Thru-paddlers of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in 2016

Susan Storch and Mary Duk have been paddling together for two decades, including six times as a team in the 90-Miler canoe and kayak race in the Adirondacks. They’ve developed a strong bond on the water that got even stronger this summer.

That’s because the pair paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail this summer, a desire that grew in recent years. “Everything about the trail intrigued me: the history, the variety of water, the wild beauty, the solitude, the wildlife, and the extreme challenge,” Storch said. “The NFCT had been on my bucket list since 2008, four years before I retired. I planned it to be a celebration of regaining control of my time.”

Storch and Duk paddled the route using a tandem Kevlar in June and July. Like many other

2016 thru paddlers Mary Duk and Susan Storch

paddlers this summer, they found themselves seriously challenged by low-water conditions due to an early spring ice-out (and snowmelt) and a very dry summer. The low water caused them to have to get out of the boat more than they probably desired, but they pushed through it and persevered.

“Northern New Hampshire, at the time we were paddling it, was experiencing extreme drought,” Storch said. “Even in the Connecticut River, we often had to get out of the boat and pull over sandbars.”

Storch and Duk were among eight thru-paddlers I touched based with throughout this spring and summer via email and sometimes in person as they passed through the area. The first person to come through the area was John Connelly of Falmouth, Maine.

As a general rule, first thru-paddlers of the season are pretty ambitious, experienced, and ready for a challenge. It takes a certain mindset to take on the early season conditions. Not everyone is up for crossing windswept lakes shortly after ice-out or paddling a fully loaded boat through icy rapids.

John Connelly Canoeing by Mike LynchConnelly, leaving on April 16, certainly billed that description, even when describing the trip. Asked about the highlights of the trip, Connelly mentioned the “snow, sleet, rain and wind,” in addition to the long trip across Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Maine. “A front roared in suddenly during my crossing of Mooselookmeguntic Lake,” he recalled. “Five mile-per-hour winds turned into 30 mph and flat water turned into 3-foot whitecaps and a warm misty sprinkle turned into sideways blowing snow.”

Connelly also mentioned running into “world-class black files” on Mud Pond Carry in northern Maine and nearly getting run over by a bull moose in New Hampshire. But Connelly did have some highlights that didn’t involve anguish. He unexpectedly ran into close friends in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, saw bald eagles nearly every day of the trip, and he thoroughly enjoyed the whitewater sections on the Nulhegan and South Branch of the Dead rivers.

A well-publicized journey, Connelly dubbed his trip PaddleQuest1500 because the NFCT was just the first half of his 1,500-mile paddling journey.  When Connelly reached the NFCT’s eastern terminus on the Saint John River in Fort Kent, Maine, he didn’t stop. Instead, he continued paddling downriver to the Bay of Fundy, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean, where he paddled south to Kittery, Maine, arriving on June 24.

.Connelly said he hoped his long journey would inspire others to get outside and enjoy nature. He brought attention to the cause by blogging along the way and posting photos and videos on social media.

One group of people he didn’t have to inspire to get outside were the thru-paddlers who followed in his wake, including a few whose names should be familiar to those who pay attention to the trail. This season, two groups paddled the trail for the second season in a row. Solo kayaker Mack Truax finished the journey in 21 days, while the Bognet family of Gabrielle, Brice, and their son, Malo, completed their trip in time to return home to their native France.

“We think that it is important to show to our son what slow traveling off the grid is, and enjoy it ourselves,” Brice and Gabriel wrote me. “Malo asked us to through paddle again when we knew that we would have to leave the US.”

On the other hand, Truax, who is from Michigan, paddled in 21 days, going at an extremely fast pace, which seems to be his norm. The 62 year-old paddled his first kayak seven years ago and has already paddled more than 5,500 miles.

2016 thru-paddler MackTruax“The NFCT trip combines all the essentials that I look for in a trip,” Truax said. “People ask me ‘what are you going to do next?’ My answer is: The trail to me is like your favorite vacation spot, a place where every time you go back it just gets better.”

Yes, that means Truax will be attempting his third thru-paddle next summer. This time with a friend from back home.

Each thru-paddler was asked to share highlights from their trips. Below are their responses.

Andrew Aderman, of Buffalo, New York, paddled with brothers Andrew and Paul Kitchen from May 16 to June 21. They used Royalex boats: one solo and one tandem.

“One of our favorite parts of the NFCT were all of the great people that we met along the way. On one occasion we were portaging through Oquossoc, Maine and stopped at the general store for coffee and breakfast sandwiches. While there we had at least 10 people strike up conversation about our trip and we felt like celebrities. We also really enjoyed traveling through so many small towns and eating all kinds of local favorites (creemees, bulkies, etc.). We also had awesome, adrenaline filled paddles down the whitewater on the Saranac and Moose Rivers.”

John Connelly, of Falmouth, Maine, paddled in a solo Kevlar canoe from April 16 until May 23.

“The Nulhegan and South Branch of the Dead were the most rewarding whitewater sections. Did the entire Allagash Wilderness Waterway in 3 days and ran into two people who knew me (separate instances), which was fun. Bald eagles almost every day on the entire trip. Almost got run over by a bull moose in New Hampshire.”

WillLathrop_2016 NFCT thru-paddlerWill Lathrop of Bound Brook, New Jersey, paddled from June 29 to August 9, in a solo lightweight canoe.

“I felt like Paddle-to-the-Sea on Flagstaff Lake, with the wind and waves really pushing me along and sometimes knocking me around.  That evening was the most spectacular thunderstorm whose arrival from the West everyone at the Round Barn campsites watched from shore.”

Gabrielle Mutel, Brice Bognet and son Malo, of Storrs, Connecticut (and also France), paddled from July 5 until August 19 in a 16-foot Royalex tandem canoe. It was their second thru-paddle.

“Two massive snapping turtles fighting (we think they were fighting, and one was bleeding from the neck) each other in little Salem Pond (Newport): we stayed there for at least 30 min watching them. They fought, and then had to take a break to breath, we coud hear them breathing heavily, then went fighting again…”

Stuart Read and his 16-year-old son, Lyell of Lake Oswego, Oregon, paddled from June 23 to August 1. Stuart’s wife Teri Read and their 14-year-old son Mason joined him and Lyell in Errol, New Hampshire, for the final leg of the trip.

Read Family“We enjoyed the whole thing. We knew that the first section of the trail, from New York to New Hampshire, would be the most physically demanding.  My older son and I enjoy that kind of challenge. But for the whole family, going through Maine, and particularly the Allagash, was quite a highlight.  We wrote the following on our blog: ‘There is a reason that the organizers of the NFCT put the Allagash at the end of the trail. The Allagash is dessert. It is the reward for the portages, the upstream sections, and any of the less attractive destinations on the trail.  First off, the Allagash is all downstream. Second off, the Allagash is all downstream. And as much as you are betting that the third point will be that it’s because the Allagash is all downstream, I’d like to add that it’s also gorgeous, remote, has few short portages, fun riffles and rapids, offers amazing wildlife…and did I mention…it’s downstream.’”

Susan Storch paddled with Mary Duk in tandem Kevlar canoe from June 9 to 11 and then from June 22 and July 26. (They took a hiatus from the trip after deciding to drop off Duk’s dog, which went along for the first few days.)

“There were so many highlights. The scenery was magnificent throughout, with the bookends of the Adirondack Park and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway being the most stunning. We were privileged to encounter a variety of wildlife, including moose, deer, beavers, fisher, otters, eagles, fox, ospreys, loons, king fishers, hawks, mergansers, wood ducks, Canada geese, and songbirds in abundance. The countless kindnesses of strangers was remarkable: the many offers of rides, all of which we had to turn down, but nonetheless much appreciated, the thumbs up of passing motorists and motorcyclists when we were portaging along roads, the cheers of people we met in the towns, advice and tips given on the route ahead, the gifts of water on hot, thirsty days, the loans of cars to get to an ATM or a post office, the offer to camp in a backyard, the use of showers and laundry facilities, meals free of charge, and great conversations with wonderful people in every state and province. The happy accident of arriving at Churchill Dam at the exact moment of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, where we ate moose meat, baked potatoes, and “bean hole beans,” met Jeff McCabe, the NFCT’s Maine Outreach Coordinator, Fern Stearns, noted Maine paddler and mother of NFCT president, Alan Stearns, and made new friends.”

Here’s what Storch’s partner Mary Duk had to say:

“We saw eagles nearly every day!  That was just astounding to me!  We were paddling an Eagle Canoe made by Hemlock Canoe Works.  It seemed so fitting and felt as though the eagles were tracking our passage and leading us on to the finish. We didn’t see moose until we got to the Penobscot River. But after that we saw about 5. One was very large and close to us on a bank as we paddled by!

ReadFamily_2016 NFCT thru-paddlerWe met countless friendly and generous people all along the way. People who gave us water, offered us rides (which we sadly had to turn down!), offered us the use of their cars or trucks, offered us a place to stay, let us do laundry, offered us their water filtration system when ours failed, fed us, offered advice on routes, gave us contact names and numbers in case we got into trouble and nearly everyone we met wanted to know about our adventure on the NFCT. These days, when news is mostly bad and people are taking sides on many issues, it was a blessing to meet so many lovely people in every state we visited.

Finally, the biggest highlight of the trip was arriving at Churchill Dam in time for the 50th Anniversary of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. After nearly a month of dehydrated food (well we did do our share of “dining out”) we were offered free baked potatoes with sour cream and butter, marinated moose and bean hole beans. Can you imagine our joy at this? We also camped for free near the dam. The Maine Rangers were incredibly helpful and friendly. We met a few Maine guides and many fellow paddlers of all ages. It was a fantastic party!”

Mack Truax, of Lowell, Michigan, paddled in a solo kayak from May 15 to June 9.

“When I reached Lake Champlain, I found cracks and a hole in my sea kayak.  I managed a buy a ride back to Old Forge where I picked up a new boat at Mountainman Outdoor Supply. From that point on everything was a highlight because it was in a new boat and everything was a first.”

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail non-profit was founded in 2000, and the 740-mile trail was fully mapped by 2006. Since 2000, more then 100 people have received thru-paddler or section-paddler recognition for canoeing or kayaking the entire route.