I completed my section paddling of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail this week, paddling the Upper Ammonoosuc River in New Hampshire from the Stark Covered Bridge down to the Connecticut River. It’s taken me 20 years to ‘finish’ the trail.
The first section I ever paddled of what is now the Northern Forest Canoe Trail was in the Missisquoi Delta in 1995. A few years after that, Rob Center came through my town with a slideshow about the Northern Forest canoe route that Native Trails, Inc. had documented. Rob signed up a number of us from the Missisquoi River Basin Association to collaborate with the nascent canoe trail to come up with route descriptions, portages, campsites, and landowner permissions along the Missisquoi. At the time, my children were still toddlers, and exploring the river and potential carries and campsites became a wonderful excuse for family outings. We always ended our paddling trips with a stop at one of our local Vermont creemee stands.
I could mark my children’s growing responsibility and independence by the way we handled the shuttles. At a certain age I knew I could trust my sons to wait by the canoe while I jogged or biked a few miles back up the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail to where we had left our car. Another year older and they were allowed to wade in the river (wearing their PFDs) to fish while I went for the car. A year or two after that, and they were allowed to paddle the canoe into the river to fish (wearing PFDs), while I fetched the car.
On other trips we began going farther afield, paddling Section 2 with my son Sterling when he was 8, and Section 1 when he was 9. On the trip from Old Forge, New York, Sterling took over the solo canoe we had along, leaving the two grownups with our Mad River tandem. (Six years later Sterling would return to race the Adirondack 90-Miler in the men’s stock-class solo canoe division…and win.)
In 2010 at NFCT’s 10th anniversary event in Rangeley, Maine, I met fellow paddler Chris Gill, and our families soon began meeting up to paddle whitewater together, first on the Saranac River in New York, then a 140-mile spring trip on the St John River from Baker Lake down to Fort Kent, Maine, and most recently a Memorial Day Weekend trip paddling in Maine again on the South Branch of the Dead River.
Chris was the one who originally introduced me to the concept of ‘Sectioneering’, or paddling the entire trail in manageable day- to week-long expeditions. As much as I would love to be able to take 6 weeks to paddle the entire trail, Sectioneering has real benefits. Many through paddlers walk long distances along highways to bypass upstream sections. I would much rather paddle down these rivers than miss them by walking. And by choosing my trips for times of year with adequate flows I have been able to enjoy other sections, such like the South Branch of the Dead River, that are frequently bypassed due to unnavigable low water in the summer.
At some point I looked at my paddling journals (actually, a spreadsheet, with notes on water levels and mileages for our trips) and realized that completing the entire trail ‘Sectioneer-style’ was in reach. After I received a wistful note from my mother (herself a veteran paddler) she began joining my sons and me for summer trips including on the Rangeley Lakes, across Moosehead Lake, and down the Penobscot River. Declaring that my beloved Mad River tandem was too heavy she also bought herself a much lighter carbon-fiber boat that she could load on her Subaru all by herself.
On a weekend trip to Maine last year I joined section maintainer Nicole Grohoski on Spencer Stream, and last fall I had a lovely (and chilly) 4 days paddling the Moose River from Attean Pond around the Bow and down past Jackman to Moosehead Lake.
Fifty years ago we were still devastating the health of our Northeastern rivers with dams, log drives, and industrial pollution. The threats today are subtler but just as real, from urban sprawl, industrial farming, and fragmentation of forest ownership. As paddlers today we benefit from the work of citizen organizations that fought to enforce the Clean Water Act, protect the St John River from being dammed during the 1970s, and end the log drives on public rivers. By continuing that work today we can make sure the next generations of paddlers will still have clean lakes and wild rivers to enjoy.
Russ Ford has been an NFCT volunteer extraordinaire since before the non-profit was founded in 2000. He is a trail maintainer, event helper, sage mentor to would-be through paddlers, and most recently, a volunteer guide for day trips on the Missisquoi River. Russ is also deeply appreciated by NFCT staff for his trail knowledge and willingness to answer—he always seems to have an answer—our random questions about all things Northern Forest Canoe Trail.