“THE RIVER WAS CUT BY THE WORLD'S GREAT FLOOD and runs over rocks from the basement of time,” wrote Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It. High in the headwaters of the Miramichi, where the water runs deep and dark, one does have the feeling of standing in that basement. Although here the river meanders and perpetually changes its course, the alder grounds seem nevertheless a sanctuary lost in time.
Both the origin and destination of the Atlantic salmon, the alders were the point of departure for an unforgettable adventure: a ten day, 170 kilometre canoe trip down the Southwest Miramichi River. With me was photographer and close friend Nick Hawkins, also a son of this great river. Nick grew up fishing the lower stretches of the river, near Blackville, while I learned the small pocket pools of its remote upper reaches in Juniper.
Our journey from one of the Miramichi’s sources to its destination not only connected the river’s path, but our own life stories. Nick and I have both always found great magic in salmon fishing, but more than adventure or fishing, our expedition was about further immersing ourselves in the water that has enchanted us since we were young.
On our first full day on the water, we passed the Forks of the Southwest, the confluence of the North and South branches. I thought of G.F. Clarke, the doyen of Miramichi salmon writers, and the camp he once had at the Forks Pool. Clarke truly loved this place. His stories tell of numbers of salmon once found here that are today unimaginable. Still, having learned to fish long after the decline of the historic salmon runs, Nick and I both continue to find great excitement in the river and its fish.
One of the main purposes of our story, I decided, would be to prove—to ourselves as much as to anyone else—that the brilliance of the Miramichi remains, even if its numbers of salmon have declined. Like time itself, the river flows only in one direction; we cannot turn back the clock, yet the future can be an improvement over the present.
As we left the headwaters and put distance between ourselves and civilization, the river itself seemed to become more wild. Tall grass hemmed the bank tightly. Foreboding spruces, many of them dead and swathed in beards of lichen, gave the impression of otherworldliness. We were on our own in the wildness of the river.
Eventually, tall slopes began to rise from the earth in front of us. The river became faster, stippled with rocks, and more difficult to navigate. The steep pitches were covered with magnificent mature forest, including spectacular white pines. At every turn we saw eagles perched high in the trees or soaring calmly through the valley. In due course, the slopes gently receded and the river widened and slowed. The watercourse was now flanked by a new kind of forest, with more deciduous trees.
Early on, we lashed our hammocks to stately old cedars and slept below the watchful eye of the pines. Later we camped on the floodplain, nestled in verdurous ferns. There, the canopy of silver maple swung in the light breeze and gave us a glimpse of the stars. At each site a different sound of the Miramichi filled our sleep, and we felt at home.
There was life everywhere. We caught a glimpse of a red fox hopping nimbly along the steep bank. We had to backpaddle furiously when the current almost put us between a cow moose and her two calves. A mother otter and her three kits swam across the river and then scampered into the woods. One morning a doe sauntered into our campsite as we sat drinking our coffee in silence. While fishing one evening, I looked across the river to see Nick gesturing towards something behind me. I turned to see a black bear lumber into the woods not a hundred feet from where I stood.
From my seat in the front of the canoe I often stared into the water as we drifted downstream, almost in a trance. More than once I saw the ethereal form of a salmon slide upriver past the boat. One day we paddled until nightfall. As the light dwindled, a gentle mist appeared on the surface of the river. The night was saturated with enthusiastic birdsong and once Nick identified the call of a rare wood thrush.
It wasn’t all easy. On our third day on the river I slipped and filled my waders. Then a relentless rain kept us wet for twenty-four hours. I sat sullenly by the fire and felt that the river was putting me through a test that I would not pass. Finally, just as our remaining hope started to wane, the sun appeared from the west, bringing with it a dry and temperate breeze. As our clothes dried quickly on the rocks and we basked in the sun’s warm rays, we realized that although misfortune had stranded us for two days, we found ourselves at an especially important location along our route: the famous Two and a Half Mile Rapids.
Nick’s earliest impression of fly fishing comes from a well-known painting of the pool by Eldridge Hardie that hung on the wall of his home. Nick worked hard to replicate the painting as a photograph. As the two of us re-enacted the image, we each contemplated the way that salmon fishing had been imprinted on our minds long before either of us picked up a rod. Reproducing a classic Miramichi artwork also made us feel connected to the history and traditions of the river.
A few minutes before our second dusk at the Rapids, a single angler appeared on the opposite bank and began to fish the pool. Then, from upriver appeared a lone kayaker, followed shortly by two people paddling a canoe. In our field of view were four people. We realized that they were the first we had seen in over three days.
Rarely do we hook or land as many salmon as we expect or hope. This trip was no exception. June salmon on the Miramichi can be sparse and difficult to find, however, exceptional power and unparalleled brightness compensate for their scarcity. On one calm and warm evening I worked a promising pool. It ended in a small pocket created by the current pushing its way between two large boulders. As my fly passed through for a third time I hooked a vigorous fish.
The salmon went wild, seeming to lunge in every direction at once. I’d never experienced a take so aggressive. Even with heavy tippet, my modest skills were no match for the spirit inside the fish and it broke off after a few minutes. The salmon, for only a moment, electrified the tranquil evening with its outstanding life and strength. It caused me to reflect on how incommensurate is the power and fight in Atlantic salmon to the size of the water in which we seek them. This disproportion, I suppose, is a part of what makes salmon fishing so magical.
In the life of an angler there are different sorts of days: fishless ones, decent ones, even great days. Then there are pivotal days—ones that give us pause, oblige us to re-evaluate our entire relationship to the fish and how we connect with them. One dusk, I found myself crouched in the water, my hand firmly around the tail of an impossibly bright twenty-pound fish that Nick had hooked. Every salmon landed is an achievement, but some are simply more special than others.
We were in a breathtaking river valley, surrounded by resplendent and untouched forest, many miles from any other human being. Every colour of the spectrum seemed to flash from the shiny gill plate of the salmon. We looked into its eyes and sensed it looking back at us. We saw in the salmon’s gaze something that was truly untamed. As humans, the essence of what is wild will always elude us; we define it in opposition to ourselves. In that moment, however, Nick and I felt just how real it is.
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains,” wrote the novelist Cormac McCarthy in his post-apocalyptic tale, The Road. “On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.” In the detailed minutiae of discrete ecological facts we can recognize the great laws of historical time. Streams that contain wild trout and salmon are, by the very fact of their existence, beautiful and meaningful — places we must cherish for their inherent value. Our time on the water is a rare opportunity to reflect on natural beauty and our place within it. It makes the river a part of us, physically as well as spiritually.
For that reason, the threatened state of many salmon rivers and the decline of the species is for anglers a personal tragedy as well as a collective loss. The rivers themselves become lasting bonds to what has been lost. Fortunately, there are many grounds for optimism to sustain the fight. On the last night of our outing, while enjoying our supper by the fire, Nick and I heard talking from downriver. We followed the voices to meet two anglers, likely not any older than ourselves. The four of us shared the usual fishing stories and news on water conditions.
Then as darkness enveloped us, talk turned to the future of the species. Like us, our new friends embraced live release, and had concerns about the threats facing Atlantic salmon habitat. Above all, they expressed a heartfelt sense of value for their time on the water. This random meeting gave us a glimpse into the future of salmon angling and conservation. It filled us with a great sense of hope.
At times on our journey, I thought of how magnificent it would be if the river would simply keep flowing forever, an eternal tapestry of wonder and experience. But—like a human lifespan—the meaning of our journey became more powerful because of its limited duration. Standing on Nash Bar, Nick’s home pool and our final destination, I reflect on how we have both loved this river for as long as the two of us can remember. We had committed to travelling its length with the idea that we might know it better. In that we were successful. It is even more beautiful and full of life than we had expected. At the same time, we had to reconcile our awe with the knowledge that the deepest truths hidden beneath its waters are beyond human understanding. Still, we can clearly hear the faint but everlasting hum of mystery that radiates from the Miramichi’s ancient rocks. And that makes us love it so much more.
Trained as a biologist, Nick Hawkins' photographs have appeared in Canadian Geographic, BBC Wildlife and Canadian Wildlife Magazines. He has been fishing the Miramichi since he was 6-years-old. Freelance writer Tom Cheney's last appearance in the Atlantic Salmon Journal was in Autumn 2016 (To Free a Salmon is to Set Your Own Spirit Free). His writing evokes feelings of beauty and inspiration on ethic of conservation and ecological stewardship. His children will be the sixth generation of their family to fish for salmon in New Brunswick.