could have. The Restigouche is breathtaking. But the river also has a lot of problems. Some we can fix, and we should focus on those. There are massive clear cuts and runoffs from big farms. These problems need to be addressed.”
Our trip three summers ago marked the beginning of the Restigouche Expeditionary Force’s exploration of the river system by canoe. The following summer we spent three days and nights on the main river, and this summer we canoed from the mouth of Kedgwick, 90 kilometres downstream to the access road at a place called the Rafting Grounds.
On our third day on the river, we came to the Cumberland Shoals, one of the few challenging rapids on the river. As my wife, Deb Nobes, navigated through a section of white water our terrier, who likes to ride shotgun, was swept off the bow of the boat and she went over the side to rescue him, getting soaked in the process but managing not to overturn the canoe. We stopped below the rapid to bail out the boat and find her dry clothes. We had plans to camp that night, but after the soaking, with the sky threatening rain, we decided to push on to the Rafting Grounds. We continued downstream late into the evening, into the flood plains where the river widens and begins to reconnect with roads and power lines. When we reached a section of the river where we had cell phone service we called Marie-Christine, who arranged to have our car and trailer delivered to the Rafting Grounds a day earlier than we had planned.
As the sun dropped low in the summer sky, we passed by Camp Harmony and I thought of Dean Sage, who in June, 1902, died at the camp in the afternoon after a successful morning of fishing. His body was transported downriver to the town of Matapédia in a casket strapped to the top of two canoes.
Sage wrote in his book, “There is no mile of the Restigouche above Matapédia which has not some peculiar charm of its own, outside of the wonderful clearness of its waters and the different forms they assume... from the long flat, where they move with a glassy and tranquil smoothness, but a swiftness that has to be felt to be recognized, to the pools, with their thousand little ripples dancing in the sunlight, the white-crested rapid with its waves of might, and the swirling eddies rushing over the rock-strewn bottom, where the great salmon rest on their upward way.”
More than a century after Dean Sage wrote those words, the Restigouche Expeditionary Force can report that we have now explored more than 200 kilometres of the river system by canoe. In the process, our kids have become accomplished paddlers, and our terrier is still frightened of the dark but insists on holding his forward position no matter how rough the downstream ride. Like Dean Sage, we have experienced the magic of this noble stream, but the world around it has changed, and that world is relentlessly closing in. The Restigouche River deserves a chance for a new beginning, and another century of life at least.