Behold the Gander River boat

Published on August 16, 2014

The Gander River was so named because of an abundance of geese that live and breed along its 175-kilometre course from Partridge Berry Hill, a central plateau at 427 metres elevation, to the sea in Gander Bay, itself a small corner of larger Notre Dame Bay.

Of course, it passes through Gander Lake along the way, one of Newfoundland’s biggest and deepest lakes. We actually call it a lake, and not a pond, so it must be big.

Ten Mile Pond really messes up the mainlanders. They call everything bigger than a swimming pool a lake. And on this Canada Geese thing, I’ve never heard this before. I read it online, so please enlighten me if you know different. The entire Gander River watershed system covers a vast 6,400 square kilometres of wilderness, towns and countryside. Gander Lake, itself 56 kilometres long, is fed by two major rivers on its western end. This is in addition to dozens of smaller streams that flow in all around the lake.

The biggest river flowing into Gander Lake is named the Northwest Gander, and it’s 97 km long. Just a few kilometers away, the Southwest Gander River spills into the lake and is no slouch of a waterway at 77 km. Both these are primarily wilderness rivers. Then at Glenwood the main stem of the Gander River exits Gander Lake and flows to the sea. This is the section of river that most of us salmon anglers are familiar with.

Overall, this entire watershed is quite a paradise for canoeists, kayakers, anglers, hunters and those curious no-particular-reason runners of the woods and waters.

Days of old

Today we travel on rivers mostly for fun and sport, but there was a time when realities were very different.

Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for those very first English, Irish and French settlers who came to Newfoundland in earlier centuries. It is crystal clear that they came to fish, and that they certainly did, in sail and oar-powered small wooden craft, voyaging from crooks, crannies, and coves all over Newfoundland and Labrador.

Notre Dame Bay and Gander Bay were no different. There were wonderfully productive fishing grounds in the sea not far from their homebuilt timber frame homes. But where did the wood for houses, boats, flakes, fences and stages come from? One cannot survive from the sea alone.

Early Newfoundlanders took to the woods out of necessity, to harvest timber, fur, meat and berries. If you were lucky enough to live by a river that was navigable by boat, you definitely were blessed with an advantageous geographical circumstance. The boys and gals in Gander Bay had her made.   

The folks from Gander Bay, as well as Glenwood and Appleton, have a longstanding history and tradition of using the Gander River highway to hunt, trap, fish and cut timber. Naturally they also possess a serious boat building tradition. If you live on a river you will build riverboats.

The Gander River Boat was born and hewed from local timber to meet the needs of folks who ran the river freeway to places remote and wild. If you have no idea of a Gander River Boat’s form and waterline silhouette, glance to your side, left or right, as you cross the Queen Elizabeth Bridge on the TCH near Glenwood and Appleton. You will see a long, eye-pleasing canoe profile, a most functional and pretty watercraft. They are Gander River Boats. They have passed the ultimate test, centuries of time.

My first ride in a Gander River Boat was in July of 1982. It was the week before Goldie and I got married. Two of my buddies and I decided to indulge in a salmon fishing trip down the Gander River. My father had a good friend in Glenwood and he kindly set things up for us. Unfortunately, our guide’s name is lost in the river of time, my memory not being the sharpest for names, but he was most excellent in his craft. I think his first name was Mike, so Mike it is for this column. And Mike, if you happen to read this, please send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Good times

Early on a July morning, with a big, round, brilliant orange sun just peeping up over the spruce tops, Paul Drover, Boyd Winsor and I loaded our gear aboard Mike’s 24-foot Gander River Boat. On this trip, we were not traveling light, like I tend to nowadays. It was a different time and we were young hungry and thirsty lads. There were coolers packed with beer, another full of steaks, bacon, eggs and good old Maple Leaf bologna.

Paul brought along his guitar and a binder full of song sheets so the rest of us could sing along. There were no lightweight travel clothes to buy locally or online.

Actually, there was no online. Nobody could call us, text, or email with problems or questions of any sort. I kind of miss those times; the best rock music, cassette tapes, and no cellphones. We were heading downriver for a roaring good time. No interruptions.

I still recall standing in the soft wonderful light of morning and wondering aloud how that mound of gear and four big boys were going to fit in that boat, let alone run the Gander River rapids that I had heard all sorts of stories about.

Would we survive the Big Chute? Mike reassured me and I began tossing gear in the boat, confident in the riverman and his ability. He would not let us down; neither would his boat, whose ancestors of wood and oakum had not failed the folks who settled this majestic land.

Powered by a small sputtering two-stroke outboard, around 10 horsepower I think, we shot through rapids and whipped around rocks. Even fully loaded, a Gander River boats draws mere inches of water. It appears to have an almost magical ability to slide over rocks that are barely wetted by the river’s flow.

There we were, at the top of the infamous Big Chute.

“Hang on,” says Mike.

Hang on we did. Paul clutched his precious guitar. The Big Chute generates a series of quite serious standing waves.

It looks pretty ominous to the uninitiated. Water flew in the air as the most river-worthy of craft plummeted through unscathed, loaded with I’d guess close to a ton of cargo — no insignificant feat. I was extremely impressed and most relieved.

We had a wonderful adventure on the Gander River, fishing by day, grilling a few salmon, with brews and tunes to pass the evenings.

The Gander River boat has served Newfoundland and Labrador folks for centuries, not just on Gander River where it was born, but all over our fair land. They are the predominant and iconic workhorses of fishing camps and hunting outfitters, as well as the chosen pleasure craft of those who love their time on free flowing rocky rivers. They are a piece of Newfoundland and Labrador history, a testament to our ingenuity and enduring dedication to this wild and rugged land. We must preserve this heritage.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at  or follow him on twitter

at @flyfishtherock.