Northern Forest Explorers: Big Water, Small Paddlers

Our trip began in sunny weather on a Monday morning in late June. Our new Northern Forest Explorers t-shirts came in and they looked sharp. For this trip, we had quite a few people who had not done this route before, and some of those were new paddlers as well. Corbin, the veteran of this trip, did not hold back advice on the best swimming and fishing areas.

We also had Kay Kio, the executive director of Midtown Utica Community Center. I had been coordinatIng with some of my colleagues on expanding our promotion of this trip, which is open to anybody physically capable of paddling, to new communitIes. I had been working with Kay to identify youth from that community who would be interested in this trip. It was a young group, with only one person (Noah AKA grandpa) older than 12.

For this trip, fortune smiled on us, as it often does — despite a forecast of rain every day, the majority of it seemed to miss us.

We stopped at Kelly’s Point on Long Lake on the first night of our trip, a great destination for swimming and exploring. Nobody has been able to tell me about the mysterious stone staircase going up the hill here, but it must be over 100 years old as I believe this parcel went to the state in the 1920s. At this stop, we practiced our synchronized jumping and built great oven-cooked calzones on the behemoth fireplace.

On day two, we practiced our navigation skills with a bushwhack up Blueberry Mountain. Janne took the compass and led the way. Because I had forgotten the yoke to my heavy wooden guideboat, we were lucky to have a visit from Wilfred Burnett, who also brought doughnuts from Stewarts, which we enjoyed on top of the mountain. On the way back down, I had to irrigate the eyes of at least four people as black flies kept flying right into them.

After lunch and a swim, we paddled up to the former Camp Riverdale (on the western shore) and set up in the old lean-to — stick built rather than log built — for the second night. Though it was gray and threatening to sprinkle, most of the campers spent hours swimming. We had a visit from Olivia’s parents, who taught us a new hack for s’mores: fudge stripe cookies that take the place of graham crackers and chocolate!

On day three we entered the river — after recovering a dropped paddle — and meandered down to the takeout above the upper falls. Regularly rotating paddling partners, the idea is that by paddling with someone new every day you will learn different paddling skills (and different ends of the boat) while getting to know new people.

As usual, when we get to the carry and assess the situation, I think, “Wow, not a lot of big people here to lug gear and boats”. Still, we got all of the gear over in two trips, with a third the next day to get boats. Everyone carried at least part of a boat and so we were ready for repose in the early afternoon.

Too early for blueberries, we had chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast and went to see the roaring lower and upper falls. Kay had taught everyone the “werewolf” campfire game and each night, there was clamoring to play. Spoiler alert: Logan is ALWAYS one of the werewolves. Janne and Heidi taught us a new game, Alibi, but I don’t think I understood it on the first go-round — got too caught up in questioning the players like Kojak or something.

The hot sauce of the trip, “Satan’s Ghost,” continused to delight and disgust, with Kay by far demonstrated the most tolerance for it, and some of the boil in a bag meals benefited from a little “spicing.”

We also developed a good rowing game on the fly: ”GofurGus.” The basic principle is that whoever is last in the order of paddling (the boats tend to spread out as we go) catches up to the next boat in the order and whispers the “password” to them. From that moment, it is a race between the person who started the password and everyone else to relay the password to the boat in front. A great way to keep everyone moving. (Juneau pointed this out to me, missing nothing). Because my first password, “gopher guts,” had been misunderstood as “go for gus,” so the game was christened.

At our last campsite, south of Axton Landing, several people took turns rowing the guideboat. Once Kay came back with it from a solo jaunt, Forest, Olivia and Heidi all took a turn with it, doing very well for never having rowed before. The trick of the traditional guideboat is needing to cross your hands because of the narrowness of the boat. It takes some coordination and building of muscle memory to do it well, although Heidi seemed to get ahold of it right away, even rowing it well upstream. Not bad for a 9-year-old!

Corbin caught the the major fish of the trip, a fat fall fish, right at the takeout, so he is not “skunked” as he put it.

As we rowed towards the crusher and civilization, I reflected on this crew of young paddlers that rather quickly gelled as a group and paddled, camped and played so well together. We never get tired of participating in Northern Forest Explorers, letting the river lead the way and make us stronger.