Main River

Location: Division No. 5, Subd. G, Newfoundland
Region: Outside Ontario
Character: Heritage River

Main River
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

Out of the Long Range Mountains

"Cross-draw!" "Brace!" "Draw hard!" "Baaackpaddle!" The Main River - one of the last wilderness rivers on "the Rock" - provides a heart-stopping roller coaster ride for canoeists. But it is more than rapids. Boreal forest, placid lakes, the slow waters of the Big Steady, moose, caribou, and Atlantic salmon - all await the hardy paddler.

On January 8, 1991 the Main River on the Island of Newfoundland became the first river nominated by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador as a Canadian Heritage River. Short and fast moving, the Main is typical of many rivers on the Island. The relative inaccessibility of the Great Northern Peninsula where it is found, has protected it from the encroachment of industrial and domestic development. The nomination was based on its outstanding natural values and recreation potential.

In the fall of 2001, the Main became the first river in Newfoundland to be designated to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. The management of the Main entails a delicate balance between logging and retaining undisturbed habitat sufficient to maintain the natural values and recreational values for which the river was nominated to the system. A substantial corridor has been designated as a provincial waterway park, providing legislative protection for the river corridor. Areas outside the proposed provincial park that fall within the view of people canoeing on the river (the "viewshed"), will be designated as zones where special harvesting techniques will be used to ensure that the effects of logging will not be visible from the river. Areas that are key or sensitive habitat for wildlife will be exempt from logging, and a buffer of 100m will be left along all major tributaries to ensure that aquatic habitat is not impaired.

When the Main was nominated in 1991, it was one of the few truly wild rivers on the Island of Newfoundland. With the new management regime in place, the Main will be a Canadian Heritage River in a working landscape.

Flowing unmodified and unobstructed from its headwaters in the heart of the Long Range Mountains on the Great Northern Peninsula, the Main River courses southeast from tundra-like barrens, through expanses of softwood forests and a unique area of grassland, leading to a spectacular 8-km canyon, and on to the Atlantic Ocean where it empties into White Bay at Sop's Arm. The nominated river and its corridor encompass a land and water area of approximately 105 km2.

At it's source, the terrain of the Main River combines U-shaped valleys with rounded hills, characteristic of the 600 million year old geologic processes that formed the bedrock and surficial geology of Newfoundland. Numerous headwater ponds, near Gros Morne National Park, lie at the edge of a drainage divide separating the Main River watershed from the Parsons Pond system which empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Flowing from an elevation of 370 m at a relatively high gradient averaging 6.5 m/km, the river is joined by numerous tributaries in the upper reaches. As it moves downstream, the Main gradually increases in volume and steepness, through narrow, swift channels which alternate with long steady reaches. Turbulence is present throughout the river as a result of abrupt and significant changes in gradient, channel width and direction, all causing challenging water conditions. Fast water mixed with rock gardens, including large boulders, make portages and lining necessary to successfully navigate the river.

Natural Heritage
The Main River is one of the last wild and scenic areas of insular Newfoundland. It provides critical habitat for a variety of wildlife and vegetation in an area of superb natural beauty. Vegetation in the headwaters is characterized by exposed, scrubby, dwarf-shrub barrens with pockets of poor growth forest. Farther down the Main, the forests are predominantly balsam fir and black spruce. Peatland and woodland wildflowers thrive, with species such as laurels, orchids, cranberry, and the provincial flower, the Pitcher Plant, growing in the upper sections of the river. Lilies, bunchberry, wintergreen, lichens, and mosses grow in the shady, moist, woodland areas. The rare, open meadow land of Big Steady, with its calm waters and lush vegetation, includes several plant species near their northern and southern limits.

The watershed also supports large mammals such as moose, caribou, and black bear. In the spring, summer, and early fall, moose gather to the river valley at Big Steady. The pine marten, indigenous to the Island and classified in 1986 as threatened, has been re-introduced to the area. The river and its many tributaries also support populations of river otter, beaver, snowshoe hare, mink, red squirrel, lynx, and red fox. About 90 species of bird life frequent the Main River watershed. Loon, bald eagle, osprey, and the great horned owl are the largest avifauna inhabiting the area. Close to 100 pairs of Canada Geese make their home in the 200 hectare floodplain of Big Steady. This prime duck habitat is home to waterfowl including common goldeneye, black duck, greenwinged teal, and red breasted merganser. The river also contains one of the healthiest populations of Atlantic salmon in the province, with the gravel-cobble river bed and serene upper ponds conducive to salmon spawning.

The Main River offers visitors a view of wilderness landscapes unchanged in several millennia. West-coast inlets, the coastal plain and broad views of the entire Main River watershed can be seen from the Long Range Mountains. The ancient bedrock, carved 12,000 years ago by the last glaciers, can be seen along the length of the river. On the Big Steady, ancient birches and spruce as large as 75 cm at the trunk stand guard by the still waters. In the Rapid River section. the rapids have cut deeply through bedrock, exposing interesting geological features. At the mouth of the Main, the traveller can explore the scenic coves, abandoned settlements, and the rugged coastal hills and bluffs of Sop's Arm and southern White Bay.

Human Heritage
As early as 5,000 years ago, Maritime Archaic Indians settled on the Island of Newfoundland. Archaeological sites near the mouth of the Main River indicate settlements that utilized the abundant wildlife of the area including harp seals on the ice in White Bay, spawning salmon and migrating caribou. Evidence of early Inuit habitation dating to about 2,100 years ago has also been found near the river. Several sites along the west coast of the Great Northern Peninsula, have produced 900 year old artifacts from the Dorset Eskimo culture, and are within a short distance of the Main River Watershed. A site along the north side of the river just west of Sop's Arm, known as the Deer Pits, has been attributed to the nomadic Beothuck culture and was located in the path of migrating caribou. Researchers believe natives used the Main River as a travel route. There is little tangible archaeological evidence, however, due to disturbance of the sites over time.

As early as 1750, French and English settlers shared the abundant fishery of the northeast coast but, according to an area resident, cannon balls and other artifacts found in household gardens suggests a violent aspect of some of their disagreements.

Although little material has been published on the early history of the area, D.W. Prowse in 1895, described the relationships between the 18th century French and English settlers in his History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial and Foreign Records. Local residents can also be a valuable source of information on early European settlement in the Sop's Arm area.

The Main River is recognized as an excellent wilderness river by recreational canoeists and has attracted outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy kayaking and rafting. With a large number of tributaries, the Main River offers additional recreational opportunities such as fishing, hunting, nature observation, swimming and a variety of winter activities.

Fishing: Atlantic salmon and trout are the focus of anglers on the Main River. The Main, however, is a scheduled river under the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans regulations, which permit only fly-fishing from July to August during the inland salmon run. Fishing licenses are required. For brook trout, the season runs from mid-January to mid-September. Access for fishing, other than by air to the headwaters, is via a woods road as far as the bridge crossing. Beyond the bridge, visitors must travel by foot.

Hunting: Hunters in the area most often pursue big game such as moose, caribou, and black bear during the 3-month, September through November season. Snowshoe hare, duck, geese, and snipe may also be hunted. Hunting licences are required.

Canoeing: The short length of the Main River offers outstanding canoeing opportunities to challenge the most skilled white-water enthusiasts, while not committing the canoeist to a several-week journey as is commonly required of many wilderness canoe experiences in northern Canada. In ideal water and weather conditions, the trip can be completed in 3 - 4 days. Canoeists choosing to travel the entire river, or the upper section to the woods road bridge downstream, will have to access the headwaters by aircraft.

Choosing the lower section, from the bridge to the mouth, presents difficult canoeing. The canoeing season extends from May through September. Several regional outfitters provide supplies and fly-in and guide services for the Main River corridor.

Camping and Hiking: From mid-June to early September, the campground at Sop's Arm Provincial Park is open, with 25 sites for tents and trailers, 25 picnic sites, and access to the mouth of the river.

There are no developed sites along the river itself. Primitive campsites are abundant, well-distributed, accessible, and easily visible. Many offer protection from wind, if desired, or exposed places to catch the wind to reduce the nuisance of flies and mosquitoes. Most primitive sites are level and dry, firewood is plentiful, and bathing is convenient. With little human disturbance along the river, the water quality is consistently good and suitable for drinking. For hiking enthusiasts, there are trails along the banks of the river and anglers' trails around some of the upper ponds, but they are not marked and are of varying quality. You can also hike into the Big Steady from the bridge on the woods road.

Kayaking/White-water Rafting: The river, with many large boulders and protruding rocks, is suited to the superior maneuverability of a kayak for safely running the white water. For rafting enthusiasts, the river presents ideal conditions in May and June when the daily water discharge ranges from 75 to 100 cubic metres per second. During 1991, the first commercial rafting trip on the Main River thrilled 36 participants over 23 km of white water.

Winter Recreational Activities: Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, which provide photographic opportunities, are possible on the unmarked trails of the Main River. Ice fishing, winter camping, and cross-country exploration are other popular options.

Visitor Information
Access: The Main is accessible by using national and regional airlines which offer several daily flights from St. John's and other Atlantic cities to Deer Lake, just 85 km south of the river. Deer Lake can also be reached in 5-6 hours from the Island's main ferry terminal at Port aux Basques. Visitors can then reach the headwater ponds of the Main River in about 45 minutes by arranging a helicopter or float plane, in advance. A paved road takes visitors to Sop's Arm, at the mouth of the river, in 5-6 hours from the ferry terminal, or 8 hours from St. John's. The lower portion of the river is accessible by a woods road, from the bridge just below Big Steady.

Accommodation and Services: You can organize your trip in advance by contacting guide and rental services in St. John's or Corner Brook. Deer Lake (pop. 4233) offers most services required, including access and guides, and the local settlements of Sop's Arm (pop.445), Jackson's Arm (pop.652) and Pollard's Point (pop.557) near the mouth of the river are all road accessible, provide groceries and some supplies, and are developing a more-complete supply and service capability.

In addition to developed campgrounds at Sop's Arm and Gros Morne National Park, popular hunting, fishing and outfitting camps are located in the river's headwater lakes: one on Four Ponds, one on the Main itself, three on the St. Paul's Branch pond system, and one on Caribou Lake, south of Big Steady. All are reached by float plane. Together, they cater to more than 100 anglers annually, as well as big-game hunters.

Topographic Maps: The Main River is covered by National Topographic Series maps at 1:250,000 by Map 12H (Sandy Lk), and at 1:50,000 by maps 12H/14E & W (Main R.), 12H/11E (Silver Mtn: White Bay) and 12H/15W (Jackson's Arm: White Bay).

Further Information
Services, Permits and Regulations: Newfoundland Provincial Parks, Department of Tourism and Culture, P.O. Box 8700, St. John's, NF, A1B 4J6.

Tourism Information - Accommodation, Air Charters, Guides and Outfitters: Department of Tourism and Culture, Tourism Branch, P.O. Box 8730, St. John's, NF, A1B 4K2. Tel.: (709) 7292830 or toll free: 1-800-563-6353; Deer Lake Chamber of Commerce.

Canadian Heritage Rivers System: Member for Newfoundland and Labrador, c/o Director, Parks Division, P.O. Box 8700, West Block, 2nd Floor, St. John's, NF, A1B 4J6; or, National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. 819-994-2913, Fax 819-997-0835. E-mail address:

Check out "" for information on canoeing the Main River, le site Web de la Division des parcs et des aires naturelles du gouvernement de Terre-Neuve.,
the web site of the government of Newfoundland, Parks and Natural Areas Division, describes the Bay du Nord Wilderness Reserve, a vast landscape of ponds, rivers, barrens, bogs and fens, forests, and thickets, and one of the last major unspoiled areas remaining on the island of Newfoundland. The Bay du Nord Widlerness Reserve encompasses the Bay du Nord River system.,
The Bay du Nord River system was nominated as Newfoundland and Labrador's second Canadian Heritage River in 1992 for its great recreational potential and magnificent natural features. This web site of the government of Newfoundland, Parks and Natural Areas Division, describes the Bay du Nord river.