Through-paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) not only made me an author, it turned me into a bridesmaid.
On that fateful freshet day in March, a decade ago, I had wandered into a presentation about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail at Canoecopia, a massive three-day paddle sport show held annually in my home state of Wisconsin. 2010 was the NFCT’s 10th anniversary and the year the trail’s official guidebook debuted. I remember the presenters gushing about the scenery, the wildlife, the quintessential New England villages and even, in some sections, the prospect of paddling from Inn to Inn. I was mesmerized by that single anfractuous line reaching across the North East. Before the presentation was over, the hamster wheel in my head was already spinning with plans about how and with whom I was going to paddle the whole thing the following year.
While the NFCT maps and guidebook contain superb information, all of it is written from the perspective of a downstream paddler. When planning my 2011 trip, I had relied upon the blogs of other thru-paddlers and I decided to keep detailed records to post for future adventurers as a way of paying it forward. I started thinking that perhaps my own blog could be turned into a guidebook for through-paddlers—one that included documenting all of those upstream miles we had to comprehend reading in reverse—as well as providing the kinds of reassurances I had been looking for when making decisions during my own trip. Previously I had dabbled only in the writing of the occasional advertising headline—extolling the virtues of say, canned green beans or plastic lumber. But three years after signing that last register in the Fort Kent kiosk, I published the first edition of The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Through-Paddler’s Companion, a 230-page guidebook specific to the needs of the small, but growing, through-paddling community.
Because of the NFCT, I decided to write.
Like the large blue 115-liter Seal Line dry bag I carry for my longest trips, my life continues to be packed full of the people and places brought together through this remarkable community. Because of the NFCT, I have been fortunate to canoe with extraordinary paddlers, surreptitiously shadowing others along the trail through their SPOT tracking devices, exchanging emails, advice and haiku poetry, learning about new beers to try and a certain Spam breakfast recipe best perhaps to avoid. The names on my holiday card list continue to grow as does my longing to return each year to re-paddle sections of this water trail.
There are so many connections I’ve made over the past ten years that I hesitate to single out a specific story. However, one in particular symbolizes the transformative connection this trail embodies in ways I could never have predicted.
Justine and I first “met” in the winter of 2010 through the NFCT Facebook’s page, back in the days when Facebook was better about connecting rather than dividing. We were each independently planning our own through-paddling trips the next summer. We discovered we were both about to turn 50, had read many of the same books about adventurous women and waxed nostalgic over Little Feat’s swamp-bluesy song, “Willin’.”
Our departure dates, however, were off by about six weeks. Over Memorial Day weekend, I watched Justine, her partner TK and their little Yorkshire Terrier “Moxie” set off from the village park on Fulton Lake through the Old Forge webcam. I wasn’t able to start until July 4, around the same time they were approaching the Fort Kent terminus.
Fortunately they live in Maine. After finishing my own trip, I was able to meet “Team Moxie” in person. It was Justine who then declared; “Now you need to hike the Appalachian Trail!” something she, “Miss Daisy,” and “A-TK” had already completed.
Thus, in 2016 you would have found me back in Maine, this time through-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). From atop the Bigelows, I looked down upon the entirety of Flagstaff Lake eyeing the route that my canoe had followed five years earlier. I stayed overnight in Rangeley and Stratton, trail towns common to both the NFCT and the AT. Justine and TK had been following my trip online. They had even suggested they might meet up with me once I reached Monson. I had just summitted Buck Mountain a few miles shy of the town, pausing at the height of land where cell coverage again became available. I consulted my phone for a shuttle pickup. Wiping droplets of rain from the screen, I saw a text appear from Justine that read, “Tis time for me to ask…will you be my maid of honor at 9:00 a.m. in Monson tomorrow? We have been waiting for you.”
And so, the next day, on a Sunday morning in August and in the presence of twenty other thru-hikers at Shaw’s Hostel, I stood alongside Justine, clasping a large sunflower and clad in clothes I had been wearing for four months, bearing witness.
My husband thinks that hiking the Appalachian Trail, and now my most recent adventure, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies, were things that had always been rattling around in the back of my head, behind that hamster wheel paused during the busy years of juggling family and managing careers. But I think the NFCT was the catalyst.
Because the trail exists, I paddled it. Because I paddled it, I wrote a book. Because I wrote a book, my network of friends grew. Because I met new friends, the idea to hike Appalachian Trail became a reality and with it the sweet bonus of being a bridesmaid. Because of the NFCT, I, too, present at Canoecopia.
Whether your NFCT community is defined by close family and friends, an afternoon spent paddling a favorite trail section or one that is shared with strangers discovered through a connected journey, this expansive trail possesses the capacity to transform. Discovering the Northern Forest Canoe Trail changed my life, or perhaps more accurately, I was gobsmacked by it. Ever since I first dipped my paddle into the Fulton Chain, a continuous series of ripples was set into motion that has yet to dissipate. Who could have imagined that a simple decision to sit in on a 45-minute talk would end up consuming my imagination for the next decade? What ripples, what life-changing encounter, what bridesmaid moment, might be your next NFCT story?
Katina Daanen loves the places and people found throughout the NFCT. She is the author of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail Through-Paddler’s Companion and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail Planning and Paddling Log, both available through the NFCT Store. She half-heartedly maintains Paddling the NFCT on Facebook but continues to document NFCT travels on her blog: https://kdaanen-nfct.blogspot.com/.