Upwards, the story of a solo NFCT thru-paddle

Laurie Chandler pens book about her adventures

Laurie Chandler daydreamed about moving to Maine for years. In 2003, she and her two children finally did, beginning a new chapter in life in a log cabin near the coast. Changing careers from forestry research to special education, she remarried, and discovered a new passion, wilderness paddling. After tragically losing her husband Chris in 2009, she began solo kayaking.

Laurie Chandler
Laurie Chandler

In 2011, a trip she called Paddle for Hope took Laurie across Maine on part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, raising $10,600 for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program. Soon, she was contemplating a solo thru-paddle of the entire NFCT, using a much lighter Kevlar canoe. Upwards, the story of her 2015 thru-paddle, is Laurie’s first book.

Laurie currently lives year-round in Maine, sharing her parents’ log cabin. As often as she can, she visits her children in Virginia, where Megan and her boyfriend Jacob are both graphic designers and Taylor is a firefighter. Her faith is her foundation and she gets outdoors as much as she can, summer and winter ~ swimming, canoeing, hiking, and snowshoeing.

Laurie says that on her list of life accomplishments, solo thru-paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail will always have a place at the top. Not far behind will be writing and publishing Upwards, the newly-released story of her 53-day adventure in the summer of 2015. These two experiences, inherently different and yet integrally connected, tested the depths of her endurance, faith, and creativity. Both took all she had to give and taught her much about herself and life. For this article, she decided to interview herself, incorporating some intriguing questions that she is often asked.

Every thru-paddle is different in its unique combination of equipment, season, weather, and encounters with wildlife and people. How would you summarize yours?

As every thru-paddler has done so far, I traveled west to east, starting on June 20 and ending on August 11. The weather cooperated, delivering abundant sunshine many days and above-average rainfall, often from storms in the depths of the night. The high-water conditions meant thrills on the flooded Saranac River, but an easier time navigating shallow sections, such as the South Branch of the Dead River. My new-for-the-trip Wenonah Fusion Kevlar canoe was 13 feet long and suited my needs well. It was lightweight enough for the tougher carries, stable on large, windy lakes, and practical for maneuvering through tight turns or up and down impossibly steep put-ins and take-outs. The generosity and kindness of people encouraged, inspired, and humbled me, and I came home with some treasured new friendships. Although my list of wildlife sightings was amazing, sadly, I never saw a bear.

What compelled you to write about your journey?

Like authors everywhere, I have high hopes for my book. One compelling purpose for writing it was to introduce the NFCT to a larger audience. The historic waterways that make up the trail provide an unparalleled opportunity to experience northern New England in a dramatic and intimate way. The route, and the communities through which it passes, deserve to be better known. Around 80 million people live within a day’s drive of the trail. For the many who already visit popular sections like the Adirondacks or Maine’s Rangeley lakes, NFCT’s resources, infrastructure, and programs could add much to the experience. Plus, with a long, cold winter coming, what could be better than traveling the river through the pages of a book? On a deeper level, Upwards speaks to the dreams we all have, dreams that deserve a chance to shine, even if achieving them is uncertain at the start. In my case, I was 53 years old, more academic than athletic, and didn’t have much whitewater experience. I went anyway and gave my dream a chance, surprising even myself.

Can you give us a peek into the book?

I want readers to feel like they’ve hopped into my canoe and journeyed with me, seeing the waterways as I experienced them. Through quiet river valleys where dairy farms sprawl at the foot of distant mountains. Across clear, sparkling lakes in the land of the pointed fir, where the wild creatures are most at home. On a fen bathed in early sun, with shadows stretching long across the water, and red-winged blackbirds swaying on the grasses. To a pretty village where a covered bridge spans the rushing river, beside a steepled church and village green. Similar in length and content to a thru-hiking tale, the 223-page book includes a detailed map and trip summary, plus 10 pages of color photos. There’s also a lot of me in the story, perhaps even more than I anticipated.

We know you completed the trail unassisted, in a solo boat, as a Self-Propelled Thru-Paddler. Were you surprised how big a part people played along the way?

The growing and far-flung community of NFCT paddlers and supporters played a crucial role in my journey and subsequent writing. Katina Daanen, author of The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Through-Paddler’s Companion, was my cheerleader, mentor, and editor. Within the pages of Upwards, you’ll also meet the family and friends who joined me for short segments, including thru-paddlers Peter Macfarlane (2013) and Dan Brown (2014), who accompanied me on most of the wild crossing of Lake Champlain. Trail angels abound along the trail, and I was blessed to encounter some of the very best, sometimes in the most unexpected of places. Without the energy and commitment of the NFCT staff and volunteers, all aspects of the trip ~ navigation, camping, portaging, and much more ~ would have been vastly more difficult. I believe that Kay Henry and Rob Center, NFCT founders, captured the soul of the book in their endorsement: “A personal and mesmerizing account of a transformative paddling journey, beautifully written. Stories like this make us proud to have created the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, where both the travelers and ‘kind angels’ along the banks create long-lasting bonds of friendship.”

What were your most memorable trail moments, good and bad?

Unquestionably, the scariest times on the trail had a human factor, although I had my share of wind, waves, and treacherous rapids to navigate, too. From escaped convicts to ridiculous accidents of my own making, some of the hardest moments were unforeseen. The best memories, like precious snapshots, will always be with me. A wind-swept farm at the high crest of the Grand Portage, the discovery of a dry campsite under towering pines along an otherwise-muddy river that became my haven for a night, the cascade of water as a mighty bull moose fed at dusk, or the sight of an ugly concrete bridge, finally materializing, heaven to the eyes of a weary paddler.

What messages would you like to leave us with?

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a special place, unique in its diversity of landscapes, communities and people. For those craving a thru-journey, the NFCT offers unparalleled variety, a manageable time commitment, and flexibility in resupply, lodging, and other logistical details. For everyone else, there are countless shorter trips to be made along these historic waterways, a lifetime of them. If you aren’t a member, please consider joining this energetic, effective nonprofit, buying one of their waterproof maps, and getting out on the water, starting at any one of the trail’s 188 access points. You may just find yourself embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. For we only have one life, of which every day is a gift, and we might as well spend as many of them as possible in a canoe or kayak.

Upwards, published in cooperation with Maine Authors Publishing, Thomaston, Maine can be purchased in NFCT’s online store. Subscribe to Laurie Chandler’s blog and see the calendar of upcoming events by visiting her website at www.laurieachandler.com.