The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), formally incorporated in 2000, winds for 740 miles from Old Forge, in the western Adirondacks, to Fort Kent, Maine, on the Canadian border. Its interconnected waterways and portages trace paddling routes used hundreds of years ago by Native Americans and fur traders in New York, Vermont, southern Quebec, New Hampshire and Maine.
The Adirondack section of the trail goes up the Fulton Chain of Lakes and down Browns Tract Inlet to Raquette Lake, then follows the Raquette River to Long Lake. At the foot of Long Lake, paddlers return to the river, taking it as far as Stony Creek Ponds. After passing through the ponds, travelers portage to Upper Saranac Lake, then paddle across the three Saranac lakes to the Saranac River, which leads to Lake Champlain.
The best way to see these waterways is from a canoe or kayak, but the next best option is to lose yourself in the pages of Northeast Passage: A Photographer’s Journey Along the Historic Northern Forest Canoe Trail by Clyde Smith. This coffee-table book is a beautiful and valuable contribution to the region’s literature.
NFCT Executive Director Kate Williams, who wrote the foreword and afterword, calls the trail a liquid connector linking “watersheds, communities, states, countries, ideas, and landscapes. It is a clear thread weaving through the Northern Forest ecosystem—at 30 million acres it is the largest ecosystem east of the Mississippi River.”
As Smith’s images reveal, the water trail traverses some of the wildest and most remote woodlands of northern New York and New England, yet it also glides by pastoral farmlands and charming villages, such as Saranac Lake and Stark, N.H. It even passes directly under the Clyde River Hotel in Island Pond, Vt. It takes in wild whitewater (with appropriate carries) and meandering streams, intimate bogs and broad lakes, heron rookeries and still ponds where moose and loons thrive.
Clyde Smith’s landscape and wildlife photographs have been published in magazines, newspapers and calendars for more than 40 years. He was a frequent photo contributor to Skiing Magazine and, especially in its early days, to Adirondack Life. Northeast Passage is his 21st book. The images span decades of work, evoking the beauty of the route’s plants, animals and scenery.
This is not a fine-art production but a photo-documentary journal of the diversity of life along the trail. The main section is divided into three seasonal chapters—spring, summer, autumn—with short introductory text for each, reflecting Smith’s attraction to places along the route. He writes, “It is my desire to make people aware of what’s out there available to us now—to see, hear, smell, and be aware of our place in the cosmos. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a gift, the common thread for all those who wish to expand their knowledge about creation.”
The book is dedicated to Homer Dodge, widely known as the “dean of American canoeing” and with whom Smith explored the Colorado River on an expedition that traced explorer John Wesley Powell’s 1869 route through the canyons of Arizona and Utah. Dodge became Smith’s canoeing mentor, accompanying him on many trips in northern waters.
Northeast Passage is intended to motivate paddlers to get out on the water. There are grand landscapes and backwoods close-ups, as well as aerial shots of Lake Champlain and the waters enveloping the village of Saranac Lake. But it’s the intimate portraits of wildlife and plants that are most arresting: dew drops on spider webs, a luna moth on a balsam branch after hatching from its cocoon, a deer swimming across remote Chamberlain Lake in Maine.
I’m partial to scenic landscapes that go beyond the simply beautiful to embody the spirit of place. Smith’s cover image of paddlers on the Connecticut River, as sunrise mists linger in the forests ahead, is stirring. His image of fall foliage along Lake Umbagog, on the Maine-New Hampshire border, exudes tranquility. His Adirondack subjects include Oseetah Lake, Buttermilk Falls on the Raquette, a lock on the Saranac River, and Lake Champlain.
I was especially enticed by photos of places I haven’t visited. There’s the image of Attean Pond, Maine, which has “clusters of tiny, spruce-tufted islands and multitudes of rocky outcrops.” And the sunset on Mooselookmeguntic Lake, Maine, intriguing like its name. If I have any criticism, it’s that I wish the book contained more waterscapes like these.
If you’re a paddler, the adventurous thought will flash through your mind as you turn the pages that you’d like to paddle the entire Northern Forest Canoe Trail. After pondering just how long it is and the logistics entailed, you might curb your initial enthusiasm and content yourself with exploring segments of the trail. Smith has accomplished his goal of whetting our appetites for our own journeys. The best treasures are those you discover yourself.
“There may be a group of songbirds gathering around me,” Smith reflects, “or the fragrance of balsam and spruce wafting on a morning breeze—elusive qualities that escape even the most glorious photograph. You just have to be there, paddle in hand, to capture the essence of the experience.”
MARK BOWIE’S own photography book, Adirondack Waters: Spirit of the Mountains (2006), was published by North Country Books.