This article was written by Peter Macfarlane about his 2018 Northern Forest Canoe Trail thru-paddle. The NFCT goes through the northern part of Vermont and we wanted to explore this other type of thru-adventure ahead of Peter’s Taylor Series talk next week on Thursday, February 21st. Come out to GMC to hear more of his story!
A pioneering 2018 through-paddle from east to west
by Peter Macfarlane
In the Spring of 2013, I through-paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Nominally it is 740 miles from Old Forge in the south-western Adirondacks to Fort Kent on the St John River in far northern Maine. It encompasses large lakes, small ponds, large rivers, small streams, upstream, downstream, placid water, white-water, and over 50 miles of portage across watershed divides and around obstructions. That journey was marked by record-breaking rainfall, flooding, and intensely cold, driving wind for much of the journey, yet, on completion, the trail was calling out to me to return.
Just to try to repeat the same experience often leads to disappointment – it’s never quite as remembered. If I were to paddle the trail again, I wanted there to be a difference, something that I could control (which excluded the weather). As of spring 2018, all registered through-paddlers had progressed from west to east, a common-sense decision built on the ratio of upstream to downstream. Of the 13 major rivers, 9 are downstream. Looking for a difference, and relishing a challenge, not to mention having the chance to be a pioneer, I chose to attempt to become the first recorded to paddle the other way. Not only would I face many, many miles of upstream, but also the prevailing winds would likely be in my face for much of the time.
Some of the details of my first trip I retained. I would use the same canoe, a cedar-strip which I had designed and built and become very attached to. There was no way to consider any other. I would single all the carries, requiring all gear to be in a single backpack and for the canoe to be evenly loaded with paddles and poles. I would sleep in a camping hammock, avoiding having to find flat ground. And I would attempt to stick to the same 28-day schedule, a tall order with that much upstream.
Learning from experience, I also made some changes. I had now made an under-quilt for my hammock for effective underside insulation. I carried more warm clothing for both paddling and camping. I carried, in addition to a twig stove, a small gas burner and one fuel cylinder for when there was no burnable wood. And my food was more calorific and contained more protein. To allow for the extra weight in my pack, I had three food re-supplies rather than one, so carried less at any one time.
Despite injury and potential illness, as well as flooding on the St. John and Allagash Rivers, the opening upstream of nearly 100 miles, just a couple of weeks before my planned start, I headed to Fort Kent, and began paddling on 14th May. There followed several 12-hour days of hard paddling, poling, wading, and carrying, pushing against not only the current but also some perverse and very strong winds. Twenty-eight days after setting out, and after loss, panic, despair, brutal hard work, and yet some sublime moments, I paddled into Old Forge to claim a small nook in history.
The following excerpt from my journal for the sixth day illustrates some of the challenges I faced. The full journal can be found via OtterCreekSmallcraft.com.
Day 6: Saturday, 19th May
Pine Stream, W Branch Penobscot – Big Duck Cove, Moosehead Lake – 29.0 miles
Today turned out to be hard work, very hard work, and, after yesterday’s Mud Pond Carry debacle, I was hoping for otherwise. I woke to a hard frost, and once more had to thaw my boots with hot water before donning, but that’s sometimes to be expected in northern Maine in mid-May.
The early paddling was encouraging in morning sun and deep, slack water. I was fantasizing about how far I might travel but was brought up short. First, after no more than 2 hours of paddling, a brisk southerly wind sprang up, the worst possible direction for today’s direction of travel. It funneled down the valley and was my companion (or nemesis) for the remainder of the day, becoming ever stronger as time progressed. Secondly, the deep water deserted me: much of the river was shallow with cobbles on the bed. There was no depth in which to plant a paddle blade; poling was now not an option (I had lost one of my two ski poles); and wading was uncomfortable on alga-coated cobbles – my feet skittered uncontrollably.
By the time I reached Big Island, I was happy to take a couple of short breaks to chat with campers there. One group was from the Norumbega Chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, so we had quite a collection of wooden canoes gathered at the upstream end of the island. Three hours later I was on Thoreau Island, pumping water, changing to cooler clothing, the day now having warmed up considerably, and having some caloric intake. The warmth of the day also brought out several turtles to bask, and numerous eagles were to be seen along the river.
Some stretches of deeper water aided progress, but the headwind persisted, always dragging me backward. It acted like a sea anchor, in the way that it created drag which almost eliminated any glide I could generate. Usually while paddling each stroke tops up the momentum of the boat which glides in between, slowing only a little, but in a strong headwind almost all momentum was lost, so every stroke had to accelerate the canoe from scratch. After yesterday’s misfortune (the Mud Pond Carry is a story in its own right) I was not feeling as strong as I usually hope to.
Eventually, Lobster Stream appeared, and I registered at the sign-in box, noting that it was on the same sheet that Ray, Hildy, Viveka (my support crew: friends and wife) and I signed last August, not yet collected. For the last 2.5 miles of the Penobscot I was traveling west, so could shelter from the south wind under the southerly bank (river right), and so made good progress to the Northeast Carry. The take-out was muddy, and the lower part of the trail had clearly suffered from some heavy rain. Last August we walked up here to visit Ed & Shirley Raymond at their store, but nobody was in. This time, having climbed away from the Penobscot seemingly forever – it appears that Moosehead Lake is at significantly higher elevation than the Penobscot right there – I arrived at the store to find both at home, so went in and supped on hot chocolate and a cheeseburger. I’m not usually a burger person, but this tasted good, very good.
My intended destination was Seboomook Point, exposed on the northwest of the lake. Another local in the store offered me a night at his camp a little shy of the point, should I not be able to reach there on account of the wind, a kind offer. At that time I was entirely undecided what my course would be. I certainly had no wish to become stranded on a very exposed headland if this wind persisted, but the other options for camping were on the eastern side of the lake much farther to the south.
I left the store, still undecided, and completed the carry. It was clear that the wind had strengthened, and the waves, driven across a fetch of maybe 17 miles, were crashing on the northern shore. This did not look promising. I opted to abandon ideas of Seboomook Point and to head for Big Duck Cove, a long haul down the eastern shore, where I would be at a better vantage point should the wind persist.
Launching was somewhere between scary and exhilarating. I placed the canoe with bow in the water, loaded the pack, and then waited for a small set of waves. At that time I picked up the stern, floating the bow, and ran into the lake through the first couple of waves, jumped in behind the seat to lift the bow over the next couple of waves, and then adjusted myself to a more normal paddling position. Beyond that, it was hard work, extremely hard work. There was no way to make headway directly into the wind, so I used a ferry glide to aim for the eastern shore, maybe losing a little ground while doing this, but then turning directly south during the brief lulls and making way in that direction. As the wind rose again, I resumed the angle for the eastern shore.
I’m not sure how long it took, but at last the shore offered me a little shelter. I had to paddle as close to it as rocks and breaking waves would allow. It was encouraging to be able to see the shoreline slip by, even slowly, as I made my way south. But sometimes, especially rounding small headlands, I had to fight for every inch of progress. Knowing that my support crew would be aware that I was on the largest lake in Maine at the end of a long day and that they would probably have checked the weather conditions there, I sent occasional SPOT waypoints (a GPS Messenger system) to indicate that I was still alive and making progress. As I went, I looked carefully at various camps which had beaches where landing might be possible. If my intention to reach Big Duck Cove proved unfeasible, I needed an alternative. All that I had to remember was what the most recent possibility looked like.
With my body straining at every stroke, I inched along the eastern shore until at last a little shelter became available in Little Duck Cove. One last effort took me around the next headland into Big Duck Cove and, in comparative calm, I crossed the cove to the more sheltered camp-site on the southern shore. Having left the Northeast Carry at 3:20 pm, I arrived here at 6:30 pm, over three hours of intense paddling at the end of a long, hard day.
Clouds had been building through the day, and for the last half hour had been dropping rain, so, for the first time on this trip I set up my tarp and changed under it, putting on spare waterproof clothing reserved for camping as distinct from paddling. This was one of the luxuries I had allowed myself in packing – a means to wear dry clothing in the evenings and to keep it dry. I cooked dinner under the tarp before stringing up the hammock. This was the first real rain I had had in 6 days, so I couldn’t really complain. Now, if only the wind would abate by morning ….