A Long and Winding Journey on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

February 28, 2006
Allagash River
Jack HeddonThe Allagash River is part of the last stretch of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Maine offers 347 miles of watertrail.

Roughly hewn paddles slide silently through the water. Deer graze on the banks, unaware of approaching danger. Two slender, tanned youths with long, raven hair stay low in the handsomely crafted canoe, letting the boat glide into the reeds along the edges of Maine’s Moose River. They reach for their flint arrows and creep towards their prey. The boat rides low in the water, laden with furs and carcasses. The hunting trip is nearing its end.

The waterways of the Northeast tell many stories. From the days when they served as highways and routes of communication to Thoreau’s extended explorations on the northern Allagash, from loggers’ ingenious trams to visionary businessmen building dams and ferrying tourists into remote summer hotels. When the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) officially celebrates its grand opening on June 3, 2006, paddlers will be able float through this history, assisted by interpretive signs and frequent campsites along the way. And this is no predictable ramble: The 740-mile passageway threads through some of the most remote and jaw-dropping landscapes of Quebec, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, with days of smooth paddling, spiced with enormous swaths of lake and boiling rapids.

Water trails like this are a relatively new phenomenon. As overnight paddling evolved, participants learned multi-day outings didn’t have to be relegated to epic adventures like the Middle Fork of the Salmon or the Grand Canyon. One of the earliest designated paddling routes was the Maine Island Water Trail, established nearly 20 years ago with 138 campsites dotting 325 miles between Machias and Casco Bay. The east coast is also home to Janes Island State Park trail in Maryland and Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River Water Trail. Intrepid adventurers with time on their hands and great organizational skills may tackle these or the NFCT in one fell swoop, but, as on another beloved long trail in our region, they will also be able to “section” paddle the rumbling rivers and mirror-like lakes in more reasonable chunks.

The NFCT’s modern origins go back to 1976, when Native Trails, a non-profit group led by Mike Krepner, a Mainer intrigued by conversations with a professor friend of his grandmother, began researching old trading routes of the Penobscot and Abenaki (or Wabanaki) tribes and following their paths throughout the north country. What they found was a viable route connecting the Adirondacks and Northern Maine, one that could still be traveled.

Hundreds of years ago, they learned, these two tribes occupied much of the land along the trail. Skilled watermen, they paddled birch bark canoes with ease between Fort Kent, Maine, and Old Forge, New York, as they hunted and gathered. Although no Native Americans are believed to have traveled the trail’s entire length, they would spend weeks on the water, cramming boats with meat, fur, and other goods to keep them alive during their long, secluded winters.

Krepner and his colleagues spent the next few years devouring history, paddling, and portaging the future NFCT, and creating significant buzz in the recreation community. Kay Henry and Rob Center, who then owned Mad River Canoe in Waitsfi eld, Vt., heard about Krepner’s doings in the late 1980s and were intrigued. When their business was bought by Confluence in 1998, they decided to fully commit to the project. “At the 1999 summer Outdoor Retailer Show [in Salt Lake City] we could feel that people wanted this trail to happen,” says Center. The paddling community envisioned a connected trail like the MIWT in the Northeast. “So we got together with Native Trails and by January of 2000 we had formed the NFCT organization.”

The duo then went to work fundraising and securing each state’s help in designating trail paths and signage along 22 rivers and streams, 56 lakes and ponds, and three National Wildlife Refuges. Plus, says Beth Ann Finlay, a coordinator for the Northern Vermont Resource Conservation and Development Council, “There is so much history along the trail and we were able to bring it all together.” Each region within each state has separate native occupation and settlement patterns, and the NFCT is now what connects them.

One major hurdle was creating maps of the trail, obviously a vital part of the project. Each of the 13 section maps describes local tribes, flora, and fauna. They also outline routes, hazards and campsites, be it the “Grand Portage” on the Missisquoi River straddling Vermont and Quebec or a scenic stopping point on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine. The entire trail would take about eight weeks to paddle-Maine Outward Bound Instructor Donnie Mullen was the first to prove this in 2000, finishing in 55 days–but most users will break it into segments and the maps reflect that, marking convenient put-ins, take-outs, mile markers, and campsites.

Communities like Errol, NH, and Newport, VT, have taken a keen interest in the trail’s creation because they believe it can help buoy their struggling economies. Many of these once-vibrant agricultural or logging centers see the NFCT providing not only recreational opportunities for tourists but also economic opportunities for entrepreneurs. Many canoeists would rather sleep in a bed and breakfast or eat at a cafe along the way.

And those who camp need cooking fuel, food, and emergency equipment. “We envision this trail will attract enthusiasts and create an exciting adventure tourist business,” says Terry Martino, executive director of the Adirondack North Country Association. “I had a guide tell me…customers showed up at his door with a credit card. Just like the mountain bike and road biking segments, the potential is huge.” How huge is still up for debate. If compared to the biking industry, Martino estimates the trail could bring in $60,000 annually to each community. This enthusiastic involvement was a godsend for the organizers.

“We’re very connected to the locals,” says NFCT Executive Director Kate Williams. “And we had to be. We needed their expertise in finding the proper paddling routes and doing justice to each region’s stories.” Winding through these regions, you’ll traverse some of the most incredible paddling country in the Northeast as you witness the story of the north country from the water. From challenging to serene, through small villages, working forests, deep woods, and open water. From days where you won’t see a soul, to forays into bustling summer resort areas. Days when you can disappear into the slow rhythms of the trail.

One misty morning it just might be possible to see the ghostly outlines of a hunting party of Native Americans setting out to restore their supplies or a group of French soldiers paddling across Lake Champlain for a meeting with Abenaki allies. Here, history and recreation weave together and the years slip away to a time long before roads existed. It’s an impressive sanctuary, the journey of whose creation is nearly as epic as its waters themselves.

Below are descriptions of each state of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, starting at Old Forge, New York and ending at Fort Kent, Maine. 

New York
New York’s 147 miles of trail are a study in diversity as paddlers traverse the Saranac and Raquette Rivers through lake country and rural villages. “You get a taste of remote wilderness and small towns that are uniquely Adirondack,” says Terry Martino. “The evergreens are spectacular; the water is spectacular. The whole area gives you an untouched feeling.”

This route requires two major portages: The first comes via the Fulton Lake Chain when paddlers cross to Raquette Lake and the second is from the Raquette River to the Saranac Lakes—navigating sections of Class IV. At Raquette Falls there’s a mile-long portage around a twisted Class V section.

“Most Native Americans wouldn’t run the hairy stuff because their canoes were valuable and they would rather carry than risk losing them,” says Krepner. There are numerous carries depending on seasonal fl ows. Along the way stop in at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake and get a complete history of the boat building techniques used in the area. The museum has designated an entire building to Adirondack watercraft. All portages on the NFCT are marked on the maps and by summer 2006 all will have signs.

Once you’ve entered Lake Champlain in Vermont, things get international. There are two border crossings, so have your passport ready. And don’t assume “lake” translates to flat paddling.

“This is my favorite section because of all the waves created by the delta,” says Finlay. “Plus it’s teeming with wildlife thanks to the Missisquoi Wildlife Refuge.” A strategic battleground in colonial times, the French, Dutch, and British all used the lake as a means of quick communication and transportation. Some of the fiercest battles during the war of 1812 were fought for control of Champlain. Following your lake crossing, ascend the Missisquoi River to its North Branch above Masonville. This section is tabbed the “Grand Portage” and requires a nine-mile carry along a dirt road to Lake Memphremagog. Don’t rest your muscles yet: You’ll paddle to Newport, and then carry again to the Clyde River. After paddling up the Clyde to the Nulhegan it’s on to the mighty Connecticut. The Vermont section covers 174 miles of complex water, which most paddlers tackle downstream.

New Hampshire
New Hampshire hosts only 72 miles of the NFCT, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Three different rivers anchor this section: the Connecticut, the Ammonoosuc, and the Androscoggin. A portage is required between the latter two. On one section of the trail, near Stark, sat a World War II prisoners of war camp, housing Germans captured during the conflict. “It’s an amazing story,” says Williams. “Especially when you dig deeper and discover the ties between the residents of the town and the camp.” Over 300 Germans were housed here and townspeople had varied relations with the prisoners ranging from cordial to strained.

With over 347 miles of watertrail, Maine has by far the most real estate in the NFCT system. The route leads paddlers from Errol, New Hampshire, to Rangeley, Maine, but, according to the NFCT, it’s easier to navigate in the opposite direction. This is because the rivers and lakes tumble inland off the Androscoggin-Kennebec divide—at around 1,000 feet, easily the highest point of the trail east of the Adirondacks. In all, you’ll paddle or portage eight rivers and 10 lakes during the Pine Tree leg of the journey. And if you’re weary of paddling by this point, “the hiking trails go right through the Bigelow Preserve off the Flagstaff Lake,” says Williams. “It’s an outdoor Mecca.” About six miles above the St. John River on the Allagash roar the forty-foot Allagash Falls, which have been inadvertently run on more than one occasion. Avoid this and you’re in for a fantastic view. “It’s one of those places you just want to sit and go ahh…,” says Krepner, of what’s arguably the NFCT’s most remote section.

After descending the Moose River to Moosehead Lake, paddlers will be enthralled with Mount Kineo, a mountain of flint that rises some 800 feet out of the lake. Flint remnants from Moosehead Lake—a stomping ground of Thoreau–have been found as far south as Pennsylvania.


Mountaineers’ Books and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail have published a series of 13 section maps of the trail, each with extensive interpretive information, historical background, and all the detail a paddler could need: access information, local contacts, exact location of each portage, campsites, side trips, and much more. The sections break down as follows and each map is $9.95, available online at outdoors.org or northernforestcanoetrail.org.

Preparation is the name of the game here. While paddling the length of the trail would test the skills of the most competent paddler, many sections are novice-friendly. Review the maps and call local contacts to make sure your trip is doable. Bone up on your skills with an AMC workshop or chapter instruction. For those who want to hire a local guide, see northernforestcanoetrail.org or call 802-496-2285 for suggestions. In late summer some sections may be too dry, so NFCT recommends traveling these in May and June. Other parts of the trail are at their peak in September and October.

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Joe Carberry

Joe Carberry edits Paddler Magazine from Steamboat Springs, Colorado.