Friday, May 27, 2016

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail

I guess I had it bass ackwards.  If I had the time and was able to do them all, I envisioned doing the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) as a training ground for doing the full Mississippi River, and that as a ground breaker for the Missouri River.  Then I saw the video with Norman Miller seeing Kris Laurie and his cousin ( off on the next leg of their Missouri River Source-to-Sea trip.  As the paddlers pushed away from the shore, someone behind the camera suggested to them that once they got the Missouri done, they should go try the NFCT.  After getting deeper into the true nature of the NFCT, I now sense the trail is more a doctoral dissertation than an indoctrination.

In my naivet√©, when I approached the idea of the NFCT, I was drawn to the pictures of flatwater paddles through quiet, pastoral streams in company with beaver, loons, and moose, shade-dappled banks topped by round barns, white-spired churches, and classic Victorian New England architecture.  But wait, I thought, all of New England is mountains.  There’s no way to have flatwater through mountain ranges.  As I continued to dig deeper, shreds of reality began to invade my tranquil mental images.  Two guide books and a stack of maps later, here is some of that reality.

First, if you don’t have an acquaintance with the NFCT, it is a 740-mile water trail through four states (New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) with about a three-day foray into Quebec.  It includes 22 rivers, 56 lakes, 3 wildlife refuges, 40 communities, many with provisioning, lodging, and outfitting services, and 62 portages.  There are 35 segments covered by thirteen maps.  It starts in Old Forge, NY, traverses the Adirondacks, Lake Champlain, plays tag with some of the Appalachian Trail, and finishes as far north as one can go in this country, by the Canadian border, in Fort Kent, ME.  To tackle the trail with confidence, the Through-Paddler should be experienced with paddling through Class III rapids, open big-water crossings, navigation, poling, lining and tracking, portaging, and primitive camping.  And, the paddler should be able to deal with leeches, mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-ums, ticks, and wildlife.  If done by segment, some areas are perfectly suited to novice paddlers.  The segment paddler can pick and choose both location and timing.  The Through-Paddler, however, does not have such luxury, and must conquer the challenges as they appear.

Now, here’s the hook.  Let’s go back to the 62 portages I glossed over real fast.  They are supposed to cover a total of 55 miles, with the longest portage being 5.7 miles on the Grand Portage, and with much of it wheel-able.   Heck, I thought, that’s a nice long walk, but no big deal.  But, then there’s more of that reality stuff.  Those 62 portages that total 55 miles come with the assumption that you can do all those Class III rapids, including the 162 miles upstream against the Class I, II, and III rapids and current, can manage the lining and tracking and poling, and that by some huge miracle you reach each and every stream when it has optimum water levels.  However, what happens if you don’t possess all those skills, especially while managing a sluggish, loaded canoe, or find yourself faced with dry creek beds and rock gardens?  Most of those deficiencies can be allowed for by portaging around those obstructions. 

Two of the emphasized skills that are required---and stressed---are common sense and good judgment.  If you are paddling solo, you need to take extra precautions.  Any risks experienced are now that much greater when there is the chance of injury or the loss of camping gear and food during a capsize.  If bravado overpowers good judgment, perhaps the scattered broken canoe parts along the trail will encourage greater consideration.  If your skills are so great that you can honestly negate those risks, great, but if not, then you have to mitigate those risks by hitting the portage trail.  In my case, after planning out the entire route, I totaled all the potential portages that could result from great caution or bad luck, and came out with an estimate of 189 miles of portaging while carrying or dragging a canoe loaded with a hundred or so pounds of provisions and gear.  A few of those portages have double-digit mileage, and dragging is done over roughly 6,000 feet of changes in elevation over the course of the trail.  Now, THAT is reality.  But here’s another reality that helps to offset those fearsome stats.  If you had only one canoe trip to make in a lifetime, the NFCT, the longest totally inland water trail in America, should be it.  The trail offers the solitude and beauty of the Boundary Waters, raging rapids to Class V, as well as those meandering streams that I found beckoning to me, challenges for both the novice and experienced paddler, every kind of spectacular scenery from bogs to mountain crests, long lists of flora and fauna and geology, chances to proclaim your navigational skills and then get lost, and share the tons of history lived by thousands of years of Native Americans, trappers, lumberjacks, traders, settlers, and exuberant fishermen.  The trail is awesome.  Most people pick and choose the sections they want to do so they are almost always going downstream, and time their trips for the best water levels.  Finishing the trail as a Through-Paddler, however, is a totally different animal.  There is no best time of year to make a Through-Paddle.  The trail changes so much through its course that all kinds of variables will be encountered regardless of season.  Part of the challenge is in mentally and physically meeting those variables and overcoming them.  Succeeding as a Through-Paddler is a huge accomplishment, and only 27 people can stake their claim as a Self-Propelled Through-Paddler.  There are other categories, however, such as an Integrated Through-Paddler, those who utilize a shuttle for completing one or more legs, and the Sectional Paddler, who does the entire trail, a piece at a time, usually going downstream, and over several years.

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