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No.97 USA Canoe Adventure – Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Sep 24, 2020 | America, Blog, USA

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail starts in Old Forge, New York State, connecting lakes, rivers, and streams for eleven hundred and ninety kilometers, finally ending at Fort Kent, Main.

A signposted old waterway with wild camping sites.

Harry came up with the idea to paddle this waterway, and after my Colorado Trail hike, this sounded very exciting to me; it seemed to be just the right thing to follow many weeks of hiking. So, I agreed.

Even though the Northern Forest Canoe Trail wasn’t just around the corner, I had the impression it would be worth the considerable detour we would have to make.

Amtrak, the US railway system, took us from Denver to New York State, or more precisely to Utica, in 36 hours.

Everything started with a warm hug at the train station in Rochester, New York.

Shortly before Rochester, I received a surprising message from the long-term traveler suffering from cancer, aka – BagLady – Kathryn:

“Heike, I would like to meet you briefly at the station in Rochester.”

And so, we had 5 minutes to hug each other on the platform and see each other live for the first time! For years we have been in contact via Facebook.

New York has played a significant role in my life from very early on. My parents lived on Long Island for three years, my big brother was born there, and at home, growing up, the USA and Manhattan were common themes.

At nineteen, I was the last member of my family to fly to New York City with my father.

During the landing approach, Lufthansa played one of our family’s favorite songs, “New York, New York by Frank Sinatra” the song had accompanied me through my whole childhood.

The city was a huge adventure for me at that age.

So almost 30 years later, I was back, not in Manhattan, but in the countryside, far out, and yet I felt that special connection with New York again.

Neither Harry nor I had much experience with canoeing, and other than our camping gear, we lacked pretty much all the basics – such as a canoe and paddles.

Hitchhiking toward the trailhead, we were picked up by Richard; on the way, I asked if he knew someone who might want to sell a canoe?

He laughed and said, “I was talking to my son this morning, and I asked him if he knew anybody who could use a canoe? Just take mine!”

Great 🙂 and so he let us stay overnight with him, and the next day he took us to Old Forge with the canoe lashed on the roof. Sensational!

Paddles, life jackets, and waterproof boxes were quickly organized in Old Forge. So, ready to Go!

The first lakes led us through inhabited areas, past magnificent homes, annoying motorboats, and waterways marked by buoys.

But soon, these were behind us, and the small rivers brought us into a new world.

Water has never really been my thing, and still, I found the time in the canoe great.

I liked the silence on the water, the reflections on the water’s surface, and slowly gliding along.

I especially liked the fact that we always found a wild camping site in the evening, often with a so-called lean-to which was either part of the NFCT or part of a park.

Every evening, we had a campfire, baked bread, cooked something delicious to eat, and enjoyed the silence.

The Adirondack Mountains were incredibly scenic. The trail changed from lake to river and back to another of the many lakes.

Long Lake was impressive and very exciting for me. We had one of our best tent sites along this really long lake.

The forest was wet and full of life, even though we hardly saw any animals, the trees and plants were awesome, and the mushrooms stunning.

We did see a few bald eagles sitting in trees, and also enjoyed hearing the unique and fascinating calls of the loons.

There were many beaver dams, but the beavers stayed out of sight. I did see an otter, though.

Unfortunately, the waterways did not always merge, and so we often had to carry the canoe, drag it ashore, get it onto our small cart, push it along the roads, sometimes for several miles, or even carry it over hill and dale or up stairs.

Sometimes these portages took several back and forth trips across the same ground to complete.

The weight of our equipment was much too heavy to drag it together with the 30 kg canoe. The canoe alone was already extremely awkward to carry through the rocky and root-filled forest.

It’s quite a task for two people; alone, it would have been impossible for me; I would have had to have a much lighter canoe or kayak.

These are expensive, and ours was free, so we had to live with what we had.

Unfortunately, our two-wheeled portage-cart soon gave us problems. The tires broke loose from the plastic wheels, making these portages even more difficult.

The small villages we passed through were very different from the Wild West we had just come from.

Many homes had gardens meticulously cared for, kind of like those in Britain. The architecture had something of Scandinavia.

Colorful wooden houses like in Sweden with Pippi Longstocking. Even the church bells rang on the hour! Mixed forest like at home. Europe seemed somehow quite close.

Also, the people were different. By far not as open and easy-going as in the West – just like in Europe.

So, we hardly had any contact with others, which wasn’t good for us, and led to difficulties in the long run.

The water level is very low this year.

It had hardly rained, and so it happened that we often had to get out, wade along through the water, pushing and pulling the canoe through the shallows.

Then there were also more and more sections we couldn’t paddle at all because of rapids too fast and risky for our skill level.

We had one eight-mile (approx.13 km) stretch where we pushed the canoe on the cart up and down the hills along the road, for sure, entertainment for the passing cars.

The closer we got to Vermont, the more dams we had to bypass. So, we got the canoe out of the water, unloaded all the stuff we had in the canoe, pushed the cart underneath, lashed it down, reloaded the stuff, pushed past the dam, and reversed the operation.

The eight-mile push on the road was followed by a stretch of a river full of boulders we had to get out and push around.

Finally, tired and desperate, we went ashore to figure out what to do as there was no end in sight to the boulders.

At this point, we were sitting at the roadside with the canoe, when a car stopped:

“Hey, what are you guys doing with your canoe on the road?”

Minutes later, the canoe was strapped on this fellow’s truck, and away we went.

He drove us to Walmart in Plattsburgh because he, like many of the other locals, was convinced that the next 15 miles or 24 km of the river were impassable due to the low water conditions.

Once again, luck was on our side; not just anyone will stop and pick up two strangers, their canoe and gear.

From the Walmart parking lot, we pushed the canoe through half the city, much to the motorists’ delight.

In a hotel, we waited for the weather to change, because in front of us was Lake Champlain, one of the largest lakes in the USA.

We didn’t want to cross the lake on a windy day, because it could have been too dangerous, so we had to take a few forced breaks.

Which in the end was not bad at all, because our shoulders and arms deserved some days off. The paddling and carrying over such long distances is not without its problems.

Lake Champlain was mega exhausting, with waves that you might experience at sea. In the end, I didn’t find such big lakes to be all that interesting.

I preferred the smaller rivers, finding them much more attractive. But the constant changes along the waterway did help us avoid getting bored.

We often had difficulties estimating distances on the water.

Sometimes it seemed as if you were getting nowhere, or your destination was continually moving away from you. From a distance, islands looked like mainland’s, making navigation difficult.

The tent sites marked on our map were not always easy to find, either because they were drawn completely wrong on the map or because they might not exist anymore, as our maps were 15 years old.

The real pluses on the trail were the facilities along the way, camping shelters, toilets, even fireplaces.

And in general, they were well kept and clean.

In the state of Vermont, about two hundred meters away from the Canadian border, we had to pull the canoe through the water at the mouth of the Missisquoi nature reserve.

Hundreds of cormorants, herons, and all kinds of ducks sweetened our time there.

Unfortunately, our moods took a turn for the worse; we were no longer getting along, no longer a team.

A few days later, we decided to abandon NFCT and go our separate ways.

A pity for sure, I would have loved to finish the trail. Above all, I was sorry for the friendship and that I couldn’t experience the famed colorful New England, Indian Summer.

Well, that’s how it is sometimes in life; it just doesn’t always go according to plan, especially not in this darned year 2020!

We gave the canoe away and, I’m trying to sell the paddle and vest.

Alone, sitting on the side of the road, a car stopped: “Hey, where are you going?

At that moment, I hadn’t come up with a plan, but I took the ride and, by the time we got to the first village, I knew where I was headed.

By evening, a mere six hours later, I had completed almost 300 miles (about 483 km) to Rochester. Three hitches, the first two short ones.

I arrived safely at Kathryn and Dennis’s, who welcomed me with open arms and allowed me to spend some nice days making new plans.

So, the next project is already on its way; let’s see what will go wrong this time.  ?

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28 Comments

  1. What an amazing adventure! Thanks for taking the time to show us the beauty of the lakes and rivers.

    Reply
    • Hi Wendy,

      great to hear you enjoyed the article!

      I love to share my adventures and my blog is my only means of support!

      Best greetings Heike

      Reply
  2. Always enjoy reading about your adventures and your photography is wonderful. Such a pity this trip turned sour at the end. Onwards to the next one. Stay safe.

    Reply
  3. Lovely to see and read your news.

    All bestest

    Reply
    • THanks for letting me know you liked it!
      All the best for you too…..
      Heike

      Reply
  4. Amazing pictures Heike! Always enjoy your story. Hope to meet you someday in our travels.

    Reply
    • THanks Norman, the world is a small place….

      Best greetings Heike

      Reply
  5. Beautiful photos as always. I always admire your adventurous spirit. Looking forward to reading about your next travels.

    Reply
  6. Lovely stor and it mus have been a lovely experience. I enjoyed every bit of it and every picture. Keep them coming.

    Reply
  7. I really gotta get out with my camera. It’s been too smoky for me to enjoy outdoors here, and I’ve had to work 6 days/week. I love your photos…and I really need to learn to bake at camp! Enjoy your next adventure!

    Reply
      • Thank for the link. I will try your baking method later this fall. I def need a different pot. Stainless instead of non stick. Do you think a titanium pot would work for the outer/bigger pot?

      • Yes non-stick won’t survive in the fire.
        I don’t see a reason why a titanium wouldn’t work…..
        Good luck

  8. Absolutely outstanding photos of a great adventure. It was asking a lot of a relationship to survive such arduous challenges. Well done both of you.

    Ian

    Reply
  9. Too bad I didn’t know of your route choice sooner. I would have recommended the Connecticut River Trail. It has easier portages and low water wouldn’t be an issue.

    Reply
    • Next time Harvie…..thank you!
      Sorry, we couldn’t meet up!
      Best greetings Heike

      Reply
  10. Beautiful pictures as usual Heike. I never get tired of seeing the world through your photos.
    I was wondering what happened to you after hearing you were on the waterway. It had been a while since your last post. I’m sorry things didn’t work out as planned. My experience with people in the NE is like yours. Not as friendly as the west or south. If you are still in that area, enjoy the turning of the leaves. So beautiful with many opportunities for great photos. Take care,
    Rick

    Reply
    • HI Rick,

      happy to read you are still following me! Makes me happy!
      Did you read my Colorado Trail article? I blogged it about a month ago.

      THanks for your wishes – best greetings to Oregon!
      Cheers Heike

      Reply
      • I did see that one. It was quite a hike. I don’t think this old man could do it. You are quite the athlete! Love following your adventures. I’m looking forward to the next.
        I just returned from 9000 miles in my RV. A different kind of camping. Loves.

      • Come on Rick you are not an old man!
        Great to hear you had a good time!
        Say hello to your family – hope the fires are not close to your home!
        Best of luck, Heike

  11. Hello Heike It has taken me a while to catch up on your latest blog and wonderful pics. i still haven’t look at the Oregon trail yet but will do so soon. I feel like I can tag along a bit looking at the beautiful photography. The trail sounds pretty tough too with all the portages. The camping sites looks fantastic and so does the beard and granola? I have done a fair bit of canoeing here in victoria in the past. It is a wonderful way to tarvel but a bit harder then cycling? Cheers and stay safe my dear adventurer.

    Reply
    • Hi Sing,

      thanks, Sing…….not sure it is harder than cycling – I guess it all depends where you cycle, doesn’t it?

      Hope Australia is treating you nicely – best greetings Heike

      Reply
  12. I remember a canoe trip I took in the 80’s in Pennsylvania with a friend where the water level was too low and we ended up in an exhausting nightmare of pushing and pulling the canoe. Our moods also went very low and the aluminum canoe we had borrowed was ravaged. I grew up in New York and have spent time canoeing in the same areas you were travelling. Your photos are always stunning. Last year I bicycled the Erie Canal trail and the C&O Canal trail, then spent the winter rebuilding my bicycle and this year cycled 850 miles in New York during July (the hottest July ever recorded in NYS). I have just returned from cycling the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage trails and can’t wait until next spring for more.

    Reply
    • Dear Linda, yes – low water is no fun! Those ongoing high temperatures – every month a new record – are very scary!

      Great to hear you are enjoying life and I hope you will be able to tick off a few of your trails listed on your bucket list as soon as possible!

      Big thanks for everything else!

      Best greetings to NYS – Heike

      Reply
  13. Hi, I’m a friend of Harry’s. He shared your web site with me awhile ago. What a tough trip. Your photos are incredible. Glad you made it as far as you did. Thanks for sharing! Brad

    Reply
    • Hi Brad – thanks for your message and big compliment!
      Happy greetings from Arizona, Heike

      Reply

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