In a sense, Maine resident Don Mullen is a pioneer. That’s because in the spring of 2000, Mullen became what is believed to be the first modern-day person to complete the 740-mile paddling adventure from New York to Maine known as the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in one trip.
Today, a nonprofit group named after the paddling trail promotes the route and the recognizes more than 20 paddlers who have completed the route in one trip. All started in 2006 or later.
At the age of 28, Mullen set out for his trip on May 1, 2000 from Old Forge. He arrived in Fort Kent, Maine 55 days later, on June 25. That included a five-day hiatus, during which he returned to his home to let a cut on his foot heal.
During the two months, Mullen used a 16-foot long, 65-pound wooden canoe that he built himself based on an E.M. White mold. White was a Maine-based wooden canvas boat builder.
Preparing for the trip, Mullen used hand-sketched maps provided to him by a Maine paddling guide, who had been part of a group researching the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. He travelled both by himself and was joined by other paddlers in his boat. He didn’t resupply at stores along the way and had three places along the way where he had friends drop off food. He turned down rides at the portages. For him, the trip was meant to be a wilderness experience.
Now, a decade later, Mullen lives in Hope, Maine and is a freelance writer and photographer. In the recently released Northern Forest Canoe Trail guidebook, Mullen wrote six chapters about the Maine section of the trail.
Below, Mullen shares his experiences of his 2000 paddling trip.
How did you become interested in doing the trip?
“(I was) running an Outward Bound course in western Maine and seeing little signs up for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. I would later find the Rangeley area in Maine was one of the only areas on the trail that had the signs. I was kind of looking for an adventure that I could do, and paddling had become my preferred mode of being outside. When I realized that this trail existed, it sounded like a cool thing to look into.”
What maps did you use to navigate?
“I used USGS maps, 1 to 100,000 scale and they were pretty similar to what you get with the northern forest maps now, but I had 14. I do remember there was at least one map that didn’t have a lot of the trail on it. It was just on the corner. I also had the little Xeroxed hand-sketched maps. But ahead of time, I kind of reviewed the whole trail on the various Delorme maps (and hand-sketched map) and then sort of penciled in anything that seemed relevant, so I only had to carry the USGS maps, which were a lot easier to portage around.”
Did you get lost?
“I never got out-and-out lost but I had some points where I was going for a while, and I wasn’t sure if I was going in the right direction. There’s an area in Vermont on the Clyde River, a kind of wetland, swampy area that confused me. In the end, I was in the right place, but I was there by myself. You try to follow the current and hope you’re in the right place. Sometimes you’re going through a very little narrow opening. I got a little nervous there, and there were definitely other moments of kind of acting on faith.”
Did you got through any sections with historical ties that stick out?
“Between New Hampshire and Maine, when I was looking at the maps and realized that if you follow Phillips Brook far enough it sort of bends toward the Androscoggin River. There’s a little saddle between the mountains and it looked to me like it was a traditional portage route. Then when I was up Phillips Brook, I met a local and he told me that in his father’s day, they would see native people using this route. So that was a pretty cool sign. But it’s a bit of a hassle (to portage) these days.
Also in Maine, along the Allagash River, there’s a lot of logging stuff up there. In the middle of the Allagash, you find two large train engines — just totally in the wild. They were used to pull lumber but now the forest is just growing in around them and they look very strange. There’s the ruins to old steamboats to pull logs. Up there, there’s the ruins of log haulers. So yeah, particularly in the Allagash, but even in western Maine there is some lot of old logging stuff.”
What were some of the difficulties you encountered?
“While I was planning the trip, and while I was living the trip, I had these things living in my mind that would be the most difficult things in the trip. And sometimes they were, and sometimes they weren’t. But the unknowns would seem significant and one of them was crossing Lake Champlain.
We actually made the bulk of the crossing okay, but it’s definitely a big body of water. A small 16-foot boat with two people, loaded with gear, doesn’t have a lot of freeboard. That was a little scary. So we got across to southern section, sort of the big island that separates the bays of the lake, and that’s where it got the choppiest, relatively close to shore there. That’s where I was probably the most nervous in an open water situation, where I just sort of felt like a cork getting tossed around on very large swells. I had one moment when I went to dig in with my paddle and almost lost my balance because there was no water because we were on a wave and the stern was out of the water. So we went to shore pretty quickly after that and again waited until the next morning and waited it out. It certainly was nerve wracking but it was doable.”
Mullen also said that being alone on the trip was difficult, at times, especially during one long stretch that lasted about two weeks as he entered Maine.
“It surprised me a little bit at that time that the alone time was a little more lonely than I thought it would be. I don’t know if that had something to do with being out. It wasn’t like I was home alone. I was out in constant unknown alone. That was a challenge.”
Photo by Andy Chakoumakos
Don Mullen completed the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail in the spring of 2000.