Monday, September 26, 2011

Paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

More than seven thousand people have climbed all forty-six of the Adirondack High Peaks. Not to denigrate the achievement of those hikers, but bagging the peaks is no longer a rare feat.

In contrast, only forty or so people have paddled the entire length of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail—a 740-mile route that starts in Old Forge and ends in northern Maine.

One of them is Mike Lynch, the outdoors writer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Lynch paddled the NFCT this past summer and wrote about his adventure for the newspaper and his website, Northeast Outdoors. He also is working on a documentary film.

Lynch will give a slide show on the forty-five-day trip at the Guides House in Lake Placid at 7 p.m. Sunday, October 9. The Guides House is next-door to High Peaks Cyclery on Main Street.For more information on the talk, e-mail Lynch at mike@neout.com.

Meantime, you might be interested in reading Lynch’s responses to questions we asked about his trek.

Just to set the scene: the Adirondack leg of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail starts on Fulton Chain of Lakes and ends on Lake Champlain. Paddlers canoe down the lake and then along various rivers and water bodies in Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire, and Maine. The route has a number of tough carries, so Mike brought a canoe cart.

Lynch did the trip solo from Old Forge to Saranac Lake, where he was joined by Jacob Resneck, a friend who used to work at the Enterprise. After Jacob left, Mike was joined by his fiancée, Ariel Diggory.

What was your favorite part of NFCT in Adirondacks?
“On the Raquette River just after you enter it from the northern end of Long Lake. I entered this section in late evening, and the lighting was spectacular. The reflections on the water were near perfect. There was also a young loon ahead of me for a short period.”

What was your favorite part outside New York?
“I enjoyed nearly the entire 350-mile section in Maine, starting with Umbagog Lake and ending on the St. John River in Fort Kent. Some of the highlights included paddling on glass-like water on Umbagog, Flagstaff, and Moosehead lakes either just before sunset or during it. The rapids and wildlife on the Allagash River were also amazing. We saw about a dozen moose in that region, along with probably thirty bald eagles.”

What was the hardest portage?
“The hardest portage was what I thought was the Mud Pond Carry in Maine, but in retrospect may have been some other path. The first section was in a bog; then the trail led to a forested area with a lot of large brush from prior logging operations that was difficult and dangerous to walk over. Another hard portage was a twenty-mile walk from Rangeley, Maine, to Stratton on a paved state road. Although this portage was long, it wasn’t too bad because the road was paved and we had wheels.”

And the scariest whitewater?
“I wouldn’t characterize any whitewater we did as scary. We paddled Class I and II rapids and portaged around Class III and up. Because we scouted the more challenging rapids, we were able to pick lines that we could handle. The highest waves we faced were on the St. John River because the area received a lot of rain while we were in that region. In one short section, the waves were breaking over the gunnels as we paddled. The most difficult paddling was actually on windy lakes. We faced large swells and very strong winds several times.”

Best wildlife sighting?
“That’s an easy one. Ariel and I saw an abundance of wildlife at the north end of Churchill Lake on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway one evening after an especially intense thunder and lightning storm. The water here is a few hundred feet across as it narrows into an outlet that leads to a dam. As we arrived there, we were greeted by a rainbow. Then we saw two loons on our left. Then a moose, half-submerged in the water, appeared on our right. After seeing it, we decided to float and watch it feed in the water for a while. As we were sitting there, a young calf stood up in the grass on the shore. Then an eagle swooped down on our left and caught a fish. There was also about a dozen Canada geese swimming very close to the moose and four or five otters playing in the water to our left. The scene ended with the moose walking out of the water. But before leaving, she nursed the calf. We watched this entire scene for about forty-five minutes, enjoying every second of it.”

Most memorable people encounter?
“There were many, many memorable people encounters. I met great people everywhere. I found that the people in the smallest towns were often the friendliest and most down to earth. In Rangley, for instance, a couple named Bruce and Claudia let us store my canoe under their house while we stayed at the Rangeley Inn across the street. I also used their computer, and Bruce took me on a drive for moose.”

Was the NFCT easy to follow?
“For the most part, but we did experience a few problems. One of the difficulties we had was trying to follow some of the portages that used streets. We got off track in Plattsburgh and a few small towns in Vermont early in the trip. In Quebec, New Hampshire, and Maine, most everything was straightforward. Well, except for the Mud Pond portage and maybe the Spencer Stream area in Maine.”

Did you have any unforeseen difficulties?
“I guess the size of the waves on some of the lakes were larger than I anticipated. I had heard stories about the large swells on Lake Champlain, Raquette Lake, and many lakes in Maine, but it’s a different thing to experience them. Also, walking upstream on the rocks was tough at times because the rocks on the river bottoms were extremely slippery. The first half of the trip I also had pretty bad blisters from my new watershoes.”

How often were you paddling upstream?
The majority of upstream paddling occurs between Vermont and Maine. It starts on the Missisquoi River as you leave Lake Champlain and is pretty constant with a few exceptions until Errol, New Hampshire. I read in an Adirondack Explorer article that there are 160 miles of upstream paddling. I never added it up myself. It seems like a lot when you’re about halfway through the trip. Luckily, the majority of the second half of the trip is downriver or on lakes and ponds. The worst upstream section was probably on Little Spencer Stream in Maine because the water was so low.”

Did you go through customs at the Quebec border?
“Yes, on the Missisquoi River in Vermont I had to walk up a hill, then cross a bridge to the customs station. I was soaked to my waist when I showed my passport card to the border guard. He barely glanced at it, handed it back to me, and we went back down to our canoe.”

How many miles did you paddle a day?
“We averaged fifteen miles per day. Each day was different though. I had three zero days on the trip. Otherwise we paddled between seven and thirty-something miles a day. How much we paddled a day depended upon a number of variables, including weather, the type of water. And whether I had any interviews to do that day. I took thousands of photos on the trip and hours and hours of video. That slowed us down.”

How often did you paddle in rain?
“It was very dry in June and July. I didn’t paddle in the rain until just outside of Jackman, Maine, about five weeks into my trip. But from Jackman to Fort Kent, it rained several days. There were times Ariel and I had to seek shelter on the shore during thunder and lightning storms. The worst day of just rain was the second-to-last day of the trip on the Allagash and St. John rivers. We paddled more than thirty miles in the rain that day, including a hiking sidetrip to see some old ruins on the Allagash. That was a tough day. It was only about 50 degrees outside. We had to keep moving to stay warm.”

What did you eat?
“When I was with Jacob during the first part of the trip, I ate lots of pasta. We also ate cheese and crackers, beef jerky, canned fish, and an assortment of other things that were easy to cook or could put hot sauce on. I ate granola bars throughout the trip at any time of the day. In Maine, Ariel and I ate packaged Indian food for dinner about one-third of the time. Oatmeal was a good breakfast. For snacks, we had Cheez-its, lots of Gorp, dried fruit, jolly ranchers. One of my favorite meals was dehydrated vegetarian chili. We also had some dehydrated mash potatoes that we mixed with dehydrated vegetables.”

Where did you sleep?
“The vast majority of time we camped out. In the Adirondacks, I slept in lean-tos. In Vermont, Quebec, and New Hampshire, we slept at NFCT-designated campsites, in fields outside of towns or we just pulled over on the riverbank. For the most part in Maine, we were able to utilize designated campsites. Throughout the trip, we also slept at campgrounds a few times. I spent two nights in my own house in Saranac Lake, which is on the trail, two nights in a friends’ house on Lake Champlain, one in a new friends’ house near Stratton, Maine and three nights in a hotel.”

Most useful gear?
“The most useful gear was my canoe, paddles, and wheels. The canoe I used was a seventeen-foot Old Town Penobscot. It’s a versatile boat that can handle a variety of situations, from intermediate whitewater to the varying conditions of lakes. As for paddles, I had one lightweight carbon-fiber bent shaft paddle for flatwater and a wooden straight shaft Sawyer Voyager paddle for rapids and situations where I needed something durable. Because there are a lot of long portages, I believe wheels are essential. Another thing that’s essential is a tube-repair kit and extra tubes. I popped about five tires on the trip.”

Advice for those attempting the trip?
“My advice for those doing the trip is to talk to others who have done the trip already, read their blogs, and learn from their experiences. It helped me get a better understanding of what I was getting into. Also, consider the time of year. In the spring, the water will be cold and high. In the summer, the water levels will be a little lower, which will require more portaging. I would also say that it’s important to travel as light as possible without leaving essential gear at home.”

Photo by Mike Lynch: Moose on the Allagash River in Maine.

Phil Brown is editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown

Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




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