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Restigouche River, New Brunswick
Fishing in Restigouche River, New Brunswick
Paradise Adrift
The Restigouche River is home to Micmacs, European settlers and the world's wealthy. Its future is linked to resolving conflicts among them.

By Philip Lee

View from Morrissey Rock, New Brunswick
View from Morrisey Rock:"The river had always presented at least an illusion that we were travelling through a secret wilderness paradise. On this trip we realized that this world was now under seige."

It is now a week since I returned from my holiday of the year, and a delightful one it has been. I am daily suffering at the thought of Camp Harmony standing vacant on her breezy point, the rippling pool in front whispering its music day after day with no appreciative listener. - Dean Sage

   On a scorching July afternoon, we nursed an overheating Jeep over 40 kilometres of washed out logging roads toward the river. We stopped to cool the engine at place where the trees had been cleared from the edge of the road, opening a view of the valley below.

   The river's deep cut slashed through ancient rock formations and stands of spruce, birch and poplar, marking a line southeast toward the Restigouche valley. The soft hills of the fading Appalachian Mountains rolled out to the horizon.

   As we descended the last steep grade to the river, we entered a clear cut. For the first time since I began coming to this place, the loggers had come over the hill and were cutting down into the valley, invading what we had naively believed to be an untouchable stretch of wilderness. Over the next three days, the sounds of distant chain saws drifted down the river. The river had always presented at least an illusion that we were travelling through a secret wilderness paradise. On this trip we realized that this world was now under siege.

   A swirling breeze dispersed grey rain clouds and the sun brushed the tree tops with yellow light. On the last day of our trip, we watched the day break in this way from the deep river valley, shaded by the towering spruce trees that grip impossibly steep, rocky banks. On the gravel beach beside the river, the main stage of this giant natural amphitheatre, the air was cool, thick with mist, still hours from feeling the heat of the morning sun.

   As the sun began to burn off the morning mist, we slid fly rods back into their cases and launched our green Chestnut Ogilvy canoe, fully loaded for the three-day trip. The current swept us away from the beach at Mile 14 on the Patapedia River. Our jeep, parked seven miles downstream, represented a return to the real world. We were in no hurry to get there.

   The Patapedia runs along the border of New Brunswick and Quebec. The small mountain stream of rapids and deep pools drops quickly toward the big river, and at its confluence with the main Restigouche River forms what is perhaps the finest Atlantic salmon pool on the planet, a giant swirling reservoir of deep, cold water that holds thousands of fish each season. The Patapedia Pool is better known as the Million Dollar Pool, and is in fact worth a lot more money than that.

   In an essay written in praise of small rivers, Henry Van Dyke proclaims that every river that flows is good and deserving of love. He describes rivers as the most animate objects in the inanimate world. They speak to us, their essence is movement, they evolve and grow. Each river takes on a distinctive character borne out of a communion of body (the river banks) and soul (the rushing water).

   Van Dyke points out that we never come to know and love a river through incidental contact - by glancing at its flowing waters as we drive past in our cars, or by occasionally visiting an area of easy access.

   "You must go to its native haunts," he writes. "You must see it in youth and freedom; you must accommodate yourself to its pace, and give yourself to its influence, and follow its meandering."

   I don't pretend to be an expert on the grand Restigouche system, although over the years I have given myself to its influence and followed its meandering, fishing and canoeing the main river and its major tributaries, the Kedgwick, Upsalquitch and Patapedia.

   New Brunswick's second great salmon river system (second only to the magnificent Miramichi), the Restigouche has a river culture unlike any other in North America, home to a strong and defiant Micmac nation, resilient European settlers of French, English, Scottish and Irish descent, and for the last 100 years or so, some of the most wealthy people in the world.

   The Restigouche, with its future linked to these fiercely competing, diverse cultures, reflects the conflicts that surround all of our rivers and wilderness areas, writ large.

   This summer, 55 kilometres of the Restigouche was proclaimed part of the Canadian Heritage River system. The Restigouche was chosen for its isolation, its fine canoeing and angling, its history as a Micmac and Malecite waterway, and as a lifeline for European settlers.

   Ottawa held an official Heritage River ceremony this July in the community of Kedgwick River. Don Caplin of the Listiguj nation joined the chorus of government officials when he spoke of the need for greater public awareness to help protect the river. But more importantly, he spoke of the need for healing in the valley.

   "We need healing first," he said. "We need to think about grandchildren who are not born yet and what we will leave them. We are part of this river and it is part of the healing process."

   This summer, Micmacs from Listiguj blockaded the main Gaspé highway for four tense weeks in a dispute over logging rights in the valley. A potentially explosive situation was diffused only at the eleventh hour, reminding us that healing in this valley is still a long way away.

   For many years, this river valley has been washed in bitterness, jealousy and intolerance on all sides. In their own way, each side speaks the truth. We hear constant complaints that the Listiguj Micmacs at the mouth of the river are netting too many salmon (they are), that the Americans have all the best fishing private fishing rights (they do), and some local rowdy canoeists are ruining the fishing for the Americans and spreading garbage up and down the river (some are).

   Meanwhile, the Restigouche Atlantic salmon resource, for which the river is famous throughout the world, is in a precarious state. No one knows how many fish are returning to the river, although we are certain there are not enough. Last year, 10,000 canoes travelled down the river, a level of unregulated river traffic that is starting to threaten clean water and pristine river banks. Loggers are moving into the valleys, opening access roads into the wilderness where there have been none before.

   What will we leave for our children and grandchildren? Will we continue down the path we are on and fight over this river, over all our rivers, until there is nothing left? Is it possible that we can work together to protect this valley, and acknowledge at last that we are all part of the river's story, and always will be?

   New Brunswick novelist David Adams Richards writes in his most recent book, Lines on the Water, that the world of wealthy American and Canadian sportsmen, such as we find on the Restigouche, reminds him of old documentary films about fishing on the Amazon or big-game hunting in Africa.

   His mother is from the Restigouche valley and his uncle, Richard Nelson Adams, the dean of the Matapedia River, is perhaps the most famous salmon guide in the world.

Micmac guides circa 1890   "My uncle carried people on his back across rivers to afford them the best opportunity to fish a pool," Richards writes. "He made sure they were not only in the best position to fish, but he made sure that they had on the best fly to allow a chance. If a guide is conscientious, things are done to make a sport feel at home but never incompetent. They know that it is their world and the sport at times is out of place in it."

   When Richards was a child and his uncles were guiding, the country was ignorant about the value of its resources and their great potential. The men who would come to fish would look at their guides "as hewers of wood and drawers of water."

   "Some of the men my uncles guided were essentially like Teddy Roosevelt shooting the rhino and the lions on his eighteen-month safari through Africa, with African guides, living off the land in tents. Like Africans, we were always in some way part of someone else's hinterland. That, in a way, is our life as rural Canadians. But even if that is so, let us not be scornful of it or diminish its worth."

This article was taken from the New Brunswick Reader, August 29/98

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