I’ve had a long-standing desire to take a long journey, either by foot or by canoe. In this case, it seemed paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail was a lot more realistic than hiking the Appalachian Trail. I could afford to take the time off for this trip without interrupting my life too much. I don’t think I could have taken five months to hike the Appalachian Trail at this point.
This canoe trail is also a somewhat obvious choice because it’s in my backyard, so to speak. The Saranac River, which runs through Saranac Lake where I live, is part of the route. Overall, the trip will take me through four states and one Canadian province: New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire and Maine.
I’ve written about the route several times in the last few years. Interviews with Don Mullen, the first modern-day person to do the trail in 2000, and Inlet residents Ryan and Catherine Thompson, who paddled the trail last spring then hiked the Appalachian Trail, also played a large role in planting the seed in my head to do this trip.
The newness of the route is also intriguing. Through the end of 2010, only 38 people had completed entire 740 miles as through paddlers, according to the nonprofit Northern Forest Canoe Trail organization. That number could be higher because not every through paddler may have informed the organization about their trip. Plus, several people will have presumably completed the trail ahead of me this summer.
I will be paddling the first 90 miles of the trip by myself in a solo kevlar by Wenonah. Then in Saranac Lake, I’ll be joined by my friend and fellow journalist Jacob Resneck. We’ll be paddling a tandem royalex boat. Jacob will accompany me until Straton, Maine, where he will be replaced by my fiancee Ariel Diggory.
I’m actually getting a later start than most through paddlers, but this was the best time for me to leave because of my work schedule. Many people prefer to paddle the route in May and June when the water levels are generally higher. This makes running some of the rivers easier. In July and August, paddlers sometimes encounter low water levels and are forced to carry their boat over land for miles. This year, though, the water levels are well above normal in many of the watersheds due to the deep snowpack this winter and record rainfalls this spring. It’ll be interesting to see how the levels hold up once the weather really heats up.
Regardless of the water levels, carrying your canoe is a large part of this trip. There are officially 62 carries, totaling 55 miles. I expect that number to be even higher due to my late start. The first serious carries Jacob and I will encounter will be on the Saranac River below Union Falls, where there are a series of turbulent whitewater sections that have to be avoided. Then, in Quebec at the upper reaches of the Missisquoi River, there is a 5.7-mile carry called the Grand Portage. It ends on the very large Lake Memphremagog.
But carries are only one of the many challenges on this trip. Two of the biggest will be paddling upstream and crossing very large lakes. I’ll face the biggest very early in the trip when crossing Lake Champlain, which is 110 miles in length and 12 miles at its widest.
Jacob and I will be crossing Lake Champlain from Cumberland Head, north of the Saranac River, to South Hero Island, in the middle of the lake. The crossing is a couple miles wide, according to the NFCT map. The goal is to get across the lake while the water is calm, which will likely happen at or before dawn. If we try to cross in choppy waters, the large waves could capsize us. From Lake Champlain, we’ll head north along the islands to the Missisquoi River. Here, we begin paddling upstream until we reach the Grand Portage.
Notes on gear
In order to deal with the wide variety of paddling conditions, I bought a used 17-foot Old Town Penobscot this spring. This versatile royalex boat is tough enough to take the pounding of the trip. It has a little bit of rocker for the downriver sections, is big enough to hold enough gear for the trip, tracks well enough for the flatwater sections and is tolerable on the carries. It’s not light, though. It weighs about 65 pounds. For the long carries, we’ll be using a set of wheels.
I’ve made a few adjustments and had to do some maintenance to this boat, which I bought for a bargain basement price at Raquette River Outfitters in Tupper Lake. When I purchased it, one of the gunnels was broken so I replaced it. The other work I did on the boat was also pretty minor. I put some padding on the seats and on two places on the bottom of the boat for kneeling in turbulent waters. I also plan to add some paddle clips to hold our two spare paddles.
The gear is pretty standard for the trip. It’s like any other canoe camping trip. You need a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, water filter, stove, appropriate clothes, first-aid kit, dry bags, enough food and some other miscellaneous gear. The key is trying to find the right balance between having enough gear to be comfortable and safe without overburdening yourself. Carrying too much weight on a long trip like this can be very detrimental. It could slow you down and even lead to injury. On the other hand, there are essentials you need.
Luckily for me, I’ll be starting in Old Forge and end up in Saranac Lake a few days later. This will allow me to make some adjustments.
One thing people have asked me is how I’ve prepared for this journey. To tell you the truth, this summer I’ve had less time to paddle than normal. I’ve gone on some short hikes, ridden a stationary bike and snuck in paddles whenever possible. Mainly, though, my physical preparation has come in the form of house work: stacking wood, mowing the lawn, some light carpentry work and making a raised bed vegetable garden.
Finally, the last thing I want to mention is that I’ll be carrying some lightweight video equipment with me with the intention of creating a feature length documentary about this journey and the trail itself. Jacob, who has a strong radio (sound) background, will be assisting me with this venture. For those who are interested in learning about this project, they can visit my personal website at www.neout.com. I’ll also have a blog on the site. I don’t expect to update it more than once a week. I also plan to make a shorter video that will be available on the Enterprise website once it is completed.
Next week, I plan to write about the first days on the water as I travel solo from Old Forge to Saranac Lake.
Lake Placid News outdoors writer Mike Lynch planned to set off on his 740-mile paddle of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail earlier this week.
Fact BoxIntent on Fort Kent
This is the first in a series of dispatches from Lake Placid News outdoors writer Mike Lynch as he paddles the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. The articles will appear on the outdoors page every week until the completion of the journey.