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On the Canoe Trail

A01_081907.qxdSteve Cratty, 37, was still wearing his hospital ID bracelet as he and the other members of “The Pennsylvania 4” sloughed their way against the current on the slimy, rocky Upper Ammonoosuc River in New Hampshire.

The team of four through-paddlers, on a quest to conquer the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, had been on the water for several weeks when Cratty fell and broke two ribs on the rocks.  It was a small setback in a string of misfortune that included wrapping their canoe around a boulder, a week of nonstop rain and food poisoning.

“In it to win it” had become the team motto by the time they reached this midpoint through New Hampshire. And still, what they really wanted to talk about was the people they met on the journey and the places they’d seen.

“Being out here is probably changing my thoughts on life,” said Brad Kohler, 30, of Pittsburgh, Pa. “Living in the city makes me doubt people. I used to think that there were only a few good people out there, but now I think there are millions.”

The crew can’t remember what day of the week it is, but they all remember the couple in a fishing boat who led them during a lightning storm to their camp where they made them a fire and offered them hot food.

“They didn’t know us from nothing. We could have been serial killers,” Kohler said.

Long Distance Trail

Not everyone who travels the Northern Forest Canoe Trail needs to experience such extremes. The path, which traces Native American trade routes through New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire and Maine, has many shorter, quieter sections.

Finished in the spring of 2006, the trail consists of a string of interconnected rivers and lakes linked by portages (which require the canoe to be carried) from one waterway to the next. Sometimes called the Appalachian Trail for canoeists, it passes through some of the most renowned waters of the East, including Lake Champlain and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

The trail is divided into 13 mapped sections, which include campsites, trail signs, local information and access points. To complete the entire journey, paddlers must possess a variety of skills. They must be able to travel upstream by poling, a technique that uses a long, usually wooden, setting pole to push the boat forward against the current. They also must have the endurance to portage 55 miles, carrying the canoe up and around obstructions. Paddlers must descend rapids up to a class IV, which is defined by the Safety Code of American Whitewater as “Advanced. Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water.” They also must fight through large bodies of water where wind and waves batter their small crafts.

Unlike hiking however, the trail is not always considered backcountry as it passes both developed and natural areas. In some areas paddlers can canoe from inn to inn.

Typically, people who want to paddle the length of the trail begin in the west and move toward Maine. In that direction, the New Hampshire section becomes tricky. The four bodies of water that make up the more than 72 miles of the trail that cross the state – the Connecticut, the Androscoggin, the Upper Ammonoosuc and Lake Umbagog – flow in different directions. (For shorter trips, section paddling in the direction of the current can make things more enjoyable.) But taken piece by piece, each of the New Hampshire waterways has its own character and adventure to offer.

Connecticut River Section

The largest river in New England, the Connecticut curves its way along an ancient tract. Wide and meandering, sandy beaches grace its oxbow loops.  Above its banks rise fertile agricultural valleys. In the distance, mountains and hills emerge.

It’s the kind of river that defines a “float trip,” as its gentle, clear current makes for a leisurely day. On Sunday, it’s also the kind of river that brings out locals and their coolers.

Five boats, full of good-natured North Stratford natives, wind their way down the river on a lazy afternoon. They argue and joke about who can catch more fish. Challenges are issued. Taunts are hurled. Everybody knows everybody. They speculate that the largest graduating class in town was 25 people. Then, at a nondescript bend in the river, they raise their drinks to salute a friend who died there. Their arrival at the abandoned railroad trestle is ritualistic. Several people disembark onto the island of driftwood and stone to light debris on fire.

Past another bend, David Curtis, 42, a teacher from Burlington, Vt., fights his way upstream like Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. His face is stubbly, but there is a smile below his Green Mountain Club hat.

Curtis decided to paddle the New Hampshire and Vermont sections of the trail a week into his summer vacation.  “I haven’t been in a canoe since high school,” Curtis says. “My only preparation for canoeing was a book, something like Canoeing in the Wild by some master canoeist who has me doing the c-stroke.” (The stroke traces the letter “c” underwater and keeps the solo canoeist moving forward in a straight line. It’s easier said than done.)

He admits to a penchant for checking things off a list.  (He’s also working to finish the Long Trail, a 270-mile hiking trail that runs the length of Vermont.) In his boat is a large, old gardening cart for portages, an external frame pack, dry bags, food (kale, noodles, carrots) and a fishing rod. He’s already done one 3.8-mile portage from the Androscoggin to the Upper Ammonoosuc by himself. The road is hilly, windy and narrow. He’s feeling cranky and over-packed.

Some of the portages are rough. Steep banks greet paddlers trying to make their way around dams or carrying their canoes to the next waterway.  Supplies must be unloaded, moved up and down, then reloaded while the canoeist scrambles through thorny bushes with wet shoes, mosquitoes feasting on fleshy legs.

Curtis is doing the trip all by himself and says he feels more solitude in the water than on land.

“When you are hiking, even if you are alone on the trail, you are running into somebody,” Curtis says. “But here you are all alone.”

Umbagog Lake and Androscoggin River Section

Umbagog Lake is a destination in itself. Wide, shallow and protected, it’s more than 10 miles long. The haunting call of the loon echoes from its shores.

Then as the waterway approaches Errol, the peace is interrupted. Here, the Androscoggin River begins with menace. Trees, staked like spears along the banks, point at the sky and a set of Class III rapids await. Once a superhighway for the logging industry, the river now serves a variety of recreational purposes.

Coming through the crashing water, Kay Henry, the founding president of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, executes a perfect eddy turn near the boat ramp with Todd Papianou, owner of Northern Waters Outfitters in Errol. In whitewater boating, an eddy turn is used to extricate the boat from the current and halt its downstream motion. It’s an advanced maneuver. They make it look easy.

Henry and her husband, Rob Center, former chief executives of Mad River Canoe, formed the nonprofit NFCT in 2000 to develop and manage the trail. It was first envisioned in the late 1970s by a trio of men interested in tracing Native American routes through New England. More than 30 years later, the trail officially opened.

“From a historical perspective, rivers were really what joined the community,” Henry says. Today, she hopes that communities will embrace the idea of a water trail as both a recreational/cultural outlet and an economic driver.

The vision is that the trail becomes part of the fabric of the northern forest communities, encouraging conservation and keeping the water pristine.

The New Hampshire river section is a cultural byway to different chapters of the region’s past. It runs next to both Brunswick Springs, an Abenaki area used for its purported healing powers, and the town of Stark, where a former World War II German prisoner of war camp was located.

Papianou’s business and other local country stores and campgrounds may also benefit from an increase in river tourism. Some of them don’t even know it yet.

Pam Feldhouse at the Cedar Pond Campground near Milan didn’t realize that her campground was central on NFCT map No. 7 and smack dab in the middle of a tough 3.8-mile portage on Route 110A between the Androscoggin and Upper Ammonoosuc River. It was advertising, she says, that she didn’t even have to pay for.

As the whitewater of Errol fades off into the Pontook Reservoir, remnants of logging days sit neatly below the water. In the 1930s, river drivers worked from large boats called “bateau,” directing logs down the chutes of this river. Stone islands, underwater timbers, and coils of metal rope sunken to the bottom are the only remnants. Soon though, the river is churned up once again by the power of the Pontook Dam. Class II and III rapids follow rocky and fast.

Upper Ammonoosuc River Section

The slender and shallow Upper Ammonoosuc River snakes its way through the heart of northern New Hampshire. It’s the smallest and least traveled of the rivers. Low water levels in late summer cause many of the rapids to become a minefield of boulders difficult to navigate – but also create an assurance of isolation.

The winding stream abounds with wildlife. A young moose bathes in a deep eddy, shaking flies off his growing antlers. He lumbers to the shore, knees bending backward awkwardly. It is quiet.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail campsites along all the rivers are new and relatively unused. They offer designated places to stop and camp for the night. In the morning, it rains fog, leaving a layer of condensation on tent roofs. Campers sleep under thick river mist, while canoes sit idle.

It’s possible to kayak the trail, but canoes, with their extra storage capacity, provide a more versatile way of completing it.

“A canoe is a vehicle to go exploring with,” Henry says.

In a way, the trail is an ode to the transportation of the past. Long before roads were built through the thick North Woods, Native Americans navigated through a series of well-known river systems in traditional canoes.

Although the exploration of uncharted territory might be complete, the essence of the journey remains. There is a beginning and an ending, and in between, teamwork is paramount. The power of the paddler in the bow must be matched by the skill and guidance of the paddler in the stern. It’s the partnership involved in canoeing, Henry says, that makes it so satisfying.

For “The Pennsylvania 4,” teamwork seems to move them along the trail. In their blog from Saturday, July 28, they write “WE ALL GOT TO SHOWER TODAY!!! Today was a good day for all of us, but I’m sure that Sara (Maits) enjoyed today the most. She no longer has to hang around three smelly guys all day. Today was our third shower of the trip. After our showers, we got to line up our canoes and walk through the water most of the day.”

A few days later, they write, “We were very excited about finally reaching Maine. We took advantage of the emotional high and paddled 20 miles.”

In the latest report, dated Wednesday, Aug. 15, the group writes, “The last couple of days have been rough. I can now see why so many paddlers average less than 15 miles per day. Lake Champlain seems like it happened so long ago. The good news is that we have less than 100 miles to go. Once we finish, we will start planning our trip for next summer.”

For Steve Cratty and Sara Maits, two of “The Pennsylvania 4,” the teamwork that keeps them on schedule is vital. Their goal: make it to Fort Kent, Maine, by Aug. 25. If they arrive in one piece, there will be a bridal shower, their own, to attend.