Life on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

On the trail. Photo courtesy Eric McIntyre.
On the trail. Photo courtesy Eric McIntyre.

By Katie McKy

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a 740-mile chain of lakes, ponds, rivers, and portage routes stretching from New York to Maine. Tackling it end-to-end is no mean feat. In the 14 seasons since Donnie Mullen paddled the old Native American canoe route in 2000, only 63 paddlers have through-paddled the trail. The latest is 21-year-old Eric McIntyre of Flemington, New Jersey, who finished in June. Paddling, lining, and portaging largely north and east, McIntyre began in New York and finished in Fort Kent, Maine by way of Vermont, New Hampshire, and a sliver of Canada.

Some of the portages were more trials than trails, McIntyre says.

“The hardest part of the trip was the portage around the Rapid River, right where you enter Maine. It’s a 3-3.5 mile portage and I couldn’t use the portage wheels because of the rock, ruts, and muck. Plus, it was hot and sticky and the bugs were some of the worst of the whole trip.”

That day McIntyre was portaging into darkness. He reached the lake just before dusk.

“That was one of the best moments of the trip. I got to the top, put onto the lake, and the whole western sky was burning orange and then faded into pink. It was totally worth it.”

McIntyre learned a lot about canoeing, and a lot about himself. Photo courtesy Eric McIntyre.
McIntyre learned a lot about canoeing, and a lot about himself. Photo courtesy Eric McIntyre.

Given the NFCT’s 60 miles of portages over 63 carries, McIntyre’s Boat Cart served him well, though it didn’t look so by trip’s end.

“The bearings came loose and it ended up with two flat tires and six broken spokes, but it got me through the trip and was extremely useful. There were too many portages to do it without wheels. You just can’t paddle upriver into Class III whitewater and up and over Class IV falls.”

Perhaps not, but the 740-mile route did include more than 100 miles of upriver paddling.

“It was seven miles long upstream stretch on Spencer Stream and Little Spencer Stream. It’s Class I all the way in ankle to waist-deep water. The mosquitoes were swarming that day too, so I was fighting them, gravel bars, and the current. I encountered fishermen who said, ‘We’ve never seen anyone try to go up this.’ Then it began to rain.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail
Kristen Gregory dragging our canoe up unpaddleable rapids and around fallen cedars 6.5 miles out of 7 miles up Spencer and Little Spencer Streams. Photo: Eric McIntyre

“It took seven hours of pulling the canoe. However, there were certain points were I could paddle a bit. Even paddling a couple strokes gave me a break and being precise with my strokes was very gratifying and gave me success in the midst of that trial. Altogether, I paddled 150 miles upstream. By the end of that, I came to understand the currents and was able to move upward against them. The improvement in my skills in just weeks from absolute frustration to progress was deeply gratifying.”

There was also emotional challenge to overcome.

“Around about day six, looking ahead, I was thinking, ‘Holy cow, how do I do the rest of this? How do I cross Lake Champlain? How do I paddle upstream 74 miles in Vermont alone?’ I called my friend, Kristen Gregory, who had walked to Maine from Georgia on the Appalachian Trail and who would join me for 10 days of paddling, and I asked, ‘What do I do?’ She said that my final goal shouldn’t be reaching the end of the trip at Fort Kent because that was impossible. But tomorrow is possible.”

What also became possible for McIntyre was a different sort of life than the one he’d always imagined.

“I met a lot of people and I asked them, ‘How old are you? What advice would you give to your 21-year old self?’ They all said that they’d tell their 21-year old selves to follow their dreams.”

McIntyre turned 21 on the day he reached the end of the trail.

“I didn’t want something big to take home to my normal life. I want a trip like that to be my normal life. It’s my passion. I want to continue to live my passion. When I was younger, I just wanted to start a lawn-mowing business to make money and I wondered why no one tried to convince me that I could feel so rich without having money in my bank account. The places we go to and the people we meet can provide a rich life.”

End of the trail. Photo courtesy Eric McIntyre.
End of the trail. Photo courtesy Eric McIntyre. Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images


The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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