Monday, August 31, 2009

Paddling The Northern Forest Canoe Trail

When I was invited to paddle the Northern Forest Canoe Trail with a group of writers, photographers and retailers (they considered me a triple threat), I had no idea what I was in for. I had seen pictures of the trail, the lakes and rivers that take a paddler from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine, over 700 miles. What I hadn't seen was The Balsams.

The first sign of trouble...

The Balsams is one of those grand hotels that dot the White Mountains in New Hampshire. A century ago they were the playgrounds of the upper-middle class, civilized places where a guy can bleed dollar bills, tipping anything with a pulse and a palm. It's also a place that has a dress code.

Seeing a bunch of paddlers sitting down for dinner in a swanky dining room that has 100 year old stained glass is a unique experience. We all were wearing borrowed blazers (I got the last 46 long, other suffered with 40 shorts) and we all looked stupid. Well, mostly stupid. At least I wasn't wearing Keen sandals.

At any rate, we skirted the dress code as well as we could and got on the river the next morning.

We started on the Magalloway River, near a picturesque covered bridge (Bennett Bridge). This is of course, redundant, as the raison d'etre for covered bridges is to be picturesque. Some are both picturesque and quaint. New England oozes quaint.

Note the floatilla of Wenonah Kevlar. Minnesota IIs and Champlains, light, quick and lots of fun to paddle. The Champlain was faster than I had imagined, and I hadn't spent a lot of time in one, but it was fine and dandy. It also made the Minnesota II feel like a rocket ship when I climbed into it the next day. More on that later.

The Magalloway River is part of Section 8, Rangeley Lake to Umbagog. The NFCT has 15 sectional maps, and each is unique due to the local stewardship of both the trail and the map. Because the trail flows through four states plus Quebec, creating a sense of local ownership is critical. Each map has an historical primer on the back side, so it's not just a map, it's a mini tour guide.

Of course, there were odonates.

I hear groaning from some of you Nodonates. Please redirect yourself to this odonate-free zone.

For the second time in as many weeks, I found myself rescuing a dragonfly from a watery tomb. This lovely Canadian Darner (Aeshna canadensis) sat on my finger for a while and washed himself off. He tried to fly away but was too weak and landed in my lap, so I gave him a lift to Lake Umbagog.

The Magalloway ends at Lake Umbagog, a lovely lake with a very interesting habitat - a floating bog island. Yep, an island made of spaghnum and other mosses which is large enough to support live trees. You can walk on it, but it's like walking on thin ice; you might drop into it if you hit a thin spot. Still, it's unique enough to be listed as a National Natural Landmark. It is one of the largest floating island in the U.S.

When we got to our campsite on Umbagog, I scurried to the most remote location I could go without accusations of being antisocial. It was a few hundred feet from a nice Class III rapid so I had the ultimate white noise machine. Big Agnes supplied bags and tents, and I drew the solo tent (yay!), although I've seen sarcophagii with more room. Still, it kept out (most of) the no-see-ums.

After an amazing dinner of moose and bear (both excellent), I bedded down with nothing to read but my own thoughts. Being my thoughts, they put me to sleep quickly.

The next day we switched up boats and partners. I grabbed Dana Henry and said "Let's motor." We were in a loaded Wenonah Minnesota II, a 41-pound rocket ship that has a hull speed of 7 miles per hour. We kept it there for quite a while, doing s-turns to allow the rest of the group to catch up.

I was stoked because I love paddling with people who are better than me and because I got to paddle bow. I never get to paddle bow. The view was great, and the ability to practice one thing only (forward stroke efficiency) was a zen-like experience. For once I was the motor and not the steering wheel, and I think I'm a pretty decent motor.

At lunch we switched to Royalex canoes for the river portion of the journey. The Androscoggin River is a series of riffles and flat stretches punctuated by some really nice Class II-III rapids. We switched up again and I paddled with David, a free-lance writer and a gem of a guy...thoughtful and smart, a radical in that he believes in Democracy and not a contrived oligarchy. Awesome dude.

After the big rapid I swapped the tandem for a solo Wenonah Rendezvous. I have gone on record stating that this is one ugly canoe from the waterline up, but from the waterline down, it is a sweet, sweet boat. Amazingly good at handling some big water, and dry as you would expect after a big wave. As the weather cooled and the water became glassy, I went for a paddle up a small unnamed creek. No moose, but a lot of beaver chew and the start of some nice little dams.

As the sky darkened I headed back to camp, and the colors (poorly captured by my stinky little point-and-shoot) were amazing. Jupiter popped into view first (Venus was hiding somewhere) and I stood away from the campfire for a good long time taking in the post-sunset.

Then we went surfing. More pictures to come when I can nail down the photographer (Brian) and beg and plead for a picture.

So much for a non-prosaic description of our trip. I'm saving the good stuff for Sierra Magazine, column to be published in the May-June issue 2010.

One thing I relearned; it's all about the people. The folks who share your common experience are the main course, and the location of the trip is only the spice that flavors it. So thanks to David, Jim, Scot, Heather, Mike, Rob, Kay, Brian, Emily, Bill, Dana, Nemjo, Tammy and Keith. You were the trip, the river was just a medium to share a wonderful experience.

Respectfully submitted,


P.S. Here's proof that there was a dress code. It's a little dark but I couldn't use the flash. Save this and blackmail me someday. Jeepers, I look like a Jesuit.

I can highly recommend The Balsams. No WiFi, no TVs in the rooms. Windows that open. Really, I slept like a baby.

1 comment:

jamesdemien said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip. I can't wait for the full article.

Adventure Canoe