Action & Adventure in the Northeast
 

Thru Paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

“Everyone must believe in something. I believe I will go canoeing.” – Henry David Thoreau

Sounds simple, right? Drag the Old Town out from the side of the house, fill a cooler with some food, drinks, maybe pack some sunscreen and you have a killer afternoon. It’s all about the simple joys and simplicity of being outside… Ooor, you could spend weeks building your own canoe from a tree that fell in your neighbor’s yard, research a route from central New York to the tippety-top of Maine (Ayuh, you actually can get there from here), and spend an entire summer paddling through just about every type of lake, river, and creek between the two points. That’s taking it to a new level, and its what Allie Miller and Brian Quarrier did during the summer of 2013 when they decided to thru-paddle the entire length of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail Landscape

Blue Sky day along the NFCT

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a 740 mile (mostly) water passage that follows Native American travel routes from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine. Although the waters have been travelled for hundreds of years, the NFCT was officially completed in 2006 and is comprised of 13 contiguous waterways and portages. Although some may think of the NFCT as the Appalachian Trail for those who don’t like to walk, completing the trail is a feat that only few have accomplished. As of 2015, only 87 paddlers have traveled its entirety. Those paddlers had to walk a total of 53 miles with their gear along the portage routes, so don’t think you can just float your way to Maine.

Allie and Brian met in 2012 while working in California as guides for Naturalists at Large, an outdoor education company that provides custom outdoor trips for school aged students. They quickly hit it off and by the next spring, Brian had pitched the idea of going back home to the northeast for the summer and thru paddling the entire NFCT. He had first heard of the trail a few years earlier while working as a teacher at the Darrow School, a college preparatory school located in New Lebanon, New York. During that time, he took a group of students from his environmental science class on a canoe camping trip to Tupper Lake, New York, one of the small towns located along the trail. As part of the student experience, Brian had the students craft their own wooden paddles before the trip to give them the opportunity to build something with their hands. Craftmanship is a major theme in Brian’s teaching philosophy, and he tries to integrate it whenever practical. The year prior, he took his students to his parents’ home in New Hampshire, where his father Keith, a former industrial arts teacher, brought them through the process of building their own canoe before taking it on an overnight on the Connecticut River. Those two teaching experiences became the inspiration for thru paddling the NFCT.

Allie was on-board with the idea from the start. Throughout college, she was active in whitewater canoeing and was looking forward to a longer adventure, which she hadn’t had in a while. “I was introduced to the outdoors by an aunt and uncle who had worked for Outward Bound in their twenties and early thirties. The first trip I did was with Outward Bound as a teenager on a twenty-eight day hike. After that, I did a lot of three to five day trips, but nothing of a serious length beyond a week or two since that Outward Bound trip.”

Arts ‘n Crafts

Brian-Keith Canoe Building

Brian and his dad in the wood shop, laying the final strips

But first, they had to put in a few long days in the woodshop. Anyone that has ever built a boat, or even considered the possibility, knows that it’s no bargain. There is no sweat equity in boat building. It’s quite a bit cheaper and easier to troll around on Craig’s List, or even purchase a new craft from L.L. Bean. Building a boat is an adventure unto itself, and for Allie and Brian was an important phase of their trip. To mitigate the high cost of Western Red Cedar, one of the most common wood used in canoe building, they used a fallen Basswood tree and Brian’s dad milled it into strips while he and Allie travelled back from California. “Brian’s parent’s are true craftspeople,” Allie explains. Leslie, his mom, was a weaver, and Keith had built many boats in the past. “He had once made a go of it trying to sell his boats, and always jokes that he is a really good builder, but not such a good salesman. But their help was really critical because we knew that historically, if you don’t start the trail by early July, then you will be dragging your boat a lot more due to the lower water levels later in the summer. But the whole experience of building the boat was very new to me. I don’t come from a family that has a long history of making things with their hands. It was just a whole new world for me to think that you could make something like a canoe in such a short span of time, and to have it be not only useful, but beautiful. My favorite part was watching the finishing touches being made. Brian’s mom taught me how to weave and cane the seats, and after the deck plates and gunnels were done, and the paddles were made, it was an amazing feeling. I felt like we were halfway there and we hadn’t even started paddling yet.”

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First Strokes

It’s easy for the uninitiated to compare the canoe trail to other long distance trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. In many respects, it is: lots of camping, temperamental backpacking stoves, and black flies. But the canoe trail is also quite different than the popular thru-hiking trails. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the organization that manages the route, points out that much of the land along the waterways is private land, with access granted through landowner permission. Another contrast is the proximity of the waterways to the local communities. Because, as humans, we like to build near water, the canoe trail passes by civilization more frequently, allowing thru-paddlers more opportunity to grab a pizza, sleep in a bed, and meet non-paddlers. Resupply is generally done on the fly, walking into town as needed. The longest distance that they had to walk to find a grocery store was about a mile.

Brian QuarrierAfter all of the excitement of building an heirloom quality canoe and launching on a beautiful day in late June, Allie and Brian made their way from Old Forge through upstate New York. Paddling was mostly smooth with a few upstream sections and some rough water here and there due to wind, but overall nothing too technical until day six, when they came upon rapids in the Saranac River. They decided to portage around the rapids, not wanting to risk puncturing a hole in the canoe, but that decision cost them eight miles on foot, towing their craft on an old set of portage wheels. Although it made for a tiring day made worse from a string of bad weather days, Allie points out that it was actually a positive experience because it highlighted the kindness of total strangers, a recurring theme throughout their journey. “As we ate lunch, we chatted with a man who offered to drive us the distance into town.” Wanting to stick to the trail, either in their canoe or walking alongside it, they declined his offer, but even still he checked on them later in the day as they were still marching up the road toward another suitable launch point. “Really, we met so many nice people along the way.”

A few days later, they met a couple walking their dog on North Hero Island as they traversed Lake Champlain. Intrigued by the handmade canoe and the tale of paddling from New York to Maine, the two invited Brian and Allie over for dinner where they feasted on roast turkey and beer. “It came at a time that was very welcome. It was the end of the first leg of our trip and we were going to start paddling upstream the next day and were a bit nervous about it. So it was a nice end to that part of the trip.”

 

Thieves, Bugs, and Mud

Unfortunately though, not everyone was waiting to shower them with gifts and hot meals. In New Hampshire, they had their gear stolen while in town. “It was another rainy day and we decided to stop in at a diner for some hot food. We stashed the canoe alongside the diner and soon a woman outside started motioning for me to come outside. She said that there was someone by our canoe, and when I checked it out I realized that one of our bags was missing, the one with my passport, camera, and tent,” Brian says. Their waitress came out to help, and eventually found their gear ditched in a nearby bush. “But the wild thing was that afterward, in the diner, this older, handicapped man dropped a hundred dollar bill on our table, and just walked out the door. He didn’t say anything. He probably thought that we didn’t get our gear back and wanted to help pay. We ran over to his car and explained that we got our stuff back and were all set, and he said ‘I just don’t want you to think that everyone in this town is bad.’”

Reflecting on some of the other difficulties inherent with paddling the NFCT, Allie notes the challenges with paddling upstream, particularly in Maine while negotiating Spencer Stream. “We knew it was going to be hard, but the thing we didn’t anticipate was how difficult it would be to navigate upstream. We took it for granted that when you are paddling downstream, you’re going with the greatest flow of water. But when you’re traveling against the flow, it is much harder to tell which little creek you should be taking. We ended up following the green paint on the rocks that had scraped off of other people’s Old Town canoes. Those were our trail blazes.” Traveling upstream also poses some obvious physical challenges, and both Allie and Brian both note one of their weaknesses on the trip: poling upstream. This is a technique where one paddler stands in the canoe and uses a long pole to push the canoe forward like a Venetian gondolier. Highly useful for traveling against shallow rapids or fast currents, the two did not attempt it much due to a lack of experience. Poling may sound simple, but there is some technical skill involved. Remember the first rule of being in a canoe when you were a kid: “Don’t stand up!” The thought of flipping the canoe and soaking all of their gear was enough to make them endure a few exhausting upstream paddles.

Other potential difficulties they avoided. The notorious Mud Pond carry, a two-mile portage in Maine from Umbazooksus Stream to Mud Pond. If the name conjures up images of wading through shin deep muck while getting ravaged by mosquitos, you would be correct. The distance is actually tripled for most thru-paddlers due to the portage being non-cartable and necessitating two passages to move all of one’s gear.

Thoreau Island

Thoreau’s Island, Maine

“We elected to portage around the Mud Pond carry,” instead taking a six-mile road march that afforded the luxury of carting the canoe on wheels. “We were pretty tired by this point and figured that we could get our adventures in elsewhere.” The decision seemed to have been a good one. “We met these two old college buddies section paddling the day after they did the Mud Pond carry. They were in kayaks and were completely exhausted. We ended up seeing them everyday from that point on until we got to Fort Kent, which was really fun. Otherwise, we found that even though we saw a ton of cars with canoes or kayaks on top, we almost never saw paddlers. We would say to each other ‘Where is everyone going with these boats if we’re not seeing them?’ So it was nice to be able to share the experience with other people for a little while.”

 

Final Landing

The pair ended their thru-paddling experience the same way that they had begun. Brian’s parents travelled to northern Maine for the final few days to celebrate and give them a ride back home. The entire trip took thirty-six days, but if you include the time it took to build the canoe, it was well over fifty days. It was challenging, but the two would highly recommend the trail to anyone with enough commitment to do it. “It was such a great experience. Occasionally we get emails from people considering doing it, and we always encourage them to give it a try, whether it’s a section, a day, or the whole thing,” Allie says. “For me, it was a really unique way of seeing the general area where I grew up. I have always loved New England, and it gave me a much deeper appreciation for all of the preserved areas and beautiful waterways that we have here.” For those that do give it a try though, a few pieces of advice come to mind. “Try to pare down what you are bringing as much as possible. We didn’t bring a lot of superfluous stuff, and that really helps, especially with portages.” They also recommend purchasing the Northern Forest Canoe Trail maps. The maps are a great planning aid that shows campsites, portages, and local services that will be helpful to the section or thru-paddler. They also contain book recommendations for that specific section of trail. “We didn’t have those books while we were travelling, but I wish we had, specifically the section on the northern Maine woods. We ended up reading them after the fact. They provide a lot of detail and history of the area that you are paddling.” The last piece of advice is utilitarian. “Bring a small tarp with some paracord attached to each corner. When it was rainy, we could set it up over our cooking area and extend our living space, or set it up over the tent for extra protection. It’s cheap and easy to carry.” They even MacGyvered it up as a sail a couple of times.

Eastern Terminus

740 miles later, our intrepid adventurers reach Fort Kent

Although every day was indeed unique, Allie recalls that her favorite part of their travels was more of a routine. “At the end of each night, we would get into the tent and write a short journal entry together about what had happened that day. We would write about the people we met, how many moose we saw, or changes to the guidebook that we thought should be made. It was nice, because during the day we were so focused on getting from point A to point B, that it was nice to be forced to have a recap of the day.” For Brian, being removed from the distractions of daily life was his favorite aspect. “All you have to worry about is where you are sleeping, what you’re going to eat, and what the weather is doing. At least for me, I became a lot happier.” Both enjoyed the loons, whose sounds seemed to be ever present each night at dusk and melted away any remaining stress from the day.

 

Looking Forward

“Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller

 

Although the paddling stopped in Fort Kent, the journey did not end there. Inspired by their trip along the NFCT, as well as his initial outing with the students from the Darrow school, Brian founded Build and Go Adventures, which specializes in week-long adventures where clients build some piece of gear and then take it on an overnight camping trip. Canoes and kayaks are an obvious specialty, but he has also built skis and snowshoes for winter outings, and even a bicycle and trailer that he made out of bamboo that he used on a cross-country trip in 2014. And not just cross-country as in ‘a long trip’. He actually rode from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Anacortes, Washington. Three friends, all on bicycles, accompanied him on the trip. His bamboo flyer held up for the whole journey and was able to keep pace with the rest of the team. “It worked beautifully. I hit fifty-five miles per hour coming down one of the passes in Montana. I loved it.”

Both Allie and Brian continue to look forward to the next journey. “It’s kind of a curse that I’ve been on this canoe trip, because I just want to go on more extended adventures. It’s hard to find the time and funds to do it, but I am always scheming,” Brian says. He would like to someday mountain bike the Continental Divide Trail, while Allie would like to do another long paddle in Canada. They also both want to incorporate outdoor education into their teaching careers. Brian currently teaches at Outdoor Academy, a single semester school for sophomores in high school, where one-third of the learning is done in the field. “It mixes intensive academics with the outdoors, and also has a large crafts component, which is a huge draw for me. I get to teach and work with kids, be outside, and build things with my hands.” Allie has similar plans after she gets her master’s degree in education, and currently works as a seasonal guide for Outward Bound to keep her feet wet in the outdoor education realm where she takes students on backpacking and canoeing trips.

 

Looking back on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Allie and Brian both admit that there were some low points, but all things considered, it was a great experience. “I felt the highest highs, and the lowest lows, all wrapped up into that one trip,” Allie says, which she defines as an essential element of adventure. “How I define adventure for myself and for everyone is stepping outside of your daily routine and doing something that makes you feel more alive than you usually do. That looks different for everyone. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail was adventurous for me. But for some, going on a day hike might be adventurous, and that shouldn’t be discounted either. We all like to test our limits, either physical or mental, and I like to adventure to see what I can do and to surprise myself.”

For more information on Allie and Brian’s thru paddle of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, visit their blog at allieandbriancanoe.blogspot.com. For official planning guidance, events, and more general information about the trail, visit northernforestcanoetrail.org.

 “Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe.” – American Proverb

all photos courtesy of Allie Miller and Brian Quarrier

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