Life Lessons from the Northern Forest Canoe Trail: A Second Grade Classroom’s Perspective

By Sarah Carlson



On one of her visits home last fall my daughter, Emma Carlson, told me of her desire to through paddle the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

Emma Carlson and Emily Rooney through paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail during the spring of 2013.
Emma Carlson and Emily Rooney through paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail during the spring of 2013.

Part of the conversation centered around her plan to share the experience with young people, among them my second grade class. It all sounded adventurous and intriguing right from the start.

As the plans for the trip began to gel, Emma’s paddling partner Emily Rooney came for a visit. That’s when I learned of their idea of going with a ‘low tech’ approach to the journey. This came as a question, “So, Mom, what would you think if you only heard from us through post cards and we didn’t use technology at all unless we absolutely had to call?”

I pondered that for a bit and then responded that it was their trip and they should approach it in whatever way worked for them. Of course, there was a little part of me that wondered just a bit, though I liked the idea that there would be a cell phone on board!

Emma and Emily's first encounter with Sammy the Turtle, found on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
Emma (left) introduces Sammy the Turtle to mom during a food drop in Rangeley, ME.

During the latter part of April, Emma and Emily rendezvoused in Vermont and then set off for Old Forge to begin their trek. My students were so very excited to receive their first post card from the trail. We planned to keep track of the paddling duo on a large map outside our classroom. Each morning the kids would burst in and ask, “Did we get one?”

It took a few days, of course, and even that was a lesson. In our fast-paced society kids are used to information at their fingertips and communication that is instantaneous. But we had to wait. The suspense grew and then…it came!

The first card was from Old Forge and spoke of packing and excitement. The second communication was a note that described breaking through ice on Forked Lake and portaging through snow. The journey unfolded before our eyes as we learned of the discovery of Sammy the Turtle (a foam float that was partially frozen in the ice), that Lake Champlain is so big it felt like being on the ocean, that they had named their canoe Snowflake, of the difficulties of trucking upstream, and of the kindness of the people they encountered along the way.

The ladies and Snowflake ending in Fort Kent, ME.
The ladies and their boat “Snowflake” 740 miles later in Fort Kent, ME.

We had many wonderful discussions in our classroom community. One of those happened when I told students that I was headed to Rangeley over the coming weekend to meet up with Emma and Emily for the second re-supply. I asked them what they thought was on the shopping list to supplement the supplies that had been pre-packed. The kids thought … candy, chips, soda. They were shocked when I put the list on the board and it included kale, apples, broccoli, carrots, and cheese!

One hot Friday afternoon, the day before the pair was scheduled to finish the trip, I asked students what they had learned – just a brief impromptu discussion as the week wound down. I quickly realized I should capture their thoughts, and here are a few:

Emma gives a post trip show-n-tell to her fans.
Emma gives a post trip show-n-tell to her second grader fans.

Jet – You don’t need electricity to communicate. Follow your dreams.

Molly – You need to be aware of everything around you when you are canoeing.

Ivy – Even if something bad happens, that doesn’t mean that you stop doing something you love. If your plan doesn’t work, go with a new plan.

Madigan – We learned what a portage is. It’s when you bring a boat from one body of water to another.

Sammy the Turtle helps share the gear list.
Sammy the Turtle helps Emma share the gear list and trip adventures.

Ella – You don’t need a car to travel far!

Tessa – Encouragement can get you farther.

Anni – You don’t need electronics every day. You can get along without them.

Talia – Friendship can get you far.

Kandie – You can see lots of animals when you travel by canoe.

Katie – Maps can show you where you are going.

Olivia – Make sure you plan before you go out on a long paddle.

MaCailia – Love what you are doing.

Ah, yes – enough said! Satisfying and fulfilling on many levels is what this shared experience was for all of us who were fortunate to be ‘aboard’.

Sarah Carlson is a second grade teacher at W.G. Mallet School in Farmington, Maine, and mother of NFCT 2013 Through Paddler Emma Carlson.