This spring was the first time in 30 years that Benjamin Wadham-Gagnon could paddle down the St-Jean River out to the estuary near Gaspé, Que.
"To canoe down freely like we are doing today — you might not understand how enjoyable it is, but it's truly something," he said.
Wadham-Gagnon is a biologist and works as the assistant manager for an association that manages three salmon rivers, including the St-Jean (also known as the St-John River), in the Gaspé.
Up until this winter, a 1.5-kilometre-long logjam had completely blocked the river. It took two dump trucks, two backhoes and a bulldozer seven weeks to clear all the wood out.
A natural pileup
Wadham-Gagnon does not believe the logjam was caused by human activity.
He said the shores of the 125-kilometre long St-Jean River are sandy and highly erodible. Trees are often swept away during the spring thaw, when the snow melts and runs down the Chic Choc Mountains, or when water levels are high.
The trees clog up the river when they run up against obstacles or shallow water, causing major flooding in the region.
Wadham-Gagnon said the cleanup crew had been waiting for the winter to finally tackle the mess of tree trunks and limbs. He said working on frozen ground would reduce the effect the heavy machinery would have on the topsoil.
"We had a perfect winter this winter to do the project, because it was –25 C for three months straight. it was exactly what we needed," he said.
The $550,000 budget for the cleanup includes money for his organization, Saumon Gaspé, to make sure another logjam doesn't start for the next four years.
That's a lot of wood
The 10,000 cubic metres of wood removed from the river is piled in a clearing a couple hundred metres away from the shore. The wood is left there to rot, but locals are welcome to help themselves — otherwise it would take about 333 trips for logging trucks to haul the wood away.
"It's half-rotten, it's been in water and through sediments, twisted and had a lot of pressure on it, so there is not much to do with the wood here," Wadham-Gagnon said.
One large, white pine stump protrudes from the top of the pile. Wadham-Gagnon said it was placed there deliberately.
"We were able to save the nice part of it to make a sculpture," he said "We don't know exactly what we'll be sculpting yet, but that's the project."
Wadham-Gagon said his organization is anxious to see how the removed jam will affect the salmon population.
"We believe it limited the access for Atlantic salmon to the river, especially when the salmon need to run out to the sea," he said.
He said he believes the salmon used bypasses to go up the river to spawn in the spring, but would often die trying to get back out to the ocean.
In 2010, Saumon Gaspé tracked about 20 salmon at the end of the summer using transmitters.
"We know they were alive right above the logjam," he said. "But we found all those [transmitters] — none of them made it past, none of them used the bypasses they used to avoid the logjam on the way up."
Wadham-Gagnon said last summer was particularly bad for salmon runs all over eastern Canada, and that he would have a better idea in late June of what this year's salmon-spawning season will look like.