The longest canoe trail in the nation, the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail starts in Old Forge and ends in Fort Kent, Maine. It goes through Vermont, Québec, and New Hampshire following Native American travel routes.
The organization was founded when Vermonters Kay Henry and Rob Center, former owners of the Mad River Canoe company, first heard the idea of the trail from a group of paddlers researching the route. They loved the idea of the adventure, but were compelled by a larger vision. “We knew that the region had been through decades of decline in the forest products industries that had been the economic driver for generations,” Henry said. “We saw this trail as a means to help support the development of nature-based tourism across the North Country and an opportunity to diversify the economy.”
Center and Henry created the nonprofit organization in 2000, and by 2006, the trail was fully mapped and officially opened. Since then, the organization has worked to increase and improve infrastructure including access points, camping, portage routes, and navigational and safety signage. The trail is used by a variety of paddlers, from day-trippers to through-paddlers.
Executive director Karrie Thomas now manages the Northern Forest Canoe Trail nonprofit. Thomas took over the nonprofit in February 2014 for Kate Williams, who served for 10 years. Below is a short question-and-answer session with Thomas.
Almanack: What have been some of the highlights of the past 15 years for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail?
Karrie Thomas: The greatest accomplishment of the trail is the collaborative effort it has taken to transform this idea from a dream to a reality. We would never have made this happen alone as a small nonprofit staff. The trail is truly a product of a collective process harnessing the vision of every community along the route, legislators and funders from across the northeast, and people with a passion for the outdoors that were inspired by what we were attempting. Everyone pitched in with energy and hard work to build a truly grand adventure that creates access to and celebrates the landscapes, communities and history of the region.
Almanack: How has the organization itself changed over that period?
Karrie Thomas: As more people paddle the trail our name and brand recognition spread more widely and thus our impact in the region increases. Over time we have transitioned from imagining and laying out the trail, to building and maintaining infrastructure. We have matured into a sought-after expert on water trails known for our quality workmanship, commitment to rural economic development and connecting people to place.
Almanack: What are some of the difficulties of managing a 740 -mile long canoe trail?
Karrie Thomas: The basic challenge of covering such a large geography is obvious and very real. We put a lot of mileage on our vehicles and work hard to stay up to date on important local issues in many communities. Another less obvious but equally frustrating issue is navigating four different state’s regulations and permitting processes. One element we have managed successfully is obtaining essential permission from more than 30 private landowners across the trial allowing public access for camping portages and put-ins necessary to link the trail together.
Almanack: What do you need from communities, businesses, and landowners along the trail to be successful in the long run?
Karrie Thomas: We need to keep communication lines open across the trail. That means having good relationships with local business leaders and elected officials. We have many local champions that help us understand the needs of their community and help carry NFCT’s work forward on the ground level. We need a variety of people to help us improve a community’s capacity to open its doors to paddlers and take advantage of the benefits of a new market. People can become members and support us monetarily or volunteer to become more personally engaged. We still have several gaps between campgrounds on the trail. We need landowners interested in working with us to close these gaps. We need all trail users to respect private property, the wild places and the communities they pass through.
Almanack: How do you see the NFCT organization and trail evolving over the next 15 years?
Karrie Thomas: We continue to strive towards our core goals of protecting and stewarding the physical trail and providing inspiring outdoor experiences. Paddlers are our primary audience: we can do more to help people find their way to the water and connect to the natural world through paddlesports. In our current paradigm we focus almost entirely on our singular line on the map, but that is often not the way most people plan a day or weekend. I can see us doing more to help people discover paddling in the northern forest region. We could partner in many ways to promote and advocate for paddling in general. We are also working to cultivate and connect communities of paddlers throughout the region. We have put some energy into helping people connect with each other around their interest in the trail and paddling in general, which has been fun and rewarding.