Northern Forest Canoe Trail

John Bauer
Posted August 27th, 2008

Paddlers in the mist at the base of Grand Falls. Photo by Clyde Smith.
Water’s allure is rooted deeply in the human psyche. Perhaps originally driven by the need for food, the magnetism of exploring new places by boat has gone well beyond the desire for a good fish dinner. There was something more that drove the Polynesians to find Hawaii, the Phoenicians to build great rowing ships, and the Europeans to sail to the four corners of the earth. There was probably an economic under-pinning to each journey, but the people who took to the water were inexplicably drawn to it.
No less adventurous were the indigenous people of the Northeast, who traveled the lakes and rivers between the wilds of Maine and Quebec and what is now Upstate New York. When the European trappers came to the Northeast, they plyed the same waterways, hunting for beaver and other pelts to satisfy the demand for furs and hats in European cities. Settlement followed, along with roads, canals, and the railroad.
The waterway from Quebec to New York came back from obscurity in the 1990s when Mike Krepner, Ron Canter, and Randy Mardres of Native Trails, Inc., researched the old water routes used by Native Americans and early settlers. In 2000, Kay Henry and Rob Center, former principals of Mad River Canoe Company, incorporated the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) in Waitsfield, as a way to translate this research into a recreational, community, and regional resource. In 2006, the group officially completed the 740-mile water trail that is marked with signs and features established campsites, portages, and access points along the entire route.
There Northern Forest Canoe Trail traverses 56 ponds and lakes, including Lake Champlain, where the route crosses to the far north. The 22 rivers and streams along the route vary from moving flatwater to rapids that range through class four. Some rivers require poling upstream or “lining” the canoe, the art of tying a rope or two to the boat and walking it down stream like a leashed dog. There are also 62 portages, for a total of 55 miles of hauling gear.
The NFCT organization has divided the Trail into sections represented on 13 maps that illustrate everything from put-in and take-out sites to lodgings. There are places to sleep every 15 miles, ranging from primitive campsites to inns. They have made it possible for the weekend warrior to enjoy the trail, to traverse the waterways, sample the three national wildlife refuges, and visit the 45 communities along the way. The NFCT website,, provides a wealth of information and includes everything but skill, time, and determination. It is a cornucopia of details about events along the water route, including festivals and clean-up projects, as well as blogs written by paddlers during their treks.
The blogs are informative collections of snippets and stories that tell about the personalities of different waterways, the struggles in completing different aspects of the trip, and the warm reception they received from the locals. The most valuable aspect of the site may be the trip planner. It is a powerful tool that allows the user to see graphically where they are going and read updates on changes on the trail, and provides links to businesses along the way.
Paddling the length of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail requires skill earned through years of experience and hours of practice. While one through-paddler made the journey in 55 days, there are few who will even consider the challenge of paddling in a single season. Some will spend years doing it in sections, but most will find their favorite spots and return to them repeatedly. A paddler could spend a lifetime on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and never want for new experiences. The variety of water conditions means that there will always be one more challenge to meet.
Clyde Smith was someone who spent his life meeting those challenges. He was an award-winning landscape photographer who may be best known in Vermont for his decades of photographs for Vermont Life. Smith paddled in Vermont beginning in the 1960s, spending time on the rivers, ponds, and lakes of the NFCT, and capturing images that ignite the imagination. He collected the best of a half-decade of photographs in Northeast Passage: A Photographer’s Journey Along the Historic Northern Forest Canoe Trail (2007, Thistle Hill Publications).
Smith proposed the book in 2006 to Kate Williams, executive director of the NFCT, and told her it would be an important tool in connecting people to the waterway. Williams brought the project together and the production team created a book of images that evokes the best that nature has to offer. It is a book that speaks to the paddler and the nature lover. In addition to photographs of flatwater and rapids, spring mist, and summer sun, Smith offers an abundance of images that range from a dripping wet moose to a dew-speckled spider web. Especially memorable are the tight shots of flowers and insects that seem to jump off the page.
Photographs of Flagstaff Lake in Maine, Oseetah Lake in New York, and the Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire are inspiration to grab a canoe and head north for a taste of the waterway. His prose is as graphic as his images. Smith writes lovingly of the experience of being in a canoe. His words rise like the vapors of mist rising off a lake on a cool morning, evoking images that sear the brain and bring forth memories of trips on a favorite lake or stretch of river. His words are timeless and poetic, speaking to the larger truth of the joy of nature and the exalted state induced by being a part of it. If ever there were an argument in favor of protecting and preserving the wilds of northern New England, Smith makes it in his book.
Not everyone answers the call of the water, but those who do have a deep need to be there. Many relish the romance of finding new water, whether it is the fast snow-melt of Oregon, the wild ocean ride along some rocky shore, or the placid flatwater of a new-found lake. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail offers many opportunities for ambitious, as well as the casual, paddlers to sate their deep need for adventure on the water.
John Bauer is a writer and avid hiker, camper and Vermont resident recently smitten by the romance of canoeing, kayaking, and sailing. He is also Director of Camp Choconut, a non-profit boys’ camp in Friendsville, PA.