DEATH OF A RIVER

CanoeKayak.com

A C&K Digital Feature chronicling the waning days of Canada’s oldest canoe manufacturer

Miller (5 of 7) copy

Photos and story by DAVID JACKSON

When salmon filled every pool and moose lined each bank, the Tobique River near Nictau, New Brunswick, was a feast for sport. Meandering the Appalachian foothills, guides earned their keep by poling canoes up and down the river, which flows south into the Bay of Fundy. Sportsmen arrived by horse and wagon from the downriver village of Plaster Rock, greeted there at the epicenter of hunting and fishing in North America, The Miller Hotel. Guides needed canoes with a relatively flat bottom to navigate the shallow waters and steady current; those sportsmen needed a steady canoe to cast their flies. William ‘Vic’ Miller knew the river, understood the land, and he built a canoe to help him better connect with both. In 1925, Miller Canoes was born.

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Since 1925, the deck of a Miller Canoe has featured a slight groove in the cedar, finished with an engraved brass plate

Today, what remains of Nictau is a much distant reality from the once thriving community. The town is at the confluence of three rivers and only eight residents remain. The salmon are all but gone with the introduction of a barrier in 1987. The wild woods have been clear- cut, leaving scars on the land and mud in the river. Tourists rarely travel up the Tobique to Nictau, and if they do, it’s for one of two reasons: to see Mount Carleton Park, or to visit William ‘Bill’ Miller.

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The Miller Canoes workshop is a staple in Nictau, NB, and as Bill Miller would assure you, “is the center of the universe.”
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Bill and Wolfie’s morning commute to the workshop.
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Built in one day in 1945, the Miller Barn houses some of Canada’s oldest canoes. Historic vessels such as a 1910 Birch Bark Maliseet sit in the rafters while war-style 30-foot Miller Specials sit on the decrepit planks. For a moment, imagine stepping into a museum with no curator, no ropes, and only one mastermind to chronicle each boat’s history…
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… searching for an ideal rib board.
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After the canoe is stripped and planked, Bill picks up the canoe and studies the lines to ensure his craftsmanship. The canoes are built, except for a few models which Bill designed, off of his grandfather’s molds. The secret, however, lies in a lifetime of experience.
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According to the Millers, handmade tools are better than anything money could ever buy.
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Tanned leather on a Miller Canoe seat.
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A slow and precise process, Bill clinches the tacks on a canoe in progress.

Like a brass tack in cedar planks, Miller Canoes remains. Bill is the third generation in a line of master craftsmen, his tools handmade by his grandfather. The current 18-foot Chickadee design is from the same mold as in 1925 and the shop is the same as his grandfather left it. The cedar for the canoes is found on the property, and from de-barking to the first float, a Miller Canoe is handmade.

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The deck of a weathered 30-foot war-style Miller.
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Still wet from the soak, Bill inspects each tack to ensure his clinching work. The hammer creates rivets in the cedar hull during clinching, which absorbs water and returns to perfect shape.

Caption HEREMiller Canoes was created to escort the highly esteemed guests of the Miller hotel. Sport would travel from all over, including U.S. presidents who came to Nictau for the world-renowned salmon pools and bountiful hunt.

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Downtown Nictau, New Brunswick.
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Bill’s 18-foot Chickadee special made for Canada’s Centennial.

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“You’re driving up from Montreal with your band, great!” or “You’re flying in from South Africa just in time for Fiddles on the Tobique, well gee, I can’t wait!” are both typical to hear when Bill picks up the phone. Whether he’s editing his favorite photos, making slideshows for the local schools, tending emails, answering Facebook messages, caring for weary International Appalachian Trail hikers, or chasing his forever ringing landline, it’s no wonder why Nictau is the center of the universe.

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For most of the year, the Tobique valley is a quiet place. However, for one weekend in June, it surges back to life. Each year for the past 20, Bill has organized an event called Fiddles on the Tobique. It is a weekend where Bill opens his property to campers, thousands of people arrive, and the Saturday morning holds a symphony of fiddle players floating down the Tobique River. Nearly 1,000 vessels, with fiddlers in Miller Canoes, float together. For that weekend each year, Bill remembers a time now forgotten.

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Hundreds of Fiddle Players, dozens of RVs, and a marginal tent city emerge for one weekend each summer when Bill hosts Fiddles on the Tobique.
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After a successful river float involving fiddle players on Miller canoes, Bills hosts a catered supper, a 50-50 draw, and of course a house concert for the third night in a row.
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Ahead of the floating fiddle brigade, the young crowd gathers on party island to grill hotdogs and feel the brief pulse which Mr. Miller creates on the Tobique.
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Alexandre Banks plays his fiddle while his mother, Michelle, helps guide the floating stage, constructed atop two 30-foot Miller Canoes.

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Bill Miller poles down the Tobique River as The Bombadils of Montreal play with the other fiddle players. Songs such as the ‘Log Drivers Waltz’ can be heard all through the valley. Bands come from all over, often times with funding from Bill himself, to play house concerts each night and to float down the Tobique.
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Miller Canoes tied to the bank at Forks Pool, the confluence of the Little Tobique River and the Mamozekel River. The Forks is the beginning of the main branch of the Tobique and was the location of the Miller Hotel.

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The stage that floats up to 20 fiddlers is built on two 30-foot Miller Canoes.

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At the age of 70, Bill feels this will be the final Fiddle Fest as the organization and execution is becoming too great a task for him to manage. With no children, the question becomes more haunting each day. Has the world seen its last Miller?

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