A Paddler’s Diary

We live in an age where Point B is to be arrived at as quickly and as comfortably as possible. Despite these obvious efficiencies, we ought to be saddened by what is missed along the way. This is especially the case if Point B is Fort Kent, in the northernmost woods of Maine, and Point A is Old Forge in the upper part of New York State. There are 740 miles of creeks, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and trails – some of it wilderness, some less so, and some historic community – between those two points. All of it is of extraordinary natural beauty and it can’t be seen by jet. Or car, for that matter. The highways here are bodies of water, and the way to travel is by paddling.

Photos by: JOHN OLSEN

This is a good thing for there is much to see on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. It winds through the rest of eastern New York, across Lake Champlain into Vermont, up into Quebec, back down into New Hampshire and then north to the tip of Maine. Sadly, the modern adventurer is rarely afforded the time or resources to take off for a couple of months and head into this paradise. So perhaps the only way to make this journey is in sections.

The first begins in the heart of the Adirondacks, the largest park in the lower-48. Six million acres of unsurpassed scenery, of history – it’s a testament to the resiliency of nature and Man’s oft-too-late struggle to preserve it. The waterway is the middle branch of the Moose River. This was the preferred passage of the beaver-hunting Iroquois and rival tribes, like the Algonquin, who battled and traded here before the French and British descended upon this wilderness fighting for control. Other routes north, like the Hudson River, were far too windy for canoe travel. Later trappers, hunters and guides used the same waterways to ply their trades, while timber barons built sawmills and introduced steamboats to exploit these lumber-rich forests. More recently, industrialists discovered the Adirondacks’ charms, now more easily accessed by plushy railcar, and built the now-famous rustic Great Camps, inspiring an architectural style appreciated and practiced today.

Last September found four of us in two canoes making our way along these waters. There was no evidence that at one time this had been ruined, almost completely denuded by lumbermen at the turn of the last century. Instead, we were immediately struck by how suddenly we slipped into Eden. A foundry town, then summer cottages and fishing camps gave way to wooded expanse and old-growth forest. Beech, maple and birch already flickering in fall color burned through green smears of spruce and tamarack. Marsh and timber flooded by industrious beavers provides habitat for loons, mergansers, herons and osprey.

Dotting this country are occasional communities, sprung up no doubt because of the necessity of such depots for paddling travelers, for rest, for replenishment, for trade. Sometimes it might only be a general store and a church that can be seen on a passing shore, the folk tucked farther back into the woods where they make their way not too differently than those who came before them. The place is timeless.

Ironically, the farther we paddled from these infrequent pockets of humanity, the more we became aware of any notion of livingness. Utterly quickened in these cathedrals provisioned by the gods themselves, we paddled with a vigor that belied the arduousness of long miles of hard stroke. If we were exhausted, we weren’t aware of it.

The first leg is 43 miles (of which 5-6 miles is overland carry) and can be done in three days, camping along the way. The biggest body of water is Raquette Lake, where it can be quite windy and the current swift. Heed caution here. Ice was once cut from this lake and transported downstate to New York City by railroad. Today the locals still use the ice to refrigerate the general store. There is a twisting, muddy tract cross-stitched with beaver dams and rife with wildlife that immediately precedes entry into Raquette Lake. The varied diversity of these two habitats despite their nearness is remarkable.

Canoes are my preferred mode of travel. They provide indulgences that backpacking (or kayaking) cannot. There was a reason the Indians used them. They remain unsurpassed in stowage and speed of travel. My regular paddling companions, John and Gerry are the chefs. They spend a week before our expeditions preparing and freezing gourmet meals. We eat veggie-laden omelets, rib-eye steaks, stews, barbequed chickens basted with any number of their inspired sauces. This is all washed down with the finest whiskey and tequila we can afford. And why not? We paddle hard each day and the method of travel allows us the extravagance. The constellations winking in the smoke curling from our fire overhead may not look more glorious to us than to the hiker eating freeze-dried meatloaf on a cold stump, but they certainly look no less so.

We expect it will take us another ten years to leg our way across the entire trail. I imagine we will need to bear up time to time in the face of ferocious weather, quarreling, capsized canoes, lost gear, sickness and a small amount of woe. But, I know there will be days of azure-marbled sky, unending pasture and forest and silences broken only by the dip of a paddle into water.

And when we arrive at Fort Kent a decade from now, hopefully the very four of us intact, we will toast our forbearers who did the same 350 years ago bearing beaver pelts and venison jerky.