Poling a canoe is hard, but there is no smelly engine, and one is in tune with the river

Up The Restigouche

Anne Lavoie. illustrations by Emily S. Damstra

Oct 8, 2018
It was the 1980s, I was 33 years old and poling was my pastime. No, not pole-dancing, poling—what one does with a slim, 10-foot length of black spruce, propelling a canoe in a planned direction.

The pole must be debarked, dried and sanded down to a smooth polished finish. A large splinter or even a tiny sliver can be very painful.I began canoeing at 18, when my brother and I decided that a trip downriver would be a lot of fun.

We had a driver take us to the junction of the Little Main Restigouche and the Kedgwick River. This spot is where the main Restigouche River begins and appropriately enough, the swirling, large pool right at the marriage of these two beautiful streams is called Junction Pool.Later in life, I was to spend many fall seasons in the employment of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the local salmon association.

My job involved counting salmon throughout the Restigouche River system. How? By swimming through the pools with snorkel and scuba mask and counting each fish. It was an interesting occupation, to say the least, chock-full of wildly fluctuating weather—with snow and cold wind one day making for almost hypothermic conditions, and other days sweltering in a dry suit in 30-degree Celsius temperatures.

But the majestic fish to be seen in those pools made it all worthwhile.My brother and I had a most lovely trip. We were completely alone, except for the occasional warden. Each night we set up our tent at any place along the shore with relatively flat ground.I remember we were warned to be on the lookout for Chamberland Shoals, “a nasty rapid over a ledge.” On our second day, we kept a watchful and nervous eye out as we des­cended this watery Garden of Eden, as surely there is no other way to describe the beauty of the Restigouche River.

The river was low and we came to a site that seemed to conceal a rock ledge; we could plainly see the drop up ahead. Is this it, the nasty rapid? Heck, we went right over it with a graceful little downward sweep of the canoe. Low water conditions will allow that, but don’t expect the same little bit of fun in higher water. That’s when this stretch of river earned the term “nasty rapid.”

Many canoes have overturned here and there was even a drowning during the log drives of yore.In the mid to late 80s, when I was home from cooking for the CN rail gangs, I would often leave my Mann Mountain A-frame home along the river and just go poling upriver. I would bring a lunch and go for a swim. Sometimes, I would float downstream a mile or so to where the Matapedia River meets the Restigouche, and then pole up the Matapedia a way.

One day, while poling up to Chain of Rocks, a most picturesque site on the Restigouche River, I had a thought. Why not make a real adventure out of it and pole the whole length of the river, up to Junction Pool? More than an adventure, it would be a real achievement. I would be the first woman to have ever poled up to where the Kedgwick empties into the Restigouche, a distance of some 50-miles from the Rafting Grounds. It wouldn’t be easy.

There would be lots of fast water and many pole-grabbing obstacles along the way. This is the particular phenomenon that happens when the pole gets wedged in between two rocks. Your shoulder is almost dislocated if your body refuses to let go.I mentioned the idea to some friends and, of course, some thought I was under a hypnotizing spell cast by the flowing water. Others, however, regarded this as a true challenge and supported my project.
One friend suggested I add a second goal and also carry out the expedition as a pole-a-thon to raise money for a local non-profit organization.
Well, why not?

So, I set about planning the expedition and preparing by going out on the river for extra bouts of poling. When not out on the river with my clumsy Coleman canoe, I spent my limited free time canvassing the neighborhood and beyond, raising pledges for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

I was asking my donors to sponsor me so much a mile for any amount they might want to give. Some were generous, others less so, while some that were generous in their pledges were not so willing to pay up when I completed the trip and later returned to collect. I guess they thought this little woman would never even make it halfway, or maybe she would flip her canoe and lose all her equipment and have to go back home all a-pout. That wasn’t going to happen.

Finally, all the sponsors were recorded, and my equipment and food organized. As a good luck charm, Dale Laflamme presented me with a new pole.

On the Friday afternoon of the Labour Day weekend in September, I arrived home from the railroad and gathered up all my gear. I headed up to the Rafting Grounds, a local gathering place for launching a boat, or taking out a canoe, or just going for a swim and a picnic. My dear old friends, Jean-Roch D’amours and Max Delaney, well-known men of the river, were there to help me launch my canoe. They would also be at Junction Pool on Monday around noon, to pick
me up. Well, at least this was the plan.

Amidst calls of goodbye, bon voyage and good luck I headed out. It was 5 o’clock.

From the start there was a very annoying and strong head wind. I began to have second thoughts. “What in hell was I thinking?” I thought. “I am just getting started and can’t seem to get anywhere in this damn wind.”

And two more full days to go?

The thing with the Restigouche River is that there are so many twists and turns. Along with each of these, sometimes abrupt, directional changes comes a relief from the wind. At times the headwind abated completely, so by around 7 o’clock I was able to reach the welcoming
confines of Toad Brook Fishing Lodge.

I set up my tarp and camped out on the porch. My little camp stove heated up some stew. Following that, a small dessert, tea and then a much deserved shot of Grand Marnier before crawling into my sleeping bag for a good night’s rest. The wind had died down and the air was
pleasantly warm.

Next morning, I ate a good hearty breakfast, which of course, I would need for a full day of non-stop poling.
I packed my gear and was on my way.

After a time, I got into a rhythm and the poling became, well, like being on automatic pilot. Almost. No stops except for a nature call and a handful of trail mix, but there was still plenty of time to admire the amazing scenery along the way. I did not see a soul, but did spot a couple of playful otters and an eagle on the hunt. And, to further add to the delight of my adventure, a real bonus—no wind! It was quite mild, especially for early September when mornings can often be cold.

I ate a quick, late lunch near England’s Flats where another fishing camp sits overlooking the river. Just above the camp pool, there is enough of a noticeable gradient that one must look up to see the next stretch of river, not straight ahead as would be the case if it was flat water.

The “run” here is very fast. Looking at that wild stretch,

I thought, “do I burn myself out trying to pole to the top of that, or do I just walk the canoe up.” Wisely, I chose Option B, which brought me to Lower Grindstone, then upper Grindstone and a much more manageable current heading up to McKenzie Pool.

At the top of McKenzie Pool, there is a section of rather deep water which hides many “pole grabbers.” It is necessary to cross over to a shallower section here to allow the “polette” to do her work. These very large square boulders are just the place for a pole to get stuck and a shoulder to be wrenched, but not this time. Whenever my pole got jammed, I let it go. Naturally, I had to paddle downstream to retrieve it.

I was now not far away from Indian House lodge, where I planned to spend the second night. Another lucky bonus—this fishing camp is owned by the Restigouche Salmon Club which keeps a guardian in place year-round.

I had been given permission to spend the night. Ahh, a room with a bed and even kitchen facilities to cook my supper and breakfast. Oh yes, and a shower, too, although cold water only. No complaints, this was much better than pitching a tent after 15 miles of poling upriver.

After my wash up, meal and an appreciated shot of Grand Marnier, I lay in bed worried if the throbbing in my right arm would become an issue the next day. Never mind the blisters on the palms of my hands—they weren’t so bad thanks to the bike gloves. Then, out like a light.

After breakfast the next day I bid au revoir and merci to my hosts at the camp. I headed down to my canoe only to discover that the hard plastic storage pails posed no problem for a raccoon, despite their tight covers. It had raided my supplies, but fortunately, its tastes did not favor my good cheeses or energy-giving trail mix. It only wanted the bread, container of peanut butter and a few other minor tidbits.

So, off I went. The throbbing in my arm was gone and it felt fine.
It was another fine morning. I poled past the government camp at Larry’s Gulch and on to a most amazing pool, called Jimmy’s Hole . . . . Hundreds of fish holding in the current, is truly a sight to behold.
I was wearing hip waders, but sadly, they did not come with felts on the soles. Need I said more? Every time I would get out of the canoe, for one reason or another, my feet would slip and slide on the slick rocks.

The few times I “cheated” and walked the canoe up short, but powerful rapids, I would curse my footwear. But another gift was soon to pop up. As I neared the Crown Reserve camps of Devil’s Half Acre and Three Sisters, I spotted a pair of men’s socks hanging, abandoned on a clothesline. Well now, I can use those. I beached the canoe and ambled up and plucked those socks off the line. I put them on over my waders, tying them up with a piece of rope—MacGyver felts.

Great weather, unseasonably warm, and not a person in sight, made for a great day of poling, my biggest of the trip.

I could swear that the spirits of all those old river men (and women) were looking down on me, smiling. It might seem crazy, but their presence to me was very palpable. It may sound like I had too much sun, but such notions are not so silly. With so much logging and salmon history on the Restigouche River system, there are bound to be a few ghosts and spirits still around. By the end of the day, I had poled over 16 miles.

I aimed my ungainly canoe toward an old warden’s camp at a site called Lower Cross Point. Although it was obviously abandoned, this evening the beat up old cabin would have a tenant. It sure beat pitching a tent.

I made a fire on the beach in front of the camp and enjoyed my supper, as only a person out in the wild can relish a meal. A full moon rose up over the facing mountain. It was so warm that I decided to go for a bath and a bit of swim in the river.

How can I best describe being in a pool full of jumping and rolling salmon and bathing under a full moon on a warm, early fall night? The description could fill a page, but I leave it to your imagination. It seemed those old river ghosts were ensuring this river trip was a very pleasurable one.
How can I best describe being in a pool of jumping and rolling salmon and bathing under a full moon on a warm, late summer night? The description could fill a page, but I leave it to your imagination.
Nothing kept me from a good sleep on this last evening. The next morning was tinged with a little sadness that it would soon be over. I felt in good shape and was wonderfully happy and proud to have gotten so far. I felt a certain satisfaction that only comes with achieving a goal and spending time in a truly remarkable place.

It was another fine morning. I poled past the government camp at Larry’s Gulch and on to a most amazing pool, called Jimmy’s Hole. Anyone lucky enough to view this “pool of dreams” can attest to its magnificence. I have snorkeled through it many times. Hundreds of fish holding in the current, is truly a sight to behold. It is especially spectacular in low water, as was the case as I floated slowly over it.

Not far upstream from here is Kedgwick Salmon Lodge. It was just a hop, skip and a bit of pole-pushing up to Junction Pool. I arrived ahead of schedule, so I must have made good time on this last stretch. Time to relax while I waited for my chauffeurs to arrive.

My return home would entail going around to collect from my sponsors, a less enticing part of the project.

Jean Roch and Max showed up exactly at noon as we had arranged. I hopped back into my canoe and poled out to the middle of this great salmon pool and tossed a rose into the river as a tribute. A photo was taken to prove I did get to where I said I would. In any case, along the way, I had added a few more arm muscles and this was probably the best proof of all.

Ann Lavoie poled up the Restigouche River in September, 1987. Her trip garnered attention from a wide audience and raised awareness of the threats facing Salmo salar as well as funds for Atlantic salmon conservation. Wilfred Carter, ASF’s Chairman Emeritus, recognized her achievement by personally presenting her with a plaque at an ASF fundraising dinner in Fredericton.