After the flood waters recede

It’s hard to image, but several months after these pictures were taken, the Royal Kennebeccasis Yacht Club was open and doing business. Photo by Russ Roth

By Russ Roth
Did you hear of last spring’s flooding on the St. John River, in the Canadian province of New Brunswick? As of June 2018 I hadn’t, and the information would definitely have been useful. After all, I’d spent the winter looking forward to being part of a three-week, “cruise-in-company” trip there in July. It wasn’t until a Canadian relative of one of my fellow cruisers remarked, “Why are you going there? Don’t you know about the flood?” that I even became aware that something had happened.

Immediately, I scrambled to learn as much about conditions on the St. John River as I could. First and foremost: Would we need to cancel our cruise? Six boats – Skiya, Merlot, Shona, Julia, Amber Sea and Salacia – were supposed to leave Rockland, Maine on July 11. As experienced cruisers we’d all spent hours planning the trip. Canceling was the last thing we wanted to do.

With stress levels building, I went online. YouTube was replete with amazing footage of the flood, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) had covered the event extensively. Had I stopped there, I would have canceled the trip. The images of the damage were heart breaking. How could all of our major news outlets in New England have missed this story?

Here are some of the numbers:

On April 23 the St. John River started to rise, primarily as a result of rapid snowmelt up stream . . . and subsequent ice jams.

On May 3 the river reached a record 5.34 meters (17.52’). This was one meter (3.28’) over flood stage. The previous record was set in 1973 at 5.31 meters (17.42’).

By May 7 the river was expected to crest at 5.9 meters (19.35’). In various locations, it would eventually rise to over 8 meters.

The Canadian Red Cross reported 1,600 people evacuated between May 3 and May 10.

The primary areas of flooding were the St. John River, and various lakes and bays from Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, to the city of Saint John. Roads were underwater, towns were cut off, and the flooding was reported to extend a half-mile inland in low areas. A section of the Trans-Canada Highway was closed because it was underwater. Millions of dollars in damage was reported. Many of the multi-generational summer camps along the river and bays were simply washed away. Most homes had water in their basements.

A phone call I made to the Royal Kennebeccasis Yacht Club (RKYC), one of our destinations in the city of Saint John, confirmed that they were indeed up and running. Fuel and water were available, and we were encouraged to visit in July.

My next call was to the marina in the town of Gagetown. They were hit especially hard. I was told that the docks “should” be in. But, there would be no fuel, water or electricity. Again, we were encouraged to stick to our plan and visit them in July.

The last call was to the Oromocto Boat Club, just south of Fredericton. They were also hit hard. They didn’t reply to phone or internet inquiries. This was a concern, but not something that couldn’t be figured along the way.

So, on July 11, we left Rockland for the St. John River. It was as benign a trip up the Bay of Fundy as you could have, with good visibility and light winds. On July 15 we entered the river through the reversing falls and headed to the RKYC for the night.

The Royal Kennebeccasis Yacht Club was functioning as normal. We had lots of questions about the flooding, and the pictures they showed us had the entire dock system underwater and the clubhouse surrounded. The club manager said he had to use a boat to access the clubhouse. If the water had risen a few more inches the iconic clubhouse would have been swamped.

A few days later we visited the marina at Gagetown. Nancy MacQuade Webb, the owner, told us that dockage would be no charge because of the condition of the marina. Later that evening we all chipped in to present Nancy with a sum of cash to go toward the rebuilding process, as flood insurance wasn’t available to the marina.

We also met the owners of one of the adjacent homes. They told us that they’d had 7’ of water in their basement during the flood. Their home was up for sale.

The folks in Gagetown confirmed that the Oromocto Boat Club, up river, was operating. It would be our last stop before working our way back down. We found the club to be in great shape, and the members and staff very welcoming. One of the members relayed her story of the flood. Other members were called in the middle of the night to come and help secure their docks that were being stored for the winter in an upper parking lot. They came with heavy chains to secure the docks together to keep them from being lost. I can’t imagine the water going up that high!

A common sight this trip was an RV or mobile home where once there was a summer cottage. These folks were not going to give up their spot on this beautiful river.

On our cruise we made all of the mandatory stops up and down the river, and visited various lakes and bays. It was two weeks spent enjoying 79° fresh water and great weather. On July 27, we passed through the reversing falls and exited the river. The trip home included exciting encounters with humpback whales off Campobello Island, in the Bay of Fundy, and clearing customs in Eastport, Maine.

This was our third trip to the river, and quite possibly the best. Despite difficult circumstances, everyone we met was welcoming, and went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed our time on their beautiful river. I’d encourage anyone reading this to check out the images and videos of the flood online, and read some of the CBC articles posted. Of particular interest are NASA images, which show before-and-after shots taken via satellite.

That said, please don’t let any of what you see or read discourage you from visiting the place itself. Canadians are very proud of the St. John River; it’s a treasure they hold dearly. We loved our time there and think you will, too!

Russ Roth and his wife Marty sail their C&C 40 Skiya out of Rockland, Maine, and Portsmouth, N.H.