Private Pontoon: River Houseboating in New Brunswick

Bobbling along the Saint John River yields heritage farming, heavenly hot-tubbing, a hidden waterfall and the world’s biggest axe.

By Darcy Rhyno   |   May 19, 2021

  Darcy Rhyno
The Mactaquac Lake region of the St. John River was formed when the Mactaquac Hydroelectric Dam was constructed. Pontooners can wander the system without worrying about currents or tides.

From the rooftop hot tub, I give a whoop and dash across the chilly deck to the slide on the back of our houseboat and plunge into the Saint John River. It’s a cool day in early autumn, but the sun is shining and the waters still hold enough summer warmth for a quick dip. Refreshed, I climb the ladder back to the top deck, where I ease myself back into the hot tub beside my friends.

Our posh houseboat that sleeps 14 is named The Meductic and is rented from Lakeway Houseboat Vacations, the only houseboat rental outlet in Atlantic Canada. We’re at rest on a 25-kilometre stretch of the river called Coac Reach, which starts above the Mactaquac Dam near Fredericton. Eventually, this head pond narrows, but it continues a total of 96 kilometres all the way to Woodstock.

Rejuvenated, we dry off and go below to change. Grabbing a snack in the kitchen we’ve loaded up with plenty of food and drink, we return to the wheel on the upper deck and head our double-decker upstream at a turtle’s pace.

A.k.a the Highway to Canada
The historic Saint John is the longest river on the East Coast, at 673 kilometres, and a recent inductee into Canada’s Heritage Rivers System. The Indigenous Maliseet call it Wolastoq and refer to themselves as the Wolastoqiyik, or “people of the beautiful river” for its central role in their lives and culture for the past 10,000 years. The first European to lay eyes on it was probably Samuel de Champlain. He christened it for the saint’s day of John the Baptist—June 24—the day he discovered it in 1624. For its role as an important navigation route for European settlers, it was nicknamed “the highway to Canada.”

We pull in at Kings Landing Historical Settlement, a heritage village created after the dam was built in 1968. Wandering among the 15 houses, barns and other buildings moved here from around the province, we meet costumed interpreters tending to animals, working gardens and cooking over the hearth. We stop into Kings Head Inn for a pint of ale and a light lunch before heading back to the river.

It’s late, but none of us is ready to let this day go—we hot tub for one last soak. 


Some lazy hours later, we land at the planned forestry town of Nackawic. We’re drawn here by the epic attraction visible from well downstream: the 50-metric-ton Nackawic axe, reputedly the world’s largest. After a few photos and a look around town, we slowly make our way to quiet, wooded Jewett’s Cove, where we nudge the pontoons up against the shoreline for the night. Exploring ashore, we’re rewarded with a hidden waterfall. As the skies darken through dusk into night, some of us get cozy before the propane fireplace, while others prepare dinner.

By the time we’re finished, it’s late, but none of us is ready to let this day go. We climb back into our swimsuits and hit the hot tub for one last soak. Through the opening in the surrounding trees, the Milky Way shimmers like a river overhead. There’s nothing to do but watch for falling stars and dissolve any remaining stresses in these steaming, bubbling waters. At last, we lift our tired bodies, dry off and make our way to our rooms, where we drift away, wrapped in the arms of two rivers.

Darcy Rhyno
rhynopics  Website
Darcy has written about family travel to Paris, romance in a Spanish castle, fall colours in China, volcano vacations in Costa Rica and food as history on the Magdalen Islands. He is the author of six books.

Look for Travelier in print soon.