Hike into the Past
The Historic Nepisiguit Mi’gmaq Trail
Story & Photography: Andrew Herygers
Publisher: Saltscapes Magazine
I arrive at Pabineau Falls (Ge-goap-sgog) on a cool and crisp autumn morning where the wild and picturesque scenery is heightened by the rustling leaves and shimmering vivid fall colours. The deafening roar of rushing water prevails as the sun’s rays glisten in the foaming rapids and boisterous waterfalls down below. Standing near the edge of the falls, I see the blurred shapes of Atlantic salmon moving underwater.
My eye also catches the subtle movement of a long-legged great blue heron on the opposite side of the river. I watch intently as it steps down to the river’s edge to try its luck fishing.
The Nepisiguit River is a magnificent creation of nature’s powerful forces and a result of the last glacial retreat when pristine water began to gradually carve a twisted and treacherous path through 140 km of ancient bedrock. The natural source of this historic river originates in New Brunswick’s central highlands just north of the Christmas Mountains and near a valley of glacial lakes nestled below the looming peaks of Mount Carleton Provincial Park (Mount Carleton is the highest point in the Maritimes at 817 m).
It is from this rugged, remote, and protected wilderness area in the northern Appalachian Mountains that the cool clear water of the Nepisiguit River flows its course. It makes a gradual descent, bending sharply several times, then more rapidly and roughly over a series of cascading waterfalls.
The rocky Nepisiguit River separates the rural communities of Rough Waters and Big River and is the fourth largest river in New Brunswick and the largest of four rivers – Nepisiguit, Tetagouche, Middle, and Little – to empty into Bathurst Harbour and eventually the Bay of Chaleur.
According to the local Mi’gmaq people the city of Bathurst and its surrounding communities, was once known as “Winpegiju’ig” (Oin-pe-gi-tjoig) meaning roughly flowing, foaming, and turbulent waters. The word Winpegiju’ig possesses dual meaning and can be interpreted as “troubled waters”; referring to an evil force present in the water. Due to this long- standing belief the Mi’gmaq make peace offerings of tobacco to the river’s spirit.
It is believed that the French Recollect missionaries, who arrived here in the early part of the 1600’s, transcribed the Mi’gmaq spoken word “Winpegiju’ig” into the written word “Nipisiguit” which then evolved into the current spelling of “Nepisiguit”.
For thousands of years, the indigenous people of the region traveled the river to fish, hunt, trap, and trade with neighbouring First Nations communities. The river served as an important throughway for trade and travel with the heads of various tribes gathering to meet at Mount Sagamook (Maliseet for ‘Mount of Chiefs’). During the winter the Mi’gmaq would migrate inland towards the area of present day Mount Carleton to trap and hunt moose, deer, and caribou. They returned to the coast in the summer to fish in Bathurst Harbour and the Bay of Chaleur. Along the lake shores and hidden under an umbrella of vast Acadian forests remains traces of the region’s early logging activities, historic outfitter cabins, and indigenous artifacts such as stone tools.
Since the early 1800’s the river has been a world-renowned trout and Atlantic salmon fishing destination frequented by sport fishing and wilderness enthusiasts from all over the world.
I meet Rod O’Connell, a retired forester and president of the Nepisiguit Mi’gmaq Trail Council. He says, “The initial idea to restore the ancient Mi’gmaq trail began with the Pabineau First Nations community in 1985”. In the early stages their efforts focused on gathering historical and geographical information as well as flagging the route. By 1998, the first significant section of trail was cleared from Pabineau Falls all the way up to Mount Carleton Provincial Park. O’Connell says that later in 2005 he organized a hike of the trail and assembled a small group to help with the arduous task of clearing additional sections. Several years went by where the project’s progress slowed down.
In 2014, O’Connell made a presentation about the Mi’gmaq trail initiative at an NB Trails event where he was approached by Dr. Samuel Daigle who expressed a strong interest in helping revive the initiative. Dr. Daigle became a catalyst and a driving force behind the renewal of the trail’s re-commissioning. With the help of social media to spread the word and a dedicated team of about forty volunteers the project started up again and in full force. By the following year, an additional 30 kilometres of trail was cleared and the next year more volunteers and resources were added. The resourceful and dedicated team built new rope bridges, steps, camping sites with canvas teepees, campfire pits, benches, markers, and wayfinding signage. Finally, in August of 2018, the entire 140 kilometres of the Nepisiguit Mi’gmaq Trail was completed.
The trail has now been tracked by GPS and a new map is being developed which will outline routes for canoeing and hiking excursions. There are also plans to build more rope bridges and additional teepees which can be reserved for overnight stays while hiking the river.
“The long-term goal is to build camping sites every twenty kilometres (or a day’s hike apart) in order to camp for the night” says O’Connell. The trail is comprised of three zones (Mountain, River Valley, and River Delta) and twenty segments with access points; each ranging in level of difficulty. Hikers can choose which zone and segment they would like to explore and it is important to consult with the Nepisiguit Mi’gmaq Trail website for locator maps and trail information before embarking on a hike.
Throughout the year, local volunteers organize various group excursions including wilderness hiking, snowshoeing, and canoeing. There are also several local adventure and fishing guides who rent canoes and kayaks and can accompany you on an expanded journey. The multi-day wilderness hiking trail connects with the International Appalachian Trail and a series of portage routes on the Upsalquitch, Tobique, and Miramichi Rivers. There is estimated to be more than 80 ancient portage routes in New Brunswick.
I catch-up with Jason Grant, Trail Master for the Nepisiguit Mi’gmaq Trail, and we set out at Middle Landing for a short excursion on an ancient Mi’gmaq portage route to Gordon Meadow Brook. We follow the signs with the turtle pictogram which identify the route ahead and Mr. Grant explains this portage route was once traversed by the Mi’gmaq people en route to the Miramichi River.
“Today, we have the privilege to use this trail for recreational purposes,” he says, “and with the rising insurgence of outdoor activities, the trail falls right into the needs of the outdoor activities lifestyle.”
We arrive at Gordon Meadow Brook where a rope bridge provides us safe and dry passage across the brook. There are several locations along the trail where crossing water is necessary. The trail follows through beautiful valleys of Acadian forests; a mixture of coniferous and deciduous trees such as pines, hemlocks, spruce and firs mixed with maples, birch and poplars. Further up the river we arrive at the Chain of Rocks (Ta-ga-map-sgeo-ei) and visit one of the newly constructed teepees in the shoreline woods. It is Mr. Grant’s goal to design visitor experiences by providing hikers with shelters and stone fire pits while maintaining low-impact on the natural environment. There are a few rare plants and species along the way which are being cataloged in a species inventory with the Naturalist Club of New Brunswick and with the assistance of Janet Doucet, Program Coordinator, at the Daly Point Nature Reserve.
I head back to Middle Landing to begin a seven kilometre hike; this time down river towards Pabineau Falls. Along the way, the trail affords interesting glimpses, vistas, and access points to the river. As I traverse the scenic cliff side trail along this lazy section of the river, I spot eagles soaring and circling above the river in search of a mid-afternoon river snack. Up ahead, the trail slopes downward into a gulch where a group of large rounded boulders serve as nature’s perfect foot bridge over a babbling brook. I exit the wooded trail on to a pebbled riverbank for a short lunch break and to take in the surroundings. Up river I see two islands and notice a family of lively ducks floating down river in my direction. After lunch, I head back onto the trail where a naturally occurring series of rock steps leads me back to the top of the gulch. The rhythm and rhyme of the river changes along the way from a gentle trickle to more roughly flowing rapids. The trail continues to hug the bending river as I walk high up on a narrow ridge looking down at the rushing waters below. This spot on the river is known locally as the “Push and Be Damned Rapids” and up ahead past the rapids I see large granite boulders on the river’s edge. Shortly after, I come across a teepee and eventually my final destination, Pabineau Falls.
On my way back to Middle Landing the sun begins to set as the forest is awash in a sea of golden and fiery hues. I am suddenly startled by the sound of a large eagle which rustles out of the branches of a tall tree next to me and launches itself outward. I manage to get a glimpse of its impressive wingspan as it glides across the river to a tree top on the other side. All in all, it was a very pleasant hike on a scenic and fairly easy-going section of the trail.
The community initiative of retracing the ancient Mi’gmaq Trail has been in development for nearly three decades and is an evolving effort by a dedicated team of nature-loving volunteers with the support of partners Pabineau First Nations, the City of Bathurst, and Chaleur Green Trails. There is a sense of community spirit and appreciation for this important resource and the unspoiled natural beauty of the area.
The Nepisiguit Mi’gmaq Trail is an important link in this network of ancient portage routes and is quickly gaining international attention amongst adventure hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.