Lost Land of Moses:|
The Age of Discovery on New Brunswick's Salmon Rivers
by Peter Thomas
Post Your Opinion
|Going to Fish in New Brunswick
by Dave Carpenter
We live in a country that boasts some of the most famous salmon and trout rivers in the world. The Skeena, The Bow, God's River, the Restigouche, the Miramichi, the Margaree, the Matapedia. This is the same country which woke up one morning, surprised as can be, to discover that there wasn't any longer a cod fishery on the East Coast. More recently, Canadians were dismayed to discover that the steelhead and salmon runs on the West Coast were also disappearing. I picked up Peter Thomas's book, The Lost Land of Moses, hoping for some historical perspective on our curious disregard, from Bona Vista to Vancouver Island, for our fisheries.
Thomas read an impressive stack of sporting narratives to write his history, and on one level it is an angler's delight, a real guy book. He is quick to remind us, however, that his sources (19th century salmon anglers) wrote about "much more than fishing." British anglers grumble about American anglers, American anglers speak slightingly about New Brunswickers, both satirize the burgeoning settlements and extol the virtues of solitude. Some slip into the role of social commentator and argue for certain approaches to the exploitation of natural resources or muse about the threat of war between the U.S. and Canada or use their narratives to promote rail travel to their favourite streams. Some offer their generalizations on the aboriginals, and although several of these men speak with great affection for their native guides, almost no one manages to move beyond the racist attitudes of his time and place.
Thomas's 19th century sporting narratives, then, are documents of social history. They shed less light on the glories of rod and reel and more on attitudes of class, race, and the politics of property rights. Here, for example, is William Hickman, writing in 1853 about aboriginals spearing salmon in the Nepisiguit: "Even now, Indians are leaving their own exhausted streams, and congregating on [our river] in numbers, spearing immense quantities of fish in their spawning grounds, from mere wanton love of destruction." Hickman's narrative typifies those of a number of men of leisure who turned the aboriginals into scapegoats. Some would condemn the native practice of spearing fish and later try it out themselves.
Speaking of racism among the privileged, here is Captain Richard L. Dashwood, a British sportsman, on the subject of aboriginals and blacks: "The red men are naturally a polite race. I have seen an old Indian when I entered his wigwam receive me with the air of an emperor, and hand me a seat in the shape of a box or anything else available with the utmost politeness. There is nothing either snobbish or uncouth about the genuine red man¨quite the reverse; he is vastly superior to the African Negro [who] could not begin to compare with him. The red man has a great amount of self-respect, and unless drunk rarely makes a fool of himself; he is taciturn, but all observant. The Negro, on the other hand, however much he is civilized, is an inordinately vain pompous fool."
The Moses of Thomas's title is Moses Perley (1804-1862), the first and perhaps most vocal angling enthusiast in New Brunswick history. An optimist in the Victorian tradition, a great believer in Progress and lover of solitude in the romantic tradition, he began the work of promoting New Brunswick to outsiders. He had great energy and promoted rail transport, tourism, the exploitation of natural resources, but perhaps most of all, angling for salmon and trout in the rivers of New Brunswick. Like so many Canadians throughout history, he seemed to think that he could market the wilderness as a commodity without ruining it. What followed from his published fishing sketches in the 1840s was an orgy of abuse: rivers were swarmed, netted, polluted and dammed. But as the rivers began to decline, nature lovers and river users (often in opposing camps) began to debate the virtues of private versus public ownership of rivers and the mixed blessings of economic development. Responsible people began to step forward and agitate for a system of wildlife management that survives in various forms to this day. This too is part of Moses Perley's legacy.
Most of Thomas's commentators were, of course, men of education and means. They had their prejudices and their political agendas, but they came to fish for salmon for the pleasure of it. Here is one such angler, the American lawyer and congressman (and uncle of Teddy), Robert Barnwell Roosevelt: "The days wore on most pleasantly; salmon occupied all our thoughts. The first thing in the morning we looked for salmon, then we fished for salmon, then we breakfasted on salmon, then we fished again for them; then made flies to catch them, next dined on them, and then supped off them, and lastly dreamed of them."
Around the time of Perley's death, conservationists began to sound a different note. Here is Arthur Gordon, lieutenant governor of New Brunswick from 1861 to 1866, fishing the Matapedia in Quebec, where "the fishery laws are better framed, and far more efficiently carried out, than in New Brunswick, where, indeed, in some rivers, which used to yield a profitable return to the fisherman a few years ago, the salmon have now almost been exterminated; whilst in [Quebec], since measures of protection have been adopted, the fisheries have annually increased in value." This is a poignant and oddly relevant assessment of the state of things in our time. To this day, Quebec has lead the fight to improve the salmon runs in the Maritimes. (I am referring to the Gaspe Peninsula, with its dozen or so salmon rivers just off the northern border with New Brunswick.) Here is the American novelist Tom McGuane, a grumpy environmentalist if ever there was one, writing in R.V. Atkinson's Trout & Salmon (1999): "In 1998 the Atlantic Salmon Federation's Quebec Council announced a buy-out of the province's remaining commercial nets...For the flyfisherman thinking of going to these fantastic rivers, the future looks increasingly bright." Try to imagine the likes of Quebec's progressive move enacted in British Columbia or Alaska.
Thomas seems to be aware of the tragedy of the decline of New Brunswick's rivers, but because the book is primarily an academic history, he avoids turning it into a rant. Perhaps Thomas would prefer that we read it for its relevance to social and political issues, but I found myself far more interested in the plight of the salmon and the wild adventures of the anglers who pursued them. Thomas is at his best when he allows them to tell their own stories. There are many delicious examples. Here is one from the journals of Sir James Alexander, a writer, surveyor and world traveller on an expedition to map the country northeast of Fredericton. At one point, someone forgot to pack the meat, their guide did not show up, and the party got lost. Alexander tells it this way: "I pulled my belt to the last hole, and it...slipped down over my haunches. I sat down and looked at my leather leggings, and I thought that if we did not get out that day, they must be roasted and eaten tomorrow, moccasins and all; in fact, I was inclined to pound, roast, and eat them on the spot, having seen as indifferent fare used on previous African expedition. All the party looked very pale and attenuated and yet the remorseless flies continued to draw the blood out of us as greedily as ever."
There it is, then, an academic history based on angling accounts in mid-19th-century New Brunswick with some appeal beyond an academic audience. When Thomas's narrative is not too weighed down by minute historical details, too many quoted fragments, it will be engaging to some nonacademic readers.
I'd like to close with an affectionate portrait of Moses Perley by the American journalist and political operative, Charles Lanman, who had visited Perly's home just before writing the following: Moses's library is "filled to overflowing with rare and curious books, rods of every style (including one by Kelly, which has killed eight thousand trout), guns of all kinds...while moose and caribou horns decorate the walls, and stuffed animals [lie on] every unoccupied shelf or bracket."
You will note I've italicized the word "killed". The gentleman does not land a salmon, he does not catch a salmon; he kills a salmon. The rod admired by Lanman killed eight thousand trout. If I were a salmon, a trout, a moose, a caribou, or any other species of wild game in New Brunswick, could I help but see Moses Perley's home as a morgue and a chamber of horrors? ˛
Dave Carpenter is a fulltime writer in Saskatoon where, in recent years, sturgeon, pickerel and grayling have been declining.