From the rapids of the Androscoggin, down the meandering Clyde River, across Blue Mountain Lake and through the quick water of the Connecticut River, the Northern Forest Explorers travel. Nine trips set off last summer with 10-14 year-olds spread out over the 740-mile waterway that is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
Day 1: The Adventure Begins
After two weeks of training and preparation with the NFCT, I drove to Errol, New Hampshire to meet the first group of Northern Forest Explorers. As excited as I was, I was thoroughly enjoying the peace and quiet of my car, anxiously awaiting what came next. By 8:30 am, parents started showing up with their kids and all their neatly packed gear in tow. One thing I was sure of was that their gear was not coming back packed in Ziploc bags, and the clothes labeled Thursday were going to remain at the bottom of their dry bag.
With gear packed and introductions made it was time to hit the road. Whether it is a trip starting from Island Pond and leading into the Clyde River of Vermont or a morning of whitewater kayaking on the Androscoggin, there is always a great air of camaraderie once we get on the water and begin our adventure.
Day 2: The Big Paddle
Of course each trip is different, but a common theme about these trips is that the second day is a long one. After spending the first day getting comfortable in a canoe or kayak and practicing all the strokes, on day two this practice is put to the test. Each night we usually go over the game plan for the week and then have our morning debrief before we head out to make sure we’re all on the same page for our expedition.
Great blue herons, beavers, river otters, osprey, bald eagles, moose, you name it, all of these wonderful and elusive creatures have popped up at one point or another on our trips. Spending a full day paddling through waterways such as the Connecticut River you are bound to see at least one of these beautiful animals. During our trip with Northwoods Stewardship Center in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont we were able to closely observe an osprey nest occupied by a female osprey and her baby, and listen to her calls for her mate as they awaited their food.
Day 3: True Campers
By day three the true characters come alive, barriers break down, and conversations begin to get… interesting. Playing a story game while paddling we somehow ended up creating an elaborate narrative about a salami squirrel that turned humans into salami if they entered his territory. The days of paddling on the water allow for a mixture of games, riddles, races, as well as time to just paddle and relax. It is incredible to see how comfortable these young kids are with being outside and camping for a full week. Spending four nights camping with a small group of people allows you to really get to know each person individually and with each individual comes a unique skillset and story.
Nothing beats the excitement of paddling up to a new campsite after a long day and getting to explore the site. Every site is different with a new view, new spots to pitch a tent and new swimming spots to explore. No matter how many times you’ve camped, the excitement of exploring a new campsite and its surroundings remains.
My favorite part of setting up at a new campsite is watching the sunset in a new place. Enjoying the last light of the day before camp begins to settle down and we either call it a night or enjoy the warmth of a fire.
Day 4: Still Covered in Dirt
By this time the camp set-up and break down is down to an art. Journaling has become less of a task and more of a necessary downtime to sit, relax and process the day (especially for the guides who by this time are ready for 20 minutes of silence).
Depending on how long the day of paddling is we always try to work in some lesson for the day before we dig into our well-deserved dinner. The lessons range from water quality testing and the importance of healthy watersheds to a game on invasive versus native species of the Northeastern U.S.
One thing I hadn’t expected when preparing for these trips was the incredible knowledge base these kids already have at such a young age. It is incredible to see 10 year olds identifying invasive species and explaining the problems that they bring to the ecosystem. The enthusiasm for exploring the outdoors mixed with the love and passion for the environment around them is incredible to see at such a young age.
Day 5: Bittersweet
Depending what trip it is we either start the day with a paddle to our final take out, or a hike. Regardless, the morning begins with a lot of excitement and energy. There is the final camp breakdown, a big breakfast to prepare for the day and then we are off. It is incredible to see how such strong friendships can form over just five days. By the end of the week I find it hard to say goodbye to the group, as we’ve been through such a great adventure together; one that I know I will never forget.
Looking back to the first day when we meet each other, the awkward introductions and quiet drive to the put-in, to now when it is hard to get a moment of silence from these kids, it is amazing to see the transformation. I knew that it was going to be an interesting summer when I started, filled with new challenges and teaching moments. However, what I hadn’t realized was just how much I would learn from these young explorers.
Ten weeks of camping, six different Northern Forest Explorer groups, four different states and many miles racked up on my Subaru and it’s a wrap for the Northern Forest Explorers 2016 season!