Advice for a Thru-Paddle

Paddling the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a challenging adventure that requires thoughtful planning and the proper gear. When planning for my trip in 2011, I sought out advice from numerous sources, including books, maps, blogs, the NFCT organization, and experienced paddlers. Below are five pieces of I advice I offer to people heading onto the trail this year.

  1. Seek Out Past Thru-Paddlers: There are now roughly 100 people who have registered as thru-paddlers with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, in addition to those who have done the trail and decided to remain anonymous. Many of the thru-paddlers are willing to offer advice about doing the trip. You can get in contact with past thru-paddlers by contacting Trail Director Walter Opuszynski ([email protected]) or by seeking out paddlers through contact info on their blogs. Before my trip, I got advice from thru-paddlers Ryan and Catherine Thompson, who were living in Old Forge, New York, and I found it invaluable. Thru-paddlers can offer advice about whitewater sections, portages, gear selection, and where to find food along the route, among other things. You’ll learn more from a conversation with a person with experience than any map and most books.
  1. Listen to Advice from Local Outfitters: Local outfitters are great sources of information while you’re paddling the trail and many are located either on the water or a short distance away from it. Local outfitters can offer updated info on trail conditions, tell you where to find the best campsites, and warn you about hazards along the trail. I found that some of my best experiences during my thru-paddle came about as a result of the help I received from local outfitters. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how helpful many of these businesses will be.
  1. Do A Practice Run: It’s fairly common for thru-paddlers to find out they are carrying too much gear by the time they paddle the first 90 miles of the trail and arrive in Saranac Lake, New York. Many paddlers have been known to stop at the post office in this small village and send their extra gear home. However, some of the over-packing can be avoided if you take your gear out on the water before heading out of the trail. Portage around your neighborhood and paddle a local river with all the gear you plan to bring. Don’t surprise yourself on Old Forge Pond that your gear doesn’t fit in your boat.
  2. Leave Yourself Extra Time: One of the interesting parts of the trail is that is goes through 45 communities on the way from the Adirondacks to northern Maine. Those communities (as are many of the wilderness sections) are great places to spend to visit during a thru-paddle. I spent three days in Rangeley, Maine, during my trip and it allowed me to get to know the local people a little better and also to resupply. It’s also important to set aside extra time during your trip planning, because you may also find yourself delayed by things such as weather or illness. Many of the large lakes, especially Lake Champlain and those in Maine, can be extremely challenging to cross when there are high winds and have keep paddlers ashore when they were hoping to be out on the water.
  1. Don’t Take Unnecessary Risks: This might seem overly obvious. However, it’s worth mentioning that it’s not worth getting in over your head by attempting a whitewater section above your ability or taking a short cut across a windblown lake in Maine just to save some time. Keep in mind that the goal of this thru-paddle is to get to Fort Kent, Maine. This may mean having patience on a windy day in Maine or avoiding a whitewater section because recent rains have swelled the river. Trust me, there will be plenty of unexpected challenges during a thru-paddle. Might as well avoid those you deem beyond your ability. Keeping a calm head is one of the keys to success on any long-distance trip.

Mike Lynch is the New York Outreach Coordinator for the NFCT. He can be reached at [email protected].

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