By Eric Diven and Bree Carlson
In the summer of 2014, after almost a year of dating and on the cusp of moving in together, we decided to test our relationship for a week in a space that measured 35 inches by 18.5 feet: A Wenonah Minnesota II Canoe. For this experiment in communication, partnership, and collaboration, we flew to Ely, Minnesota, bought a set of maps, and started paddling our way through the Boundary Waters.
Beyond the scenery and the memories, the trip provided a lot of opportunities to learn about how to travel through the woods together, our different strengths and weaknesses, and how our backgrounds complement each other. While Eric had been a guide in the Boundary Waters for one summer in college, and Bree had grown up paddling in the pristine lakes of New Hampshire, paddling together was a new (and occasionally challenging) experience. By the end of the trip, not only did we feel certain that we would be able to live together comfortably in a 575 square foot apartment upon our return, we also knew that we each had found a paddling partner for the rest of our lives.
After we returned our canoe, paddles, and Duluth pack to the outfitter, we resolved to return with our own gear someday and continue our explorations of the many waterways throughout America. There was nothing to do but make it official, and in December 2014 Bree surprised Eric by buying two paddles, a pack with both of our names on it, and a set of maps for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. She got down on one knee, and, using a donut as a stand in for a ring, asked Eric to spend the rest of his life by her side or, preferably, in the same boat. He said yes without hesitation. That spring we ordered our engagement canoe.
Throughout the wedding planning process, poring over the maps and planning our honeymoon on the NFCT was our break from sorting out all the details that you never think of until you actually plan a wedding. We made estimates of where we might end up after two weeks based on how far we had traveled in the Boundary Waters the year before, added a fudge factor to account for the possibility of having to wait out the wind on Lake Champlain, and ultimately settled on dropping our car in Enosburg Falls, Vermont.
Two days after our August 2015 wedding, we strapped our engagement canoe to the top of our car and headed off in pursuit of the NFCT. After dropping the car at Enosburg Falls, we continued westward in a U-Haul truck; Tupper Lake being the nearest place to Old Forge to return a rental vehicle of any sort. Raquette River Outfitters shuttled us the rest of the way to the start of the trail, and after signing in at the first kiosk, we began our honeymoon.
We had a delightful time paddling through the Adirondacks, down the Saranac River, up Lake Champlain, and up the Missisquoi River. We stayed at a number of established NFCT campsites, and each time we set up the tent after a long day of paddling we were grateful to have access to official camping, even in the more developed areas. After two weeks of exploration and long days, we finished our trip at Enosburg Falls.
We couldn’t have asked for a better honeymoon—the lakes were beautiful, the wildlife was plentiful, and the people we met along the way were generous and kind. On our drive home to the Boston, Massachusetts area, we started planning our next section paddle of the NFCT.
In the winter of 2016 while perusing the NFCT website, we noticed a work trip scheduled for July in Enosburg Falls to put in a new campsite. It was a no-brainer: we decided to schedule our next section of the NFCT around the work trip, paddling the 90 miles from Island Pond and ending our vacation with a weekend in service to the organization that featured so prominently in our first weeks as a married couple.
The trip from Island Pond to Enosburg Falls was memorable. Despite the snake-like path of the Clyde, the wind always seemed to be in our faces, both the Clyde and the Missisquoi were low and rocky, and the Grand Portage had us questioning some of our life choices. Despite the challenges, the scenery was beautiful and the people we met along the way were enthusiastic about our trip. We got the sense that few of them wanted to trade places per-se, but that many of them envied our adventure in some way.
We worked hard for our 90 miles, and we arrived in Enosburg Falls a day ahead of schedule. We spent Friday morning exploring the town and lingering over cups of coffee. Restless after a whole morning of idling around town, we headed to the work site in the early afternoon, ahead of schedule. There we met Noah, the Regional Field Coordinator, and the 2016 crop of interns: Nolan, Hannah, and Alyssa. We were thrilled that they immediately put us to work, preparing materials for the following day’s tasks. Later in the afternoon, two other volunteers, Brian and Kathy, arrived, and we explored the Brownway land while they set up their tent and the crew cooked us dinner.
The Brownway parcel of land was created by the Brown Family who wanted to see the land restored to its arboreal glory. Approximately 7,000 trees have been planted in the past decade to help realize this goal, during which time the family worked with the Enosburgh Conservation Commission and the Vermont Land Trust to establish a conservation easement. With the cooperation of these and other stakeholders, the land now has mowed paths, many types of flowering plants, a view of the Missisquoi River, and the beginnings of a forest. There is also a path to town to bring residents to the river and paddlers to the ice-cream stand and other amenities.
Upon returning to the work area, the interns served us a hearty dinner and briefed us on the plan for Saturday. Noah brought out a mandolin, and we sat by the banks of the Missisquoi getting to know each other, watching beavers swim to and fro, and taking in the scenery.
We woke up late the next morning, snug in our tent with the rain pouring down. During a lull we made a break for the work tent, and after a delicious breakfast, we got to work. Over the course of the day, we built two sets of log ladders for the access places to the Missisquoi, a picnic table, and several of the kiosk boxes that are the face of the trail in towns. We worked all day long, and by some good fortune, the rain only poured down while we were eating under the tarp.
With the guidance of the three interns and especially Hannah, the weekend leader, we managed to complete a day and a half worth of work before dinner. The picnic table was an especially welcome addition. In the morning we did a few remaining touch ups on the kiosks, signs, and privy before hitting the road with the goal of making it home before dinner.
We had a tremendous time helping build a campsite for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. At one point, we asked each of the interns how much construction experience they had prior to starting to work for the NFCT, and had been surprised to learn that the answer was largely “none.” In them, we had observed an incredible attention to detail, an ownership over all aspects of the projects, and a degree of expertise with each of the tools they were using. As the lead for the project, Hannah’s terrific organizing kept us busy and working efficiently all day. We were impressed by the competence the interns all showed after just a few weeks of training and experience. A huge thanks is due to Noah and the other NFCT staff working behind the scenes to teach these skills to a new group of interns annually.
Next year we’ll paddle another section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. We’re lobbying for the NFCT to put in another campsite, maybe 90 miles east of Island Pond for us to end our trip at again. The NFCT has become part of our story, and we hope that with the continued efforts of the organization and volunteers, it can become part of a great many more people’s stories.
Bree Carlson finished her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011, exactly one year after Eric Diven finished his. They met two years later, and have been inseparable since. They spend as many weekends as possible hiking, biking, climbing, and paddling.