Spring comes slowly on the Restigouche. Just now the birch and aspen are leafing out in the cold Canadian forest. In the clearings plow horses hunch their backs to the slanting rain, and smoke curls from shack chimneys. Only dandelions along the road edges brighten the winter-worn land, and children gather bunches of them, delighting in the gold profusion. The potholes rutted in roads by winter storms are marked by sticks topped with red flags, and drivers run a slalom course between the poles. The sparse, dour settlements where wrecked autos, discarded tires and rusting Coca-Cola signs are hoarded (for a rainy day and a leaky roof) stir languidly. The green canoes used by fishermen on the Restigouche are hoisted on saw-horses, painted and left to dry. Families pick fiddleheads along the river, and nine-and 10-year-olds with match-stick rods wade the narrow trout streams. They stop at the Robinsonville Bridge looking—hankering—each morning and each night for the first run of salmon. The young eyes know the riverbed, its eddies and dark shadows. Generation after generation of guides have taught their sons—"No, salmon will not lie there. Look beyond the rock, or down there by the pilings." The river seldom changes, its bottom or its banks, and salmon and fishermen return each year to these same pools, marked by a white stone, a bent fir or a ripple.
The Restigouche River, with its wealthy fishermen and wealth of fish, its eccentric guides, its lore and its tradition, probably bespeaks the sport of salmon fishing better than any other body of water on this continent. Ninety years ago, in bowlers and knickers, the biggest of America's new-money men with names that still shake the halls of finance—Belmont, Whitney, Lorillard, Vanderbilt—went north to fish the Restigouche. Ham and bacon hung from the rafters of their sod-sealed cabins and whiskey was on the shelves.
They were hardy men who slept in spruce-bough beds and enjoyed the roughness of the wilderness sport, but there were limits. The pork got rusty and the flour wet, so eventually Stanford White, the architect of these men's marble-and-vermeil palaces in Newport and New York, was brought to the Restigouche to build more lavish camps. White's weathered lodges still stand on the river bluffs, remarkable structures made of hand-hewn balsam, with dovetail corners and cedar shingles. The grand rustic simplicity established then became a way of life on the Restigouche. Other Americans bought fishing rights on the river, and their presence became so pervasive that the river people for generations have set their watches by U.S. time, which is an hour different from local New Brunswick time.
The Restigouche, strong and vigorous, runs north along the Quebec-New Brunswick border. Salmon and snake fossils are found along its banks, the shards of prehistory; a man's boot that has turned to stone is picked up on the shore. The area's Micmac Indians recount legends of a primeval age when God made their first canoe of birch bark, cedar, hemlock and juniper, and set it in this Eden, bountiful with salmon, shad, wildfowl and moose. In the 1500s French Explorer Jacques Cartier, looking for a sea route to the East, sailed up the Bay of Chaleur and encountered the Micmacs and their verdant land. French traders and missionaries followed, and afterward the British, who, with a final naval skirmish on the Restigouche, won Canada from France. By the end of the 18th century thousands of barrels of salted salmon, cod, herring and fur and feathers were being shipped each year from Restigouche trading posts. In 1824 a trader wrote of the Micmacs' taking 3,000 salmon in their nets in two nights. Many of the fish had weighed 40 and 50 pounds, some even 60. Stylized engravings of the Indians spearing salmon on the Restigouche appeared in London shops, and by the 1850s sportsmen were fly-fishing on the river.
In 1867 one traveler, crossing the portage to the headwaters of the river, "found the trunks of trees covered with names, initials and ancient dates nearly overgrown with newly formed bark. It was the custom of all those who crossed the portage to make his mark." Early journals described the singular men who settled along the river. An English bachelor built a miniature Norman castle, a house eight feet high and 30 feet long, with many turrets. In splendid solitude he consumed large quantities of plum pudding and vintage wine and read the Edinburgh Review. There was a retired sea captain who had shuttled procelain and opium in the China Trade. And there was Daniel Fraser, described as a "monarch of no small realm." Fraser employed more than 100 men—fishing, trapping, lumbering and farming. He cleared a thousand acres in the swale where the Matapédia River flows into the Restigouche and planted the fields in grain. He had a dairy herd, horses and sheep, and operated a blacksmith shop, store, trading house, inn and a telegraph and post office. It was to Fraser's in 1880 that the first American millionaires came with their fly rods in quest of the salmon.
One of these men was Dean Sage, heir to a lumber fortune and owner of forests that spanned the U.S. He left a vivid description of those early days in a book he wrote and published privately, The Ristigouche and Its Salmon Fishing. (The spelling of the river's name has varied.) The gold-embossed volume was printed in Edinburgh in 1888. Only 105 copies were made—25 for sale in the U.S., 25 for sale in England, 50 for private presentations and five for public libraries. Sage, a Victorian gentleman from Albany, N.Y., was sometimes amused and sometimes a little horrified by his discoveries. He visited a Micmac camp and saw there a painting showing St. Anne appearing before a warrior. The Indian had a head of curls, whiskers and a uniform with epaulettes like a British admiral, but "his lower extremities were clad in a less civilized manner," Sage noted.
Efforts made to put an end to the Micmacs' gusty swearing were apparently fruitless. "It was impossible," Sage wrote, "to convey to them any idea of the morals of the thing." If an Indian were asked at breakfasttime to cook an egg, the man would exclaim heartily, "By God, I'll do it," and disappear to the kitchen. The cooking could hardly be called haute cuisine. No breakfast, lunch or dinner was prepared unless the fishermen specifically ordered the meal, because the Micmacs did not understand the white men's custom of eating three limes a day.
On one occasion Sage ordered a festive meal for some lady guests who were arriving in camp that evening. (Female guests were not uncommon. Some were wives. Some were not.) The Indian cook was given the menu in the morning and several hours later, as an afterthought, Sage told him, "You may give us some of that canned corn for dinner." The man discarded the first menu and served in its place a heaping bowl of corn. Sage concluded, "The Indians have imperfect mental development." After a few such experiences, fishermen took to bringing along Cordon Bleu cooks (one, as a parting but futile gesture, left his recipe book with the Micmacs).
For several summers Sage and his friends lived in tents and then in 1885 they built a rude cabin at the point where the Restigouche bends and meets the Upsalquitch. Mornings and evenings the men would fish and afternoons they would sit on their piazza, as they called it, with a meditative pipe. They named the place Camp Harmony. They would stay six weeks (marking off the days on a beam) and kill perhaps 800 salmon. On their departure a guide would play a wailing tune on his fiddle, providing the only unharmonious moment of the season.
Three fishing clubs—Camp Harmony, Kedgwick Lodge and the Ristigouche Salmon Club—were established in those first days and they remain the most prominent camps on the river, controlling the prime fishing waters. In 1895 Stanford White replaced the log cabin at Camp Harmony with a stately lodge. The wood was hewn by hand and the marks of the axes are still visible on the age-blanched pine. The camp is typical of White's Restigouche architecture, built at an elbow of the river looking both up and downstream. Two wings of unfinished pine-plank bedrooms (eight in all) run out from a central clubroom. Since the first days when the bewhiskered founders hung their buffalo and caribou trophies on the walls and settled in, little has changed. On any late afternoon these summers the sitting room is drowsy with comfort—deep chairs and a spluttering fire. Packs of cards are stacked on a green baize-covered table. The Aladdin gas lamps have been converted to electricity but third-and fourth-generation Sages use the old stiff pens on the inkstand to record their angling triumphs in the leatherbound club books. The camp's present membership also includes former du Pont Company President Lammot du P. Copeland and several other members of the wealthy Wilmington family.