Best Time to Start a Thru-Paddle?

 

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. -Niels Bohr

When Niels uttered those words he may have been contemplating how to figure out exactly where electrons might be at any given time. I find myself thinking this same statement as THE question begins rolling in every year: “When is the earliest I could leave for my Northern Forest Canoe Trail thru-paddle?”

thru-paddler start times
Emma Carlson breaks her way through some early season ice in the Adirondacks during her 2013 through-paddle.

One through paddling strategy that has developed is riding the tail end of the freshet. What is the freshet you might ask? Although the word is a noun, it’s brimming with action. The freshet is when the snow is melting and the rivers are raging. On land we trudge around in the mud pulling out our canoes and kayaks, dusting off our paddles and gear, knowing that riding rapids, catching eddies, and having a sunny float on a pristine lake are so much more closer to a reality that they were in the depths of winter.

Pinpointing when the freshet may occur is a difficult task. As you may have noticed, weather is not especially typical lately. This century, ice-out on Moosehead Lake (one of the latest ice-outs across the NFCT) has fluctuated between April 15th and May 12th. This winter one might expect an early ice-out given the warmer than usual weather we have been experiencing, but you never know exactly what the future will hold.

Choosing to leave as early as possible for a thru-paddle can be a double edged sword. On one hand you have the following benefits:

  • A better chance of navigating rivers that have a reputation of becoming too low for navigation later in the season.
  • Less bug activity than late May to mid July.
  • A quicker pace due to fast moving rivers.

On the other hand you have these challenges to contend with:

  • Rivers may be too challenging to navigate causing more portaging.
  • Cold water and weather can require more equipment and caution.

NFCT has accumulated data from section- and thru-paddlers as we receive certification applications. One such piece of information is the date when thru-paddles were begun. We have tallied 90 certified start dates since 2000. From this data we glean the following information:

  • Earliest date a thru-paddle was begun: April 15, 2010
  • Latest date a through-paddle was begun: September 1, 2015
  • Average start date: June 7
  • Mean start date: June 1

A majority of NFCT thru-paddles begin in May, most after the 10th:

ThroughPaddlerStartDates

This winter I reached out to a few NFCT through-paddlers to hear their thoughts on the topic of planning start dates for the big trip. Mike Lynch, 2011 NFCT thru-paddler and New York Outreach Coordinator, had this to say, “If you’re a paddler looking to leave right after ice out, you should be an advanced paddler with a lot of tripping experience. It also makes sense to be part of a group. There are a variety of reasons for traveling with other people, including the possibility that you may need to perform a self-rescue in dangerously cold water. People with less experience should consider leaving in the second half of May or in early June.”

We also have two interesting perspectives to share, one from a thru-paddler who left on the early side, and another from thru-paddlers who left on the late side.

On the earlier side, Zand Martin and Ben Reilly started their thru-paddle on April 24 in 2007. Zand had the following to report:

What were the weather and water conditions on your launch date like?
The day itself was low 50s, sunny, and sunny. Perfect paddling conditions for us. Fulton Chain was clear and fine, ice had just gone out. Raquette and Forked were maybe 90% frozen or refrozen, and that took a lot of careful effort to cross. (There is a fair bit of information about canoeing in ice and shoulder season boating in my book NOLS Canoeing.) After those lakes, everything was open for the rest of the trip. Vermont is low and melts earlier than Adirondacks. Maine is higher and colder (Rangeley Lakes and North) and I believe the ice went out the first two weeks of May that year [2007]. Water was high from Adirondacks to Maine. Saranac was way out of its banks. Rapids aren’t particularly pushy, but upstream is less feasible.

Ben Reilly grabs some ice to pull the canoe forward.
Ben Reilly grabs some ice to pull the canoe forward.

How did your start date impact your trip?

It made it more fun. Early start means no people, no bugs, and really technical challenges. If you are not an experienced paddler, the technical nature of the cold and high water should cause you to consider starting your through-paddle later in the season. Cold water and cold air are a major danger – people consider this the Northeast, but April on the water is analogous to Yukon in June, risk-wise.

Zand Martin poses near Buttermilk Falls on the Raquette River in NY. (thru-paddler start times)
Zand Martin poses near Buttermilk Falls on the Raquette River in NY.

Why did you choose your start date?

Because we had to work in the summer. We also wanted a challenge, high water, and to miss the heat and bugs. Our early start date contributed, I believe, to our speed record – though that was never a goal.

If you could do it all over again would you choose a different start date?
No.

Julie and Patrick McCauley through-paddled the NFCT in 2015. They hold the current record for latest start date, launching out of Old Forge on September 1. Here’s what they reported:

What were the weather and water conditions on your launch date like?

On September 1, and for the first 3 weeks, we had unseasonably warm and dry weather. It was downright hot when we launched, and the water was calm. The end of September and early October provided pleasant fall temperatures with increasingly cool nights, which was perfect paddling weather with gorgeous foliage. By mid-October, we were in northern Maine and it got pretty cold. Our coldest night was in the teens, and we had several days in the low 30s. It snowed a few times, and by the last week we were launching our boat over thin layers of ice each morning. Water levels were very low across the board. The summer was unusually dry, and we generally looked forward to the few times it did rain so that we might paddle sections that would otherwise be too low.

Julie McCauley catches some early fall snow flakes on her 2015 NFCT Through Paddle.
Julie McCauley catches some early fall snow flakes on her 2015 NFCT through-paddle.

How did your start date impact your trip?

Most significantly, our late start meant lower water levels and colder temperatures. We knew that going in, but we certainly did not fully appreciate how much extra portaging there would be and just how cold it would get. Without tallying it up, we probably did at least twice the total advertised portage miles. It’s not so bad when you’ve read in advance that a certain section will likely be too low to paddle, but it can be maddening to walk sections that you thought would be navigable. We finished on October 28, and the cold really started getting to us in the last two weeks. Our gear was warm enough except for our boots, which were nice expensive paddling boots that just didn’t have enough insulation for freezing temperatures. We didn’t want to buy new ones so close to the end, so we paid for that with painfully cold feet. On the plus side, we experienced literally all of autumn, from green leaves to barren trees. That was truly spectacular. We also basically had the trail to ourselves and never had to worry about campsite availability.

Why did you choose your start date?

We intended to hike the Pacific Crest Trail but were sidelined by a foot injury, and instead we road tripped across the U.S. and Canada for a few months. Starting the NFCT on September 1 allowed us to see all that we wanted while recovering from the injury. We also thought water levels might be a bit higher in the fall than in late summer, though that turned out to not really be significant.

If you could do it all over again would you choose a different start date?

Now that we can feel our feet again, we wouldn’t change a thing. That was the best time for us, and it was a wonderful journey. But we did fantasize about an earlier start date on some of those cold days and long portages. We’d probably start in the late spring if we did it again.

Julie and Patrick capture a rainbow over fall colors on Flagstaff Lake in Maine.
Julie and Patrick capture a rainbow over fall colors on Flagstaff Lake in Maine.

The best situation is having the ability to be flexible with your start date. Here are links to web cams located along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail that are good to monitor:

Old Forge, NY web cam

Raquette Lake Navigation Company, NY web cam

Chesuncook Lake House & Cabins, ME web cam

You can also reach out to area paddlers and section- and thru-paddlers via NFCT’s Facebook page and NFCT’s Paddlers Facebook Group, where there are active discussions about trail topics. And please, please, please, respect the awesome power of big water and apply cold water survival techniques.

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