Last summer, I kayaked in Honduras, Norway, and the Netherlands, but not anywhere on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Surprising indeed, since every other summer since moving to Maine in 2003, I have. I think I first heard about the trail in 2008, at the Lobster Stream boat launch, where Mom, Dad, and I met thru-paddler Paul Heintz. Paul was a cheerful guy, tall and bearded, with a canoe full of an impressive amount of gear.
In those early years, I paddled the NFCT many times, without knowing it. For sure, I was on Mooselookmeguntic, the Richardsons, the Allagash, Flagstaff, the West Branch of the Penobscot, Moosehead, and Chesuncook, all without benefit of NFCT’s great maps. This year, I promise to do better. In fact, I already have one NFCT sojourn in the books.
The Hartmans’ cabin was my home for one night during Paddle for Hope in 2011 and two during my 2015 thru-paddle. A week or two ago, I returned for a more relaxing visit. Paul and Janie have owned their place for almost fifty years and have a lifetime of natural discoveries to share with visitors. This year we hiked to Angel Falls, off nearby Bemis Road, not far from where the AT crosses the road.
Wouldn’t you like to be a boy, away at summer camp in Maine?
Enjoying late-night loon calls, ice cream heaped with strawberries, summer breezes, and the pull of the paddle?
This letter from camp has taken a few days to arrive, but this past weekend, I christened another summer of possibility in the company of friends, old and new, famous or not-so-much, at the annual Maine Canoe Symposium. Somehow this event manages to be old-fashioned and far-reaching, restful and yet challenging everyone to try new skills.
“Dear friends,” I might have written from Camp Winona, on the shores of Moose Pond in Bridgton, Maine…
Today I tried poling under the tutelage of Harry Rock, well-known at MCS for leading us all in a chorus of huzzahs from time to time. “Your boat might be a little tender,” he told me, by which he meant I might end up tipping into the chilly water. It felt very strange leaving shore without a paddle! “Huzzah!” I stayed upright. It was all about leverage and angle, as we stood up and propelled ourselves around with just a 12-foot aluminum pole.
The two evening speakers lived up to MCS tradition. This year, we heard from Winchell Delano about the Rediscovering North America expedition, 5,200 miles by canoe with five friends, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. They redefined perseverance and conquered unforeseen challenges like raging forest fires in their 8-month odyssey.
Did you know that the 2020 Toyko Olympics will be the first to include women’s canoe sprint, as well as kayak events? This victory owes much to the fight of our other evening speaker, Pam Boteler, the first woman to participate in canoe sprint (against men) in the 2000 U.S. National Championships. She brought home two medals, a gold and a bronze, and the dream of breaking down the barriers at the Olympic level.
Sunday morning, I had a chance to try the high-kneel stroke, first on the dock and then on a paddle board. With Pam teaching me! I can testify to the power and physical demands of this racing stroke, which I experienced once or twice, before taking a swim.
So, it’s never too early to put dates on the calendar. Next year’s MCS will be June 8-10, 2018, and I’d love to have you join me. This year, I tent camped with friends, ate all six meals in the dining hall, and experienced all the above and more for just $153. Hope to see you at Camp Winona on the shores of Moose Pond under the towering pines.
In past years, the only option for renting a kayak here was a double sit-on-top style, which Megan and I used two years ago. Bobby is constantly upgrading, though, and today I rented a 10-foot single kayak for $10 for the day, including delivery of boat and paddler to the water.
The photo uploading is not cooperating tonight, so you will have to use your imagination to picture the artsy shots of rustic wooden boats and distant glimpses of the vast and plentiful array of birds.
I will try to paint a picture with words instead. From the village, a canal leads to the lake, passing clusters of boats in a palette of sun-faded colors. Today all the fisherman were throwing hand lines, but three years ago a spear fisherman bubbled up with startling suddenness from the depths, emerging right next to our rowboat. That was my first time on the lake, when I took the official birding tour.
Speaking of birds, they are everywhere. Some are as familiar as home, similar or identical species. Egrets, kingfishers, phoebes, grackles, grebes, and herons. The green heron, in particular, is such an elegant bird and quite common here. I saw at least a dozen this morning alone.
Then there are the unique birds. The snail kite is a large hawk that feeds primarily on the lake’s large snails. It actually goes as far north as southern Florida, but never further. I watched one for a while, its regal bearing unruffled as I lingered nearby. It never moved, but behind the perfectly focused bird in my binoculars, an ever-changing panorama of mountains unfolded as the wind slowly turned my boat.
Northern jacanas are incredibly numerous, exotic and interesting. Their bills and foreheads are yellow, but that is nothing compared to their opened wings, which are a bright yellow in contrast to their dark glossy black and brown bodies. Altogether a weird and fascinating bird, which can even run along on top of the lake’s massive lily pads.
After my fill of birds, I stopped to swim. The bottom was a bit squishy but the water felt clean and I had swum there before. For me, the perspective of any lake seems different, more impressive, when you are in it. Always I pause and just look, absorbing the reality that I am actually there. Last summer, and again today, I swam, I reflected, and I remembered that every day is indeed a gift.
Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
If there’s a special young person in your life, between the ages of 10 and 14, please consider the NFCT’s Nothern Forest Explorers Program for them this summer. Five days of wilderness paddling under the expert care of a registered guide and accompanied by an environmental educator interning with the NFCT. The cost is fair at $500 for 5 days; some scholarships are also available. No paddling experience is necessary.
Currently, there are openings on all five of the Maine trips, including the 34-mile Moose River Bow Trip near Jackman, which was my first solo wilderness paddling adventure back in 2010. Here are all five options, the third and fourth only open to Maine residents:
July 5-8 – The Moose River Bow Loop Trip led by Adventure Bound
July 18–22 – Western Maine’s Mountains, based on Flagstaff Lake and led by Adventure Bound
August 1–5 – Thoreau’s Maine, led by The Maine Winter Sports Center, paddling the waters of Thoreau’s journeys in The Maine Woods.
August 8–12 – Maine’s Wild Allagash, led by The Maine Winter Sports Center, paddling the Allagash Wilderness Waterway from Umsaskis Lake to Twin Brook.
August 8–12 – Richardson Lake Explorers, led by ELC Outdoors and expanded to include an adventure ropes course and whitewater rafting, based on the Richardson Lakes.
If I was 10 to 14, there’s nothing I’d rather do this summer!
For weeks I’ve been feeling the pull to return to blogging. Writing has been consuming my creative energy as I continue to work on the book about my NFCT thru-paddle, but I miss blogging. So hello!
My summer adventures began at last weekend’s Maine Canoe Symposium, reconnecting with friends, sharing NFCT news, and pushing my comfort zone.
It was equally challenging to learn paddleboarding from Moe Auger on windy Moose Pond and to build a reflector oven under Nicole Grohoski’s encouraging tutelage. After journeying so many miles last summer, Geoff Burke’s workshop on double-bladed paddling added new insights and fired my desire to switch to a longer 8′ 3″ handcrafted Geoff Burke paddle someday!
There’s a problem with the MCS workshops, though. One weekend just isn’t long enough to attend all the tantalizing choices. I missed the chat with Gil Gilpatrick and hearing about paddling Ontario. Oh well, there’s always next year and I did get to talk with Gil about book publishing, which is close to my heart right now. More on that soon.
Today at church, Arne Aho asked me if there would be more blog posts. The answer is definitely yes.
The weeks of being back home have been full. Since finishing the “missing chapters,” I’ve started scribbling thoughts for the book. Family visits, house painting, walking and paddling, and a happy start to the school year have filled my days.
I thought you would like seeing two newspaper articles that have been published. The recognition is fun, but also very humbling. Both included many photos, which tell the story well. Hope the links (in blue) work!
Deirdre Fleming, a staff writer for the Portland newspaper, tried hard to meet me on the NFCT. She and a photographer had hoped to camp and paddle with me. Alas, we couldn’t connect on the trail, but last Monday she came to Bremen.
Deidre brought her canoe and we went out on McCurdy Pond, from Ed and Carol Knapp’s cottage. Today’s article in the Maine Sunday Telegram captures the essence of our conversation and promotes the NFCT well.
Paula Roberts wrote a front page article in The Lincoln County News soon after I got home. She spent a lot of time with me, covered a generous amount of material and included some of my favorite photos in color in the Aug. 27 edition.
Thanks to both writers for their interest in my story and efforts to raise awareness of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail!
Dad capsized. I dropped our camera in the water. Not a promising start for a 27-mile day.
After a hearty breakfast, we started off at 8:45 a.m. with less than a mile of the Allagash remaining before the St. John. In this short section lies fairly straightforward Casey Rapids.
Dad suggested I go first today, to find a good line through the whitewater sections. I had just swiveled around to check on Dad when he tried to navigate between two rocks and hung up on a third, tipping over and going for a chilly swim. I scooped up his floating hat and water bottle, as he walked his canoe to shore, still with a solid grip on his double-bladed paddle. In my helpful fashion, I hauled his boat up on shore and dumped out the water. It was a day later (on the way home) before he realized that was probably where he lost his GPS, rather than in the river itself!
Turning downstream on the St. John, we searched carefully for the last two missing items…Dad’s spare custom cherry canoe paddle and his bleach-jug bailer. You will be happy to know that although Dad spotted just one of them, it was the paddle. Where Pelletier Brook enters on river right is a Class II rapid not marked on Map 13, which I successfully ran right down the center. Dad was nearer shore and was forced to line his boat along the edge. Trying to take his photo with one hand and bring him a makeshift walking stick in the other, I dropped the camera, so no action shots today. From here our luck had nowhere to go but up.
Mom has gotten comfortable driving Dad’s Toyota Tacoma truck just for this trip (thanks, Mom!) and she met us in St. Francis for lunch. In spite of the challenging morning, we decided to continue on after our lunch of cheeseburgers, soda, and candy bars from the general store. Norm Pelletier, who generously let us access the river through his campground, estimated that we had 4 1/2 hours to go to reach Fort Kent. As much as I had wanted to dawdle on the Allagash, I wanted to hurry now. It was starting to rain in earnest, but the four difficult Class II rapids were all behind us. Dad had run the last several perfectly, including the huge standing waves in Rankin Rapids. So off we went in the fast-moving current, averaging about 4 mph.
TOTAL MILES: 749.7 (the official NFCT literature gives the total trail distance as 740 miles)
I woke to crisp air and ate the last pack of Quaker cranberry walnut protein oatmeal, a delicious choice that I didn’t tire of all trip. I stayed late in camp again, photographing more mushrooms and drying all my gear thoroughly, as tonight would be a cabin night.
I had forgotten how beautiful the last miles of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway were, with tall conifers as a backdrop for green grassy banks. I felt the sadness of ten years ago, treasuring every mile, knowing that next summer’s plans may not bring me to the Allagash at all. The thought of the meal awaiting me at Two Rivers Lunch did cheer me up a little and kept me from just stopping altogether. This section includes some Class II rapids, both those at Twin Brooks (marked on the map) and another set midway between McGargle Rocks and Ghost Landing Bar. These names are haunting, as both stem from logging fatalities of a bygone era.
Tonight we would be staying right here, behind the restaurant, in one of the cabins owned by Tylor Kelly’s Camps. In 2011, when I arrived in Allagash Village with Dad and Taylor during Paddle for Hope, Sue Kelly gave us the warmest welcome imaginable. She baked us brownies, brought us shampoo and half and half and let me use her computer for hours (not to mention donating to our fundraising for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program)! We had made a friend, and have since come to know the rest of her friendly family. So tonight felt like home, especially after Mom and Dad drove in with pork chops to cook for dinner. Tomorrow Dad will rejoin me to paddle the St. John River, perhaps in one marathon day to Fort Kent. We’ll see!
Today is Sunday, a day of rest, and a quiet morning in camp gave me time for thanksgiving and awe at the fact that I have safely journeyed so many miles. A “good morning” from the garter snake (or is it a milk snake?), the warmth of a campfire, three cedar waxwings in the cherry tree, journaling…and a visit from ranger Matthew Jackson, who came up to chat after learning that I was doing the NFCT. His family is from the village of Allagash and he has recently moved home to the family’s farm at the site of Dickey Plantation, the home of one of the area’s early settlers. (Kathy, it won’t be difficult to remember his name, will it?).
PADDLER’S NOTE: The river flow was still very high for August, measuring 1,900 cfs as reported on the bulletin board at Michaud Farm, where all paddlers officially check out of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (although the AWW continues to Twin Brooks). I saw many groups between Eagle Lake and Churchill Dam, but then must have gotten ahead of the crowd.
Last summer, Dad, our friend Mike, and I shared a magical campsite abounding in wildlife and blueberries, called Deadwater North. Today’s goal was a long day of paddling (23 miles was the projected distance in my notes) to return there, although I knew that this year there would be no bacon and blueberry pancakes or baking in Dad’s reflector oven. Anyway, it was disheartening to start out into a hefty wind right in my face, one that also seemed to keep all the wildlife from the water. The pull of the current was a welcome ally as I returned to the river after several miles of slow going. At Long Lake Dam, perhaps in memory of Chris, I decided to line the boat through on river left, as we did in 2005, rather than portaging on river right.
Lazily, I did not even attach a stern line, and was lucky that I didn’t end up swamping the boat. With the present high water levels, I could actually work it along most of the shore in very shallow water, where the metal spikes remaining from the original dam could easily be avoided. When I reached the last swift drop, though, the safe, shallow edge evaporated, the river snatched at the boat, and it was almost a disaster. For a moment, the canoe tipped and took on some water and it took all my strength to wrestle it back under control and maneuver it into the calm pool beyond. All’s well that ends well, but next time I would definitely attach a second line!
As I entered Round Pond, a squall blew through. First, a dark gray cloud inevitably overtook the sky, before reaching a point where the cloud simply enveloped my whole world. Rain pounded the lake and I paddled furiously in an effort to stay warm, passing a family huddled under a tarp at the Inlet campsite. As usual, I was in my bathing suit and a thin t-shirt and shorts, and probably looked crazy. At the ranger station, I stopped to bail out the boat and Kale invited me in where it was somewhat warmer, especially after I put on a dry thermal top. I recognized him from last summer at Michaud Farm and we chatted about float planes and bears and the hit that the moose population has taken this year.
Kale explained that a species of tick which had never successfully overwintered this far north has now gained a permanent foothold. The ticks are drawing so much blood that moose are becoming anemic, and dying, or, if they survive that, then scratching themselves bare in large patches, and freezing to death during the harsh winter. After that conversation, I felt quite lucky to see three moose after the weather cleared, a bull and two cows.
For supper, I tried herbed mushroom risotto with basil pesto, a gourmet dehydrated meal from a new company called Good To-Go in Kittery, Maine. The company’s meals were recommended to me in the camping department at Maine Sport and this first taste of their food was delicious, with a fresh, colorful appearance and a list of ingredients that were all easy to pronounce (as the package points out). Not bad when there is no reflector oven in sight!