I am a firm believer in the fact that the best way to become familiar with a place is from the vantage point of a canoe.
Paddle in hand, PFD strapped on and Nalgene at the ready, there really isn’t much you can’t do. Waterways are also a historic source of life, travel and culture; Indigenous peoples have used the rivers and lakes of the northeast for centuries as travel routes and sources of food and water, and colonists from Europe later settled along rivers to build factories and cities run by the pure force of the water flowing through them. To dip your paddle into a river is to connect yourself with all of the people that came before you.
Working on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail this summer not only let me be a part of that history — to be a paddler on a historic waterway — but also to have the enormous privilege of stewarding the rivers and lakes that form the NFCT. This summer we dipped our paddles into the waters of the territories now known as New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine on our commutes to work everyday. Along the way we were fortunate enough to be in community with some of the most hard-working, dedicated volunteers I have ever met.
On Union Falls Pond in New York, our volunteers built a gorgeous stone staircase up to a campsite, and despite the cold and rainy weather, they spent the whole time cheering each other on, admiring one another’s work ethic, and exclaiming how lucky they were to do this. They seemed to be constantly in awe of the land and water, and were more excited to paddle to a work site where they were going to be doing manual labor than I thought would be possible. To be surrounded by people who are so thankful for these waters and each other is, I think, the essence of a summer on the NFCT.
The crew decided this summer that we were most certainly not following Leave No Trace principles; the sheer number of stone steps we built were, in fact, leaving a very large trace. Instead, we decided that we were leaving the places in which we worked better than we found them, both for the preservation of the land and water, and for future generations to care for and enjoy. In this way, we were able to orient ourselves in the historic life of the NFCT as stewards, and connect ourselves to all of the people who have paddled its waters in the past, and all of the people who will paddle its waters in the future.
I am immensely grateful for this eternal community I have gained through my work as an intern on the NFCT this summer, as well as for the immediate community I gained through the other crew members, the land owners along the NFCT, and the incredible volunteers we got to meet. I will never again underestimate the power of a Dutch oven-baked cornbread and a few cans of baked beans to bring people together, the energy that comes from a commute to work done in a canoe, or the simplicity of deep conversations around a campfire in the wilderness.
Ode to Friday Dinner
We had a meal this summer that we called “Friday Dinner” — due to the fact that we ate it every Friday night when the volunteers came. It consisted of cornbread, coleslaw, baked beans and grilled sausages. Phin’s Famous Coleslaw was always a crowd favorite, and Adam spent week-after-week perfecting the ratio of coals on top and below the Dutch oven for optimal cornbread done-ness. MacKenzie and I finished off the meal with our collaborative “Dump-a-Cake” for dessert (the key is a drizzle of milk, as suggested by Mack herself).
Every Friday the volunteers would exclaim over the food, telling us they were surprised we ate so well out there in the woods. Personally, I would attribute the success of the meal to the fact that it required the participation of the whole crew in order to be executed perfectly. Each crew member’s individual specialty joined with the others to create the ideal meal. Friday Dinner without any of those things simply was not Friday Dinner.
In a way, the rest of the summer was one big Friday Dinner. Each of our individual strengths allowed for the success of the group, and without one of us, the crew was simply not whole. I don’t know what I would have done without the combination of Phin’s quiet humor and MacKenzie’s infectious laugh, or Adam’s gazetteer-like knowledge of every single place ever to balance out the fact that I don’t know how to get anywhere. I definitely accomplished and gained the things I expected to accomplish and gain from this internship: a stronger sense of self, technical skills, leadership abilities, an understanding of what goes into conservation work and more.
But I never could have expected to laugh as much as I did this summer. Or eat nearly as many white cheddar Cheez-its as I did. Or meet as many amazing volunteers as passionate about paddling as I did. I learned so much this summer besides technical skills, and the most important thing I learned was how to work as a unit composed of individual parts. I learned that where I may fall short, through the support and encouragement of people around me I can in fact learn how to navigate without Google Maps. I am so thankful for this Friday Dinner of a crew, and for all of the support and knowledge they gave me this summer on the NFCT.