They thought they’d packed everything.
Nicole Grohoski and the brother and sister she’d teamed up with, Tom and Pam Perkins, had carefully assembled the food, clothing and shelter for an epic canoe trip.
Tent? Check. Camp stove? Check. Fuel? Check.
“We should have double checked,” Nicole recalled. “The first night we camped on an island. Pam brought a stove that used screw-on style fuel canisters. I pulled out a fuel canister for a pump-style stove. We ate a cold dinner.”
It was May of 2006, and Nicole and her friends were among the first paddlers in modern times to attempt to paddle the length of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), a 740-mile water trail from Old Forge, New York, to Fort Kent, Maine.
Now, four years later, Nicole, 26, who works as a cartographer, has helped the non-profit association that manages the trail – also known as the NFCT – to produce the first guidebook for the route. The release of the guide represents a coming of age for the trail, which was first established in 2000, with the founding of the association and the first complete through-paddle by a Maine man.
“Compared to the Appalachian Trail and other hiking trails it’s fairly new,” said Kate Williams, executive director of the organization. “Job one was to map it and get it into shape so we can say we have a contiguous trail. About 20 people that we know of have through-paddled it at this point and many others paddle shorter sections.”
Mike Krepner, Ron Canter and Randy Mardres, three men interested in tracing Native American water routes, first conceived of the NFCT as a continuous paddling trail in the 1990s. The trail association was incorporated in 2000 by Kay Henry and Rob Center, founders of Mad River Canoe Company, as a way to translate that research into a recreational resource.
Donnie Mullen, an Outward Bound instructor from Northport, Maine, was the first paddler to navigate the entire length, completing the journey in 55 days in a homemade wood-canvas canoe.
In addition to the terminus states of New York and Maine, the trail winds through Vermont, Quebec and New Hampshire, connecting 22 rivers and streams with 56 lakes.
It passes through the Adirondack Mountains, crosses Lake Champlain and includes the “Grand Portage” in Quebec, an 5.6-mile foot path used by the French-Canadian voyageurs to connect the Missisquoi valley with Lake Memphremagog.
Returning from Canada to the United States, the trail crosses New Hampshire and heads north through Maine to parallel the border between the U.S. and Canada for 347 miles, a section that includes the Moose River, the Rangeley Lakes and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a ribbon of lakes, ponds, rivers and occasional rapids that has a reputation for spectacular paddling.
Through-paddlers of the route pass through a range of wilderness ecosystems, including three national wildlife refuges and dozens of small towns with stores for restocking supplies and inns for recharging after nights of tent camping.
“It’s a great mix,” Williams said. “The landscape and towns are varied and each body of water is very different to paddle.”
In the 10 years since Mullen’s journey, the trail association has worked with paddlers to map the details of the route, establish camping areas and information kiosks and promote the trail in the 45 communities that the route passes through.
“It’s really about public access,” Williams said. “Knowing how to access the route and all the available resources isn’t information that’s necessarily easy to find. Having permission to access trail heads and campsites is also key. The water trails go right through communities, so from the get go we’ve developed very strong community relationships. We don’t offer guide or lodging service. Instead we try to direct travelers to resources in the communities.”
Camping and lodging is now available every 10 to 15 miles, she said, either at campsites the association has arranged with private land owners or at existing inns and campgrounds.
A series of 13 maps of the route were officially released in the spring of 2006, just as Nicole and her friends set out. “That summer they held the official opening ceremony,” Nicole said. “The last maps to get printed were so new that we had to pick them up as we drove to the trailhead.”
The paddlers resolved their camp stove issues by asking Nicole’s mother to mail a stove to a town ahead of them. That settled, the two women continued paddling a tandem canoe and Tom accompanied them in a single canoe. Later, after a back injury caused Pam to leave the expedition early, Tom and Nicole consolidated their gear into the tandem.
“Every day was different,” Nicole said. “I think it is something that makes the canoe trail stand out. It connects so many types of water bodies together. Some days it was mellow and other days it was really difficult.”
The trip requires 62 portages, totaling about 55 miles. During Nicole’s trip, surprises on the trail arrived in man-made and natural forms, including a giant plastic turtle on the river bank and deer swimming across their watery path.
Crossing Lake Champlain in May, they were caught in a storm and rough conditions threatened to tip them in dangerously cold waters. The boat did capsize later, on the Moose River, after they careened over an unexpected rapid. “There was a huge wave at the bottom of the drop that swamped us,” Nicole said.
What’s stuck with her most is the generosity of the people they encountered.
In the town of Allagash, Maine, a quiet storekeeper let them use his phone, check their email and fed them pizza for no charge.
While hitchhiking to another town they accidentally left their maps in the back window of the car. A woman working in a shop recognized their description of the car and called around town to find the driver, who returned the maps.
“It’s amazing how generous and friendly people are to you when you’re traveling in these ways,” Nicole said. “What I’ve learned is that people are interested in becoming part of your experience. It’s not something they can do every day but they can be a small part of your experience.”
When they arrived at the northern terminus of the trail in June of that year, Nicole and Tom became the first team to complete the route in a tandem canoe. Since then a number of other paddlers have through-paddled the route, including the first kayaker in 2008.
Based on her experience, Nicole recommended that anyone considering the trip should pick up the new guidebook, learn to pole a canoe for easier upstream travel and consider buying a spray skirt to keep rain and spray out of their boat.
“I think it’s an amazing resource for this region,” she said. “If you’re into taking long trips it’s there and it’s challenging. But if you’re interested in taking short trips, it’s easy for anyone living in New England to get to.”
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