Following ancient waterways
By Paul Grondahl
Imagine you put in your canoe along the Moose River at Old Forge, paddle through the Fulton Chain of Lakes in a northeasterly direction, and you just keep going and going and going . . .
Think of yourself paddling across four states and through 13 watersheds, peeling back layers of hidden history century by century, gliding across serene ponds, stopping for lunch at a picturesque riverside village, surging down whitewater rapids, poling along shallow streams and portaging your canoe over dozens of carries as you travel 740 miles to Fort Kent, Maine.
Sound like some paddling fanatic’s dream sequence? Hardly. This remarkable transportation network already exists, although it’s a little-known natural treasure. But it won’t remain anonymous for long if a group of determined paddling enthusiasts in the Adirondacks and New England have anything to say about it.
These hard-core paddlers aren’t finding new routes. Their pursuit is more a matter of rediscovery, of seeing and assembling and interpreting what is already there in a fresh way.
Actually, it’s a very old idea they’ve recycled. The water highway is an ancient thoroughfare, harkening back to an epoch in which Native Americans understood that the most efficient and quickest method for moving about in the dense and rugged northern forest was to slice through the mountains and rugged landscape in a birch-bark canoe—carried on a current of water and the sustainable energy of human muscle power.
Formally called the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), the 740-mile route from the Adirondacks to Maine is unofficially known as the Appalachian Trail of waterways. Plans to complete development of the canoe trail are gaining momentum, particularly in the Adirondacks, where the route covers 152 miles from Old Forge on the Fulton Chain to Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain.
“The response has been really positive; a lot of people are very interested in the idea,” said Nick Dyslin, a Wilmington resident who, along with his wife, Lisa, is a volunteer coordinator for the Adirondack portion of the trail. “We’re lucky to have a rich heritage of paddling in the Adirondacks and a large number of guideboat, canoe and kayak enthusiasts.”
Dyslin, a manufacturer’s representative for the water sports industry, has been holding organizational meetings throughout the Adirondacks, soliciting volunteers. Dozens have signed up and offered to help with various tasks. “I think for a lot of us who are somehow involved in this industry, it’s a way to give back,” Dyslin said. “People are also excited about the possibilities for increased tourism.”
The Adirondack section includes 20 portages totaling nearly 16 miles. Roughly, the trip goes as follows: After paddling through the Fulton Chain of Lakes, you portage across the Moose-Raquette divide to Browns Tract Inlet, cross Raquette Lake and Forked Lake to the Raquette River (with a portage around Buttermilk Falls) and follow the river to Long Lake. After paddling down the lake, you re-enter the river (with another portage around Raquette Falls) and continue to the Stony Creek Ponds outlet. After crossing the ponds, you take the Indian Carry over the Raquette-Saranac divide and travel through Upper, Middle and Lower Saranac lakes, through First and Second ponds and down to Oseetah Lake and Lake Flower. From there follow the Saranac River through Union Falls Pond all the way to Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain.
Dyslin has paddled long stretches of the Adirondack portion and found the variety impressive, ranging from flat-water ponds to rapids and from wilderness to bustling hamlets. “It ties together communities across the Adirondacks and the other states and raises awareness about our shared cultural legacy,” Dyslin said. “This remarkable resource already existed for centuries in the Adirondacks. We’re just trying to enhance what we have, like an overlay on a map.”
The idea for the trail began to germinate in the mid-1970s with three paddling enthusiasts—Mike Krepner, Randy Mardres and Ron Canter—who thought it would be a great canoe experience to retrace the ancient water routes used by Native Americans and French voyageurs to get around the northern forest. They called their quest Native Trails.
“Mike had been researching old canoe routes, and he knew I was a cartographer, so we got together and saw if it was possible to connect up the ancient water routes to make one grand trail from New York to Maine,” said Canter, an avid Adirondack canoeist for 25 years. What appealed to them was that a paddler following the ancient water trail would not need Olympian paddling skills. And the journey would offer every kind of waterway and a smorgasbord of landscapes. “This route stitches together such a range of rivers and ponds and lakes,” Canter said. “The variety is almost infinite.”
Canter sets out in an Old Town Tripper canoe, a sleeping bag, tent, food, extra clothes and minimal outdoor gear. “You don’t need anything more than Class 3 whitewater skills and only occasionally for a few stretches,” Canter said. “It’s only as hard as your pace. If you want a challenge, go for 20 miles a day. But if you want to relax, 10 miles a day is much easier.”
Donny Mullen, of Camden, Maine, an Outward Bound instructor, is the first and only documented paddler in recent times to complete an end-to-end journey of the entire 740-mile route. Mullen left Old Forge on May 1, 2000, and reached Fort Kent, Maine, 55 days later by paddling, poling and portaging a classic wooden and canvas canoe he built specifically for the journey. “The trip was beautiful, rugged, frustrating, both populated and remote,” Mullen said.
End-to-end paddlers who decide to follow Mullen’s lead will benefit from major strides made in development of the trail during the three years since Mullen’s feat. Last April, Rob Center was hired as the first full-time director for the project, which is based in Waitsfield, Vt. “It’s a pretty daunting task organizationally to lay the groundwork within local communities across 740 miles,” said Center, former vice president of marketing and sales for Mad River Canoe Company.
Incorporated as a non-profit group two years ago, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail recently received a $250,000 federal grant and also gets funding from the outdoor industry, foundations and private donors. The annual budget is $250,000. Unlike trails on land, the water route does not require land purchases or substantial sums for trail improvements. “The waters are already open to the paddling public, so we’re not creating any new river routes,” Center said. “What we’re doing is engaging communities to tap the potential of what’s already there.”
They’ve divided the 740-mile route into 13 sections and are enlisting volunteers to oversee each section and to organize other volunteers who will help seek permission and cultivate good relationships with landowners; create signage and informational kiosks; improve carries by brush clearing and erecting trail markers; identify and clear campsites. The most complex task is the creation of a map for each of the 13 sections, which will provide detailed descriptions of the route plus information on the natural and cultural history of the section. The goal is to have all 13 sections mapped and improved by 2005. “I envision this as a water route where people set goals and maybe paddle a couple of the sections each year until they’ve done it all, like a 46er,” Center said. “If someone wants the challenge of the end-to-end marathon, that’s possible, too.”
Center said the group has not encountered opposition or resistance from landowners, who’ve all given their permission for the NFCT. Center is working with the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Adirondack North Country Association and other groups. They’ve held several public organizational meetings in the Adirondacks and the response has been strong.
Terry Martino, executive director of the Adirondack North Country Association, said she has received only positive feedback about the proposal. “This is another way to build our tourism infrastructure by diversifying opportunities for recreational use.”
“I’ve been amazed at the level of enthusiasm for this project in the Adirondacks,” said Lisa Lyons, a Natonal Park Service employee helping to organize and mobilize volunteers. “This route transcends the ages,” she said. “It gives people a new way of looking at their world and a place to travel back in time while paddling toward a destination.”