The Clyde – Day 1

G. B. DavisI spent my childhood summers exploring the coast of Maine. My time was my own. Often alone, I explored the forests, played in small boats and camped on nearby islands. These summer experiences are the foundation of my life as a naturalist, an educator and an artist.

In my twenties, Life happened and my summers in Maine came to an unexpected end. A void was left that I’ve tried to fill ever since.

A few years ago I learned about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a system of ancient and traditional canoe routes connecting the northern forests of New York, Vermont, Québec, New Hampshire and Maine. Later I served as photographer’s assistant and guide on an autumn trip through New England. I was introduced to the Adirondacks and was able to visit the Trail at Old Forge and follow its route across the park. From that time on, I became focused on my own expedition to paddle the Trail.

I lost fifty pounds. I accumulated gear. I trained and explored Indiana trails and waterways.

My trip was funded by a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. With this funding I purchased more gear, maps and my canoe. I made an early spring trip to the Adirondacks to scout the trail. On June 15, 2014, I began what would be a 420 mile trip across the Northern Forest.

It was the most difficult thing that I’ve ever done. I’d go back tomorrow.

The Clyde – Day One is an experiment. Many people have asked about the book – a book I didn’t plan to write. This piece, an expansion of a journal entry, may become a chapter of that book.  At 52 years old I feel reconnected. I can still explore the forests, play in small boats and camp on islands. I feel pretty great.

The Clyde – Day One

“There are no easy days. Well, there were early in the trip, but I didn’t know it. I thought those days were really hard.”

 Journal excerpt from “A Canoe Called Joe”
July 10, 2014 – East Charleston, Vermont

 

This is so much harder than it is supposed to be.

Bow shot of a canoe called Joe on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
Bow shot of a canoe called Joe on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

I stand thigh deep bracing against the cold rushing water. Carefully, I move one foot forward searching for a solid foothold. My foot strikes a rock. I jam my boot against the rock and shift my weight forward and find my footing. Lifting a heavy water-filled boot I take a step and inch forward pulling the heavy canoe with me.

It has been this way—struggling up rivers and around dams and rapids a few inches at a time—since I paddled across Lake Champlain nine days ago. Every step must be deliberate. A careless step could cause serious injury. A careless step could end my trip.

With my toe I probe the rushing water for the next foothold. This time my boot wedges between two rocks. I lift a heavy boot and again inch forward.

This morning began with a five mile walk from Newport. With a pair of wheels strapped to the canoe’s hull and my bags and gear loaded, I pushed the canoe—first on city streets and highways, later on worn forest lanes—uphill around swift-water and rapids and to the flat-waters of Salem and Clyde Ponds. From here the guidebook assures me that the paddle upstream to the Great Falls Campsite on Charleston Pond—but for a short wheeled portage—is not difficult.

The sunlight is beginning to take on the golden glow of late afternoon. Dragging the boat up this unexpected stretch of whitewater is using precious time and energy. Time and energy that will be needed to negotiate a portage. Time and energy that will be needed to cross a small pond to the only campsite. Time and energy that will be needed to set up camp. Time and energy that will be needed to cook dinner and to clean up and rest for tomorrow.

I move to step forward. My footing fails and my foot slides downstream and stops against a rock. Struggling to keep my balance, I remain upright and take another step forward. I’m tired. I’m getting sloppy.

For two hours I wade and tow my gear up the Clyde River before the scenery begins to change. On the right the occasional houses are becoming more frequent and the road was now running close to the bank. The river straightens and the bridge and cluster of white clapboard buildings appear a few hundred yards upstream.

Beneath the bridge begins a rising rocky staircase of waterfalls. The guidebook reports that the takeout will be on my left, near the bridge. I draw closer and begin to scan the scrubby trees for the familiar three inch diamond-shaped sign marking the take-out. The falls are intimidating. The water is roaring. I’m anxious and exhausted.

This is so much harder than it is supposed to be.

The stream becomes steeper and the water pushes harder against my legs. I lean further into the current to keep my footing. One-step-at-a-time I approach the bridge and the foaming terraced falls. I work the boat over to the left bank, still searching for the yellow sign and keeping an eye on the first step of the falls. If I don’t see the yellow diamond-shaped sign soon, I’m afraid that I will have to wrestle the loaded boat up the first drop.

I spot the marker in the trees just as I reach the bridge. The trail is barely a crease in the tangle of trees and brush. I pull the canoe safely onto the bank and push into the dark tangle to scout the trail.

Geoff trained on Sugar Creek in Indiana - paddling, packing and portaging.
Geoff trained on Sugar Creek in Indiana – paddling, packing and portaging.

There isn’t much of a trail. I follow a thin line tracing through grass and thick underbrush. It leads to a pool of stagnant orange water. Mosquitos and no-see’ums crawl about my ears and my mouth. Across the pool the thin line picks up and leads uphill, over an ancient half-buried rusted car, through a thicket of shoulder high brush and up to the road into the light.

Across the road a man sits at a backyard picnic table with a can of Budweiser in his hand. He glances my way with little interest and returns to his beer.

I am exhausted. There is so much to be done before dark. I return to the boat to begin to ferry gear to the road. Three heavy loads.

First I hoist a large faded pack onto my back. To the straps I hang a smaller canvas pack across my chest. I grab my paddles, find my balance and begin the walk through the stagnant orange pool. Though swarming insects persist. I’m too pre-occupied to notice their bites. The heavy load is difficult to carry and my unsure footing demands all of my attention. I climb across the rusted car and begin the steep climb to the road. I slip. I don’t fall hard. There isn’t far to fall forward at this incline, but my exposed arms and face instantly burn. I’ve fallen into stinging nettles. I pick myself up and continue my climb. From experience I know the stinging won’t last long.

This is so much harder than it is supposed to be.

Emerging onto the road I drop my packs and paddles in a pile. I take a long drink from a water bottle. The man across the street glances my way. He has been joined by a woman. Exhausted, I turn and head back to the river.

Each load is slightly lighter than the last. On the second carry I sling a turquoise woven pack basket over my shoulders. Across my chest hangs a worn oiled cotton day pack. Picking up a twelve foot push pole I begin the track back to the road – across the stagnant orange pool, the half-buried car and through the shoulder high stinging nettles. I struggle up the bank to the road and drop my gear onto the growing pile.

Just one more trip. I walked back to the river to get the canoe.

My canoe was built by hand in 1958 at Old Town, Maine. Advertised as “The 50 lb.”, a model marketed for the early ultralight paddling crowd, this canoes has always weighed more than its advertised weight. Bone dry the boat weighs about sixty pounds. But with extended use the cedar and canvas hull absorbs and holds water like a sponge. By the time I had reached West Charleston I had spent over three weeks on the water. Now it weighs closer to eighty pounds.

Early in the trip, I could grab the unloaded canoe by both rails and lift it onto my shoulders with one graceful move. At eighty pounds this operation was difficult. At my current level of exhaustion it was impossible.

I have an alternate and much less graceful routine to heave the boat onto my shoulders in this situation. As I roll the boat upside down – resting the other end on the softest surface available – I would awkwardly crouch beneath the carrying yoke and stand, adjusting the boat and dropping it onto my shoulders. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

Birds carved by the author back in Indiana. He intends his NFCT trip to inspire future wood carvings.
Birds carved by the author back in Indiana. He intends his NFCT trip to inspire future wood carvings.

Tonight the softest surface is the loose sandy river bottom near the river bank. I turn the boat over and with some difficulty arrange myself beneath. With an audible heave I stand and lift the boat onto my shoulders. A torrent of water, lifted with the canoe, rushes forward and runs back into the river. With little pause I turn and push Joe through the trees and brush and up to the roadside.

This is so much harder than it is supposed to be.

The sun is sinking fast and I force myself to keep moving. Rolling the boat from my shoulders, I lay it in the grass alongside the road. My calf-high boots are still filled with water and I still have quite a bit of walking to do. Grabbing a dry-bag from the largest pack, I unlace my boots and exchanged them for dry socks and camp mocs.

The next few miles—a portage around the staircase of waterfalls and the hydroelectric dam above it—are on paved roads. The wheels go back on. Nearly every day for the last three weeks I’ve repeated this operation. The routine is familiar. I get right to work.

From the pack basket and buried within a tangle of interlocked gear (stoves, fuel bottles, coils of line, a folding saw) I extricate Joe’s wheeled cart in five parts. First the two aluminum wheel frames are unfolded. With a click they lock firmly in place. Two aluminum bars, with rubber pads, are slid onto these assemblies and screwed down. The two assemblies are then joined together with a confirming click. An expanding bar is attached to the cart to keep cart upright when loading.

I wheel the cart alongside the canoe, aligning it with the center thwart. With a careful heave I lift the boat onto the cart. Checking the position and alignment of the cart and the boat, I join them with two nylon straps. The packs and gear have assigned positions, determined by miles of trial and error. The boat is a sixteen foot lever. When everything is loaded right the boat balances perfectly. There’s little weight to lift and I can focus on pushing—not lifting—the canoe. I move my smaller packs a bit to fine tune the rig’s balance and I’m ready to move on.

I’ve one more thing to do. Grabbing three water bottles I make my way across the road.

This trip has changed me. After spending weeks alone I find myself reaching out to the people I encounter on the trail. Walking up to someone relaxing in their yard and beginning a conversation is new to me. Though I have a water filter and could fill my bottles at the river, I really want some conversation. Maybe a beer, or better…a beer and a sandwich.

They’ve been watching. I suspect I’ve been a source of speculation and perhaps, amusement.

“Can I fill my water bottles?” I ask. My question is directed at the man, still nursing his beer.

“Sure. From the hose all right?” It wasn’t a question. This wasn’t going to be the friendly conversation I was expecting.

“Sure,” I answer. Drinking from the hose is not a problem, but I sense that he might want it to be.

His wife jumps up holding out her hands and smiling warmly. “I’ll take them inside and fill them from the sink,” she offers.

“That’s a great idea,” he says. “Make sure that you let the water run so it’s nice and cool.” There is no hint of sarcasm. There’s an undercurrent to this conversation I don’t understand.

“Where are you heading?” he turns and asks.

“To a campsite on the other end of Charleston Pond,” I explain. This campsite is less than a mile from where I am standing.

“You mean Pensioner Pond,” he corrects, naming another nearby pond. “That’s going to be a three-and-a-half mile walk.”

I didn’t mean Pensioner Pond. I meant Charleston Pond. I knew where I was going.

A school teacher, Geoff shared his upcoming NFCT adventure with his students in his classroom.
A school teacher, Geoff shared his upcoming NFCT adventure with his students in his classroom.

The sun was dropping quickly. We all knew that even if I wanted to go to Pensioner Pond I could not arrive there until well after dark. There is no sympathy in his voice. No offer of help. I hold my tongue. I know where I am going. It doesn’t matter if he does.

The conversation turns to football, the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots. He and the other woman, who I later learn is his sister, goad me a bit about a rivalry I know little about. My only response is to describe the view from my classroom window, a spectacular view of Lucas Oil Stadium.

As his wife returns with my water bottles he senses my disinterest. “I bet you don’t even follow sports, do you?” he asks.

“I don’t,” I answer without apology.

“Then what are we going to talk about?” his sister asks loudly. She seems disappointed.

I turn to her and explain, “We don’t need to talk about anything. I just came for water.”

Turning to the wife I thank her for the water and begin to head back to the road and the canoe.

“I bet you ain’t even had dinner yet,” the man commented as I left. “Man, that sucks,” he added without kindness.

This is much harder than it was supposed to be.

I lift the end of the canoe and walk across the bridge. I lean forward and begin to push the canoe up the hill and through the village.

On the right I pass a closed and boarded general store with signs advertising cigarettes and gasoline. I pass a handful of white clapboard houses and then the post office and the adjacent Scampy’s Country Store. Unlike the first store, Scampy’s is alive. Through the open windows pour laughter, dinner conversation and the smells of cooking food. I’d been living on dried food and canned goods for weeks and I’m tempted to stop, but I keep moving. I still have to cross Charleston Pond. I still need to set camp.

A road trails downward to the left and back across the river. I continue past a carpenter gothic cottage with intricate fretwork. A man descends a ladder with a paint can and brush in hand. The light is failing and he is finished for the day.

I rest often, sometimes taking fewer than a dozen steps. With frequent rests and a turtle slow pace I can always find just a little more stamina.

Climbing higher I see beyond the village the pond spreading out below me. The far shore is dotted with pastures and dairy farms. To the east and toward my campsite, a mixed forest wraps the shoreline. Glancing directly below me, I see that I’m well above the dam.

I try to reason through what I’m seeing. The portage leads to the far side of the dam. How can I get to the other side of the dam once I’ve already walked beyond the dam? I’d walked too far. I’d climbed too high. I’d wasted energy. In my exhaustion I was making mistakes.

This is so much harder than it was supposed to be.

I turn the boat around and retrace my steps. Walking the canoe downhill can be easier than the uphill struggle, but it is still hard work. I lean back, pulling hard to keep the boat under control.

It takes little time to return to the village. I easily find the missed turn and re-cross the river over another stone bridge. The staircase of waterfalls rumbles below. Passing a small house I spot a small yellow diamond-shaped sign indicating the portage. I turn right and follow a gravel service road accessing the dam and the power plant—another uphill climb.

Mercifully, the climb is short. The road spreads into a gravel parking area at the dam and powerhouse. Only a twenty minute paddle across Charleston Pond stands between me and much needed rest.

The sun has set. Dusk turns to twilight.

At the end of his canoe trip, the author met up with an NFCT service weekend group in Rangeley, ME.
At the end of his canoe trip, the author met up with an NFCT service weekend group in Rangeley, ME.

I see another yellow diamond-shaped sign at the far end of the parking area. The portage follows a clear path—exactly the width of a riding lawnmower—over rough ground and through thick trees to the water.

More problems. The path is really too rough to continue to push the canoe on wheels. Removing the wheels requires lifting, repacking and more lifting. Lifting the boat. Lifting heavy packs.

To launch the canoe here I need to step into the water. That means more packing and repacking as I lace up my wet boots and stow my camp mocs in a dry bag.

Gear gets lost or left behind when packed in the dark.

And it all will be repeated, in reverse, when I reach the campsite on the other side of the pond.

I’m exhausted. It’s dark. I’ve not eaten. I can hear thunder in the distance. I just can’t go on.

This is so much harder than it was supposed to be.

 

G.B. Davis paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge, NY to Rangeley, ME during the summer of 2014. He is a teacher and a carver of wooden birds. Learn more about his passion at 50 Little Birds.

 

Editor’s Note: Northern Forest Canoe Trail Through Paddler hopefuls typically canoe or kayak the trail in one direction which means both downstream and upstream currents. This particular section of Vermont’s Clyde River is often reported by through paddlers as being one of the most difficult sections of their entire 740-mile journey. NFCT is currently in conversation with a landowner along this stretch of river about installing a lean-to and a portage in 2015. This is a good example of our important work and continued stewardship efforts.

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