Finished with his lunch, Dana Henry grabs his paddle and then turns back to the rest of us.
“Alright! Who’s up?”
Already feeling lucky after hooking a few nice trout, John Nemjo, owner of Mountainman Outdoor Supply in Old Forge, NY, hops into the bow of Dana’s boat and together they push off. A few hundred yards upstream, an inviting class II-III rapid roars beneath a bridge spanning the Androscoggin River. The section features several standing waves, with enough shape and power to be surf-able in a canoe. Dana and John cannot wait to try their luck.
I scurry onto the bridge for an overhead view. The pair uses an eddy current to get up alongside the wave train, before angling into the rapid and paddling hard for the wave. The main current of the river threatens to push them downstream, but Dana, an accomplished competitive canoeist, is in his element, and before long, he and John are surfing.
Steering from the stern, Dana gives John the okay. With his paddle in one hand, John leans out over the bow and spreads his wings. For the good part of a minute, as Dana holds them in the wave, John balances like a figurehead at the prow of an 18th-century ship.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” John says, when he returns to shore.
Several days into a canoe camping adventure along the historic Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), this rapid is one of the trip’s many highlights. With an afternoon of paddling along the Androscoggin ahead of us, we pack up our boats and push off.
About the Water Trail
This trip all started when Rob Center, the former and founding executive director of the NFCT, called to invite Emily and me on a trip with his wife, Kay Henry, the former president of Mad River Canoe, and some friends from Wenonah Canoe, including Mike Cichanowski, the company’s owner/founder. Rob knew we had done some canoe tripping across the northeast, and thought we might be interested in exploring some new territory. He was right.
I didn’t know much about the NFCT beforehand, but I soon discovered that it’s a 740-mile water trail—rich in history, culture, wilderness, and opportunities to get out of the boats and explore—that traces historic Native American travel routes from Old Forge, NY, across Vermont, Quebec, and northern New Hampshire, to Fort Kent in northern Maine. Conceived around 1990 by northeastern paddlers Mike Crepner, Ron Canter, and Randy Mardres, the idea became reality when Rob and Kay helped found Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Inc., an organization which celebrated its 10th anniversary this past July.
Incorporating many of the crown jewels of Northeast paddling, from the Adirondacks to the Allagash, the trail is designed for all levels of paddlers. Options for trips of any length and difficulty are numerous, and many paddlers and families are tackling the NFCT one section at a time, even if it takes them 10 years to do the whole thing. At the same time, several dozen paddlers have also through-paddled the entire NFCT in one single push.
Magalloway River to Pontook Dam via Lake Umbagog
With Rob and Kay, Kay’s son Dana, the crew from Wenonah Canoe, and several other friends, we head for a unique stretch of the NFCT along the New Hampshire/Maine border, where a nice mix of gentle rivers, open lakes, backwater streams, and whitewater awaits novice and seasoned paddlers alike.
After a rendezvous in the riverside town of Errol, NH, located along the uppermost reaches of the Androscoggin River at the edge of the Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, our crew puts in about a dozen miles north along the quiet and scenic Magalloway River, a beautiful side trip off the main NFCT route. We enjoy a peaceful morning on the sheltered Magalloway before paddling past a giant floating bog and into the open waters of Umbagog Lake.
A pleasant tail wind eases our paddle across Umbagog—and the Maine border—to the lake’s eastern shore. Halfway across the lake, we pause to take in the relative wildness of the lake environment, a pair of loons diving and swimming, and the view of the distant mountains circling us.
Taking advantage of the wind, we raft a few boats together, hoist a tarp and continue sailing downwind until we have to round a peninsula. A quiet cove leads us to the mouth of the Rapid River, where we settle into camp just below a long stretch of whitewater. If we were to continue north on the NFCT from here, we’d portage our boats and gear upstream along the Rapid River, before reaching the Richardson and Rangeley Lakes above. However, our plan for this trip takes us back across Umbagog and then along the Androscoggin for a couple of days of down-river bliss.
I wake early the next morning in hopes of spotting some moose in a fog-shrouded swamp nearby. At the edge of the swamp, I sit for a while as the world transitions to daytime. The sounds of song birds and frogs fill the air. A heron takes off from a tree and heads for the lake. And a few seemingly caffeinated mosquitoes buzz in my ear. But there are no moose this morning.
It isn’t until nearly lunchtime, after paddling back across Lake Umbagog, bound for the start of the Adroscoggin River, that I am able to catch up with Rob and Kay about the NFCT. Having dedicated much of the last 10 years of their lives to the NFCT, it was inspiring to hear about their hopes and dreams for the trail.
“We want to develop a world class recreational resource for paddlers,” says Kay, “create a truly community-based trail… and help communities along the trail understand what they have historically, culturally, and naturally.”
With five staff members, over 1,000 members, and countless volunteers and community partners along the trail, the NFCT is well on its way to realizing this vision. It was clear, too, after speaking before the trip with Christine Cote, co-owner of the L.L. Cote supply store in Errol, that the NFCT is making a difference economically in rural Errol.
“We’ve been seeing more paddlers every year, curious about the trail. It’s really growing,” says Cote.
Arriving at the Androscoggin, we carry our boats and gear around the Errol Dam and stop for lunch in a scenic spot along the riverbank just outside of town. Errol was once at the heart of this region’s booming logging industry, but today is more of a recreational hub for paddlers, hunters and fishermen, and families that have camps on nearby lakes.
The sounds of gentle rapids fill the river basin downstream. Under the warmth of the summer sun, we collectively relish the idea of two more days on the river. I am already planning a longer, week-long adventure for September. Rob and Dana pass around the map and start piecing together their memories of the Upper Androscoggin.
“We’ve got some fun whitewater ahead before the river calms and we camp tonight,” says Rob. “But tomorrow morning, we’ve got the rapids along the Thirteen Mile Woods and then something that should be really fun to play with around lunch time.”
Dana looks over to me with a great big smile. Within minutes, we are packed up and floating on the trail again. It’s one of those glorious August days you dream of on a cold January morning. Errol soon fades upstream, and we are left with only the river, the mountains around us, and a world
of paddling possibility.