Friday, October 1, 2010

My Introduction to the NFCT

Last week I returned from Maine after taking another nibble out of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT).  Over the last few years I've learned to avoid trying to bite off more of this trail than I can chew.  It was a lesson I learned the hard way, a recurring theme in my life.
Before I started this blog and before the NFCT officially opened, I participated in an event called the Adirondack Canoe Classic.  The year was 2003 and an account of my experience appeared in the May 2004 issue of Atlantic Coastal Kayaker (
A slightly modified version of that article appears below:

An Adirondack Migration

by Al Peirce

On Thursday, September 4, 2003, the small Adirondack village of Old Forge was once again, for the 21st year, the site of a growing assemblage of paddlers and their boats. The numbers would continue to swell until reaching 257 boats and in excess of 450 paddlers by early Friday morning. Paddlers from locations as far off as Maine and Texas had heeded the instinctual call to this locale. The weather was typical early autumn-like. Partly cloudy skies and cool temperatures left no doubt that the seasons were in transition.

At 7:30 am, paddlers massed near the water’s edge at Old Forge Pond, to hear some final instructions from the organizers. Many of them, myself included, were still drowsy after having been awakened from their tents several times during the night by food foraging black bears. Then, ready or not, boats were launched, gear checked, and paddles raised high in the air when each boat’s number was called. Upon hearing the command “Go”, the first wave was off heading east to 1st lake in the Fulton Lakes chain. Wave after wave would follow until it seemed the water’s surface was covered by canoes, kayaks, and Adirondack guideboats. This was the beginning of a tribal migration of sorts that would require paddlers to travel 90 miles from Old Forge to Saranac Lake village over the ensuing three days. Yes, three days of nothing but paddling and camping in the heart of the Adirondacks. This paddler’s idea of heaven!

Day one would require that 35 miles be completed with 4 portages comprising 3.5 miles of that distance. The route would be through the Fulton Chain Lakes 1 to 5, portage to 6th lake, paddle 6th lake to 7th lake, portage to 8th lake, cross 8th lake, portage to Brown’s Tract, follow narrow & winding Brown’s Tract into Raquette Lake, cross Raquette to St. Huberts Lake leading into the Marion River, follow the river to a short portage into Utowana lake, down Utowana to Eagle Lake and finally to the first day finish line on the beach at Blue Mountain Lake.

I was in wave 5 which included touring and recreational kayaks. The waves behind us would include huge numbers of canoes, and the Unlimited Kayak class. The vast majority of boats were canoes; more types of canoes then I previously knew existed: stock canoes, recreational canoes, war canoes, 4-man, 2-man, 1-man. It was from the multi-man canoes, that I would hear the rhythmic calling out of “Hut” about every 20 seconds or so. I would come to dread hearing this sound behind me anytime I approached a take-out at a portage. The very first portage would pretty much set the tone for all of those that followed. Approximately 8 boats approached a take-out area that only had room for 4 boats. As I tried to exit my kayak in 2 feet of water and mud while maintaining some semblance of dignity, the water all around me was soon total chaos as the 2-man canoes wedged their way in, canoe paddlers jumped out, one shouting directions to the other “left”, “now right”, “quick, lets go”. This scene was repeated several times before I could get my boat up on my shoulder, then carry it past the gathered spectators, and find a spot off to the side where I could lay it down and hook up my portaging wheels. Shortly, I was under way again and breathing pretty hard as I pulled my boat up a hill. It was here, I realized I hadn’t practiced enough uphill portaging. Images of running an Iroquois gauntlet raced through my mind. Fortunately, the folks lining the sides of the trail offered only water and fruit rather than clubs and tomahawks. Reaching the end of the portage, I viewed another chaotic scene at the put-in as, once again, there were more boats than available spots for launching. As I tried to claim a spot and make my transition back to paddling, it was quickly apparent that being reserved and polite was not going to cut it. It was every man or team for themselves and one had to be assertive. By the way, had I mentioned that this migration is a race? Witnessing the action at the beginnings and endings of the portages, one might have thought there was prize money involved, but that was not the case. Some of these folks were just crazed! Now, if the United States Military ever decides to develop a rapid strike canoe force, they need look no further!

Aside from my difficulties with the 1st and 3rd portages, the rest of Day 1 was beautiful. There was fantastic scenery, partly sunny skies, and widely varying paddling environments. These ranged from narrow, winding, shallow areas such as Brown’s Tract which required sliding down a few beaver dams, to the wide and wind exposed expanses of several good sized lakes.

A now cloudy and breezy Friday afternoon saw hundreds of weary souls landing on a small beach in Blue Mountain Lake. The first order of business was to get some dry and warm clothes on, then help place my kayak on a trailer that I trusted would take it to the next day’s start location. This done, I boarded a shuttle bus, and off we went to the Lake Eaton Campground. Arriving there, I found the trailer containing everyone’s gear, located my stuff and began carrying it in search of an unoccupied campsite. It required a half mile walk to find one. Carrying my camping gear would have been much easier had I used a backpack rather than a duffel bag. I quickly set up my tent and then went in search of a hot shower. So did about 30 other guys and the line was about an hour long. Never did a hot shower feel so good! Then it was back to my campsite where I prepared some supper just as darkness descended. Before retiring to my tent, I made sure to hang my food bag in a tree, just in case Yogi and his friends might be in the vicinity. Shortly thereafter, the Ben-Gay was lathered on and I dozed off with no problem.

The next morning was pretty foggy. After a quick breakfast, I folded up a wet tent, found the gear trailer, stowed my stuff and caught the next shuttle to the start line. Arriving at the Day 2 start line, I found a sea of paddlers, their pit crews, and 257 boats spread out in a field. Like one of those penguin parents looking for their offspring amidst a sea of other penguins, I wished my boat could call out to me. Just when I began to get worried, I found my faithful friend wedged between 2 canoes. Soon we were again on the water and looking at the 10 mile long appropriately named “Long Lake”. The fog had delayed the start by 1 hour and once finally under way, we chased the lifting fog northward up the lake. As the fog lifted and receded, the surrounding mountains came into view. This was one of the more scenic moments of the event. Canoes and kayaks stretched out ahead and behind me as far as I could see. The tribe was underway and looking good! As the fog lifted further, float planes began to appear flying low over the field of racers. The view from the planes must have been something to see. Talking to a fellow kayaker, I was more than a little disappointed to hear him say that today was going to be the hardest day. I had convinced myself that the hardest was 35 mile Day One and that it was happily behind us. “No”, he told me, “today in addition to paddling 33 miles we will do the portage from hell and you won’t be able to use your wheels for the first 1/3 which is climbing rock steps up a steep hill.” Now the dread set in. I tried to convince myself, unsuccessfully, that while this upcoming portage might be bad, possibly even horrific, I would be relieved once it was behind me.

After a couple of hours of paddling, we came to the end of Long Lake and entered the fairly narrow Raquette River, where we began the 5 mile stretch of river to the much dreaded 1 ¼ mile portage at Raquette Falls. As I approached the landing, I could see upside down canoes crawling up the steep and rugged path. It reminded me of ants carrying large leafs. I knew that this was going to hurt! With the cockpit of my boat resting on my already sore right shoulder, I joined the procession and hoped that I could keep up with the others until reaching the point where my wheels could be of use. It was at this time that I could hear my wife’s voice reminding me that I wasn’t going to be happy until I had given myself a heart attack. After a while I reached what seemed to be the crest only to dip down and then begin climbing again. Major disappointment! Stopping for a breather, I watched about 10 boats zip by me. A little farther along and I turned my boat over onto its wheels and began the descent determined to pull those wheels over boulders if I had to. And I did! I could only hope that my boat would be able to forgive me for what I was subjecting it to. Finally, back in the water, I realized that it was going to take a while to recover my strength. For the next half hour, I paddled very slowly and deliberately while working on replenishing my body with water and protein. Then, recovered, I began trying my best to catch and pass all the boats that had passed me on the portage. After all, there was still 12 miles of paddling to get to the Day 2 finish line. Making the finish line was great! Now, I realized that the worst was over and in spite of my travails, I felt pretty good. Again, I left my boat with all the others and caught another shuttle to yet another campground. This time it was the Fish Creek campground and this was to be the best campground of them all. I managed to get a site right on the lake almost in line with where the Day 3 start would be. Rather than wait for a hot shower, I decided to save time and bathe in the lake. This made me presentable for that evening’s supper which was served up by caterers and was much superior to my freeze dried stuff. The moon was nearly full and there was a little nip in the air, so I made myself some hot cocoa for dessert, then walked about a mile and a half to find a pay phone in order to let my wife know that I was still alive. The walk back to my campsite was great. I was totally relaxed and you could sense that everyone else was too. It was easy to doze off with the sound of laughing loons in the distance.

Day 3 soon arrived and some quacking ducks served as an alarm clock. After a catered a la carte breakfast, we all gathered once again at the start line and began the final 22 miles to Saranac Lake. By this time, we were getting fairly familiar with each other and I saw all the other paddlers as worthy adversaries. They had all earned my respect and I hoped I was worthy of theirs. Yes, today would be a nice day, and maybe those 2-man canoes would show a little patience at the last 3 portages. We paddled out of Fish Creek Ponds into the winding Fish Creek which brought us into Upper Saranac Lake, then crossed the lake to our first portage of the day, Bartlett Carry. This was another uphill job. Wheeling towards the top of the grade, I heard the sound of bag pipes and soon encountered a piper in full regalia providing musical accompaniment for the passing procession. We had left reality behind and entered the surreal world of a Monty Python movie!

Next, we headed across Middle Saranac Lake and did a short portage around the Upper Locks and entered the Saranac River. Heading downriver, I came upon one of the most beautiful stretches of water I’ve ever had the privilege to paddle. The river winds past a looming rock promontory called the Devil’s Pulpit while off to the left are several 4,000’ plus mountains. This area had a sacred feel. The river brought us into Lower Saranac Lake, then through First Pond and Second Pond to the last portage of the event.

Still intact, and now tasting the finish line, I began the last stretch through Oseetah Lake to the event’s end at Lake Flower in the village of Saranac Lake. Paddling the last half mile, I found myself relieved that the pain would soon be over, yet at the same time, I didn’t want the experience to end. On one hand, I’m telling folks I’ll never do it again, while on the other hand, I’m already thinking how I can be better prepared for the portages next year: bigger and pneumatic tires for my portage wheels, padding for shoulders, hand-friendly grab loop for the front of my boat, and more fitness training for uphill portaging.

Meanwhile, on shore, it’s party time with barbecued chicken, music, commemorative pins, pictures that can be purchased and newly found friends to celebrate or commiserate with. After that, I can look forward to joining good friends from the NY paddling community for supper at the ‘Tail of the Pup’, then a long hot shower, followed by ample amounts of Tiger Balm and a good night’s sleep at a nearby motel.

The Adirondack Canoe Classic, aka “The Ninety Miler”, is a huge undertaking for the organizers and its more than 100 volunteers. The logistics are mind boggling. My boat and gear were always waiting for me at every stop. The shuttle vans and buses were seemingly there just when you needed them. Race organizers and volunteers were always friendly and helpful. The campgrounds were all clean and to my surprise, the tents didn’t need to be on top of each other. How they got that black bear to visit all the newbie sites on the event’s eve, I’ll never know. Many of the paddlers I encountered have been doing this for several years and after doing it myself, I can understand the event’s draw or pull to return. Some have actually done it all 21 years!

Driving home the next day, I recalled a sentence from the literature race organizers sent me. “It is not a hard race, those who are in shape for 30 miles of paddling a day should not have a problem.” I would suggest adding to that “and also in shape for miles of uphill portaging.”

The overall fastest time for the 90 miles was posted by Paul Olney of Westernville, NY in the Unlimited Kayak Men’s Masters class. His cumulative time for the three days was 12 hours, 39 minutes and 3 seconds. The class I was in, Touring Kayak Men’s Masters, was won by Roger Gocking of Ossing, NY in a time of 15:24:51. I finished 10th out of 13 with a time of 17:57:21. There were ample numbers of 2-man canoes in the 13 to 19 hour range.

The Open Touring Class, while offering no trophies, may in fact be a better class for less serious racers, such as myself. This class starts first each day and, therefore, may encounter less traffic at the portages.

2010 Note: I subsequently did the 2004 and 2005 Adirondack Canoe Classics in the Open Class and would recommend it to all but the most serious of racers. The gear shuttles are no longer available thus requiring participants to handle those logistics themselves.  Having a pit crew is the best strategy.

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