My first introduction to traveling by canoe came on the Rangeley Lakes section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail nearly 60 years ago, and it was one of those transformational experiences that set me on a most rewarding path in life. Ten years later, still nearly 30 before the founding of the NFCT, I spent the last of three summers at the confluence of the Magalloway and Androscoggin Rivers, at a ramshackle former sporting camp, teaching canoeing and wilderness camping skills to boys preparing for their Junior Maine Guide test. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail rolled by every day, and we did not have a clue that the waters we explored would someday fit into our magnificent 740-mile trail through wild places across the North Woods.
Those experiences as a participant and leader at Chewonki introduced me to people and places that have shaped my life.
One of those introductions was made by my colleague at Chewonki, Greg Shute, on a warm October afternoon in the late 1990s. Kay Henry and Rob Center were visiting Greg to talk about the pending purchase of new canoes, but they had ulterior motives. Rob pulled me aside and let me know that he was recruiting Greg to assist with the launch of a new venture to celebrate native peoples’ canoe routes. When I retired a dozen years later, Kay and Rob attended a farewell party at Chewonki and told me flat out that they would soon be recruiting me to join the board of the NFCT.
As I stepped away from Chewonki in 2010, I looked forward to supporting activities and organizations that promote long distance trails, environmental and outdoor education, and ecosystem restoration — especially aquatic and marine ecosystems so essential to life in this corner of the world. The NFCT touches each of those interests, and I joined the board in November 2012. I was lucky to work with Executive Director Kate Williams for my first few years, and to help Karrie Thomas navigate the transition to the rapidly changing conditions along the trail after she became the organization’s second executive director.
The last four years have been challenging for the NFCT in many ways, not the least of which was the need to reshape our finances in the face of changes in the broader philanthropic community. Organizations such as the NFCT, with a compelling mission and inspiring vision, attract significant support from foundations and government agencies at start-up. After a decade or so, however, foundation support frequently shifts from broad, organizational capacity-building to narrower, project-oriented work. Karrie took the helm right at that juncture. Boards go through similar transitions, and it feels at the time that the Earth is moving beneath us. Board President Alan Stearns did a masterful job of keeping a core group of six of us together during those difficult months, and by the time he handed me the baton three years ago, we were nearly a dozen.
It’s an old saw that challenging times test one’s mettle, and that is also true for organizations. Alan and Karrie developed a new system for identifying potential board members, and I know that the group presently assembled can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the great NFCT boards going back to the beginning. We are younger — overall! Our gender balance is good, and will get better. In the coming months and years, NFCT, along with dozens of other conservation and outdoor recreation organizations, will build trust with the indigenous people whose homelands are traversed by the trail. Now, we are on the threshold of bringing the Adirondack’s famous canoe race — the 90-Miler — into the NFCT family.
I learned to paddle a canoe along the NFCT and those experiences put me in a place to help it grow nearly 60 years later. When I passed the baton to Anne Brewer during our November Zoom meeting of the Board, I breathed a sigh of relief, yet also a sigh of deep satisfaction for the privilege and opportunity to work on one of the world’s great long distance trails.