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New Brunswick’s crown jewel wilderness

            Early morning and the autumn mist ascends over Nictau Lake’s placid surface into the rays of the rising sun. Mount Sagamook’s semi-bald 777-metre-high bulk is already glowing, draped in a multihued tapestry of autumn birch, maple, and spruce. Although only the third highest peak in the park (Mt. Head is 792 metres and Mt. Carleton itself—the highest peak in the Maritimes—is 820 metres) this massif dominates the area around Nictau Lake. It’s late in the year, but loons are calling one another at opposite ends of the four-kilometre-long body of water. In the mixed softwoods and hardwoods along the shore I hear the post-breeding season “chip-chip” of migrant songbirds about ready to take off on their long flight to wintering areas to the south; while resident golden-crowned kinglets and boreal chickadees proclaim their loyalty to this place as winter approaches. There’s a good chance a moose or two may be browsing for aquatic plants somewhere unseen in the shallows nearshore.

Beautiful mushrooms abound on the cool forest floor.

            Snippets of human voices and the knocking of paddles against the gunwale of a canoe resound across the lake, their source hidden in mist and a testament to how effectively sound carries across a quiet body of water. Fall colours are just peaking, and once the mist is burned off by the morning sun, these intrepid early morning paddlers will have front row seats to one of nature’s most spectacular shows. Autumn can be a busy season at Mount Carleton, though I have yet to see it crowded—at least with people; wildlife is another story!

            Located in the northern New Brunswick highlands region between St. Quentin in the west and Bathurst to the east, Mount Carleton Provincial Park’s 17,000 hectares of pristine wilderness lies in the middle of the area of greatest elevation in the Maritime provinces. At any season this grand landscape is impressive—the mountains emerging up from the fairly flat surrounding highlands reminds one of the Mount Katahdin area in Maine—but it’s during autumn’s fiery colours that it is truly a spectacle and is unsurpassed in all of Atlantic Canada.

            Believed by scientists to be the most ancient mountain chain in the world at nearly 500 million years old, the erosion-rounded Appalachians make their first notable Canadian appearance after stretching 2,500 kilometres from their southern terminus in Alabama. Northward, they run to the Gaspé Peninsula and western Newfoundland.

            The mountainous terrain is interspersed by deep valleys and beautiful wild lakes and small wetlands. Two important New Brunswick rivers begin here: the west-flowing Tobique from Nictau Lake empties into the St. John River to end up in the Bay of Fundy and the east-flowing Nepisiguit River from Nepisiguit Lake, empties into the Bay of Chaleur.

            Wildlife is abundant in this large “island” of protected natural wilderness that is surrounded on all sides by industrially forested lands. Because of this, and the fact that the province ranks second-last in Canada with only 4.7 per cent of its lands protected from development, the importance of Mount Carleton’s relatively large area as a refuge for biodiversity cannot be overstated. Here, a variety of species find diverse natural habitats in a pristine, protected ecosystem. Some 30 species of mammals and more than 100 bird species call Mount Carleton home, including the highly-endangered Bicknell’s thrush.

            Mount Carleton is a priceless treasure, both for the wildlife that makes this home and for people who appreciate a wild, pristine place to enjoy the abundant gifts of nature. The park offers wonderful paddling in its large lakes, and great camping facilities. Sixty-two kilometres of mapped and marked trails lead to various features in this natural sanctuary. Many of them are enjoyable, fairly easy strolls, such as the one to the beautiful Williams Falls, or along the shores of Nictau Lake. Hikes to the park’s highest summits can be strenuous and challenging, but the view from the roof of the Maritime provinces is well worth the effort.

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