Friday, October 1, 2010

My NFCT Travels/Travails East of Saranac Lake

This is a continuation of the previous post and covers some of my forays on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail following the Adirondack Canoe Classic. This account, when added to  blog posts covering the Lake Champlain stretch, Allagash Lakes Region,  Rangeley Lakes Region, and the recent Flagstaff  Lake region, completes my NFCT travels to date.  I'm almost halfway there, but running out of flatwater stretches!
Again, this is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in Atlantic Coastal Kayaker in 5/08 and was titled in that publication "On and Off the Northern Forest Canoe Trail".  It shows my learning, the hard way, that striking out alone (with no gear shuttle) was much tougher than I had anticipated .

Nibbling on the NFCT

By Al Peirce

My kayak and I slide into the water at the confluence of Lobster Stream and the West Branch of the Penobscot River on an idyllic Indian Summer day in early October 2007. My first few paddle strokes guide my boat around a small hummock island, into the flow of the Penobscot and down a stretch of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail I have never seen before. Everything I will need for the next 3 days is either in or on my boat. I do not know where the end of the day will find me setting up my tent, but the map attached to my deckbag provides a list of possibilities. My job, worries and cares were left with my car, back at the Lobster Trip boat launch. As the river unfolds before me, through my earbuds I hear Gordon Lightfoot singing: “There was a time in this fair land when the railroads did not run…When the wild majestic mountains stood alone before the sun…Long before the white man and long before the wheel…When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.” Yes indeed, I am in my happy place! There is nothing on this planet that I want for at this moment!

I first heard about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail while participating in the Adirondack Canoe Classic in 2005. The course of the Canoe Classic roughly covers the first 90 miles of the 740 mile NFCT from its beginning in Old Forge, NY to Saranac Lake, NY. The NFCT continues from there to Fort Kent, ME. I remember thinking, “Well, the first 90 miles will be under my belt, so I’ll only have 650 miles to go.” Then, at some point, I saw the 1991 movie “Black Robe”, the story of a Jesuit Missionary’s 1,500 mile canoe journey with an Algonquin tribe from Three Rivers, Quebec to the Georgian Bay area of Lake Huron. Thoughts of my own spiritual journey traversing the NFCT began to take shape.

Soon, I was ordering and studying maps, a favorite winter pastime, and a paddling trip on the NFCT was in the making. Because I had completed the Adirondack Canoe Classic several times, I was fairly confident in my abilities to cover long distances and difficult portages (forgetting, of course, that all the portaging done in the Canoe Classic was done with a nearly empty boat). I was, however, less confident in paddling whitewater sections, electing to portage around anything more than Class 1. In fact, I had ordered a plastic kayak for the trip, but it did not arrive in time. Therefore, my Surge sea kayak would have to ‘rough it’.

The trip that finally materialized would pick up the trail where the Adirondack Canoe Classic ends in Saranac Lake, NY and continue heading North on the Saranac River towards Plattsburgh, NY, then North on Lake Champlain to Missisiquoi Bay, and into the Missisiquoi River to Enosburg Falls, VT. The distance would be 120 miles.

In May of 2006, I had lined up a shuttle from Enosburg Falls back to my car at Saranac Lake, had everything packed, and headed out to Saranac Lake in a driving rain. Dropped boat and gear off at the launch site, drove back to the hotel where my car would be left for the week, and then walked about a mile to the launch site. I was wearing my portage shoes and noticed that when I arrived at the launch site, my foot was bleeding at a point where the shoe rubbed against the side of my ankle. I had forgotten to put on thin socks to prevent such chafing. I scolded myself for hurrying, told myself to slow down, and not make anymore mistakes from being anxious. Definitely an omen, though.

Shortly, without ceremony, I launched into a swift flowing Saranac and the trip was underway. Soon the current slowed and the scenery and weather began to improve. There were even a few patches of blue sky. Saw 2 bald eagles cavorting near Moose Pond. The first portage, 1.2 miles around Permanent Rapids, went great! I encountered a grandfather and grandson with a fresh catch of brown trout, and launched into Franklin Falls Pond in wind and rain. At the end of the pond, I portaged a short distance around a dam, and entered Union Falls Pond. Paddled past a loud cascade of water entering the pond at Woodruff Bay, looked back to see the highest peak in the region, Whiteface Mt., and reached my first campsite at Bear Pt. after covering 17 miles for the day. Shortly, I was enjoying a new kind of meal: “self-heating” beef stew, perfect for a wet , tired paddler. I crawled into my tent and slept well.

Awoke the next morning to a few peaks of sunshine, so broke camp and got underway. Paddled the short distance to Union Falls Dam and here is where things began to deteriorate. I had decided to portage 8 miles around some Class 2 to Class 4 waters between the Dam and Clayburg. Now, for some reason, while sitting in my kitchen back in March, I pictured this portage as being mostly level or if anything, perhaps slightly downhill. I was mistaken. The first 3.5 miles were dirt roads that steadily climbed. My boat and related gear weighed about 100 lbs. I had a set of portage wheels under the stern of the boat and was using a wooden handle at the bow to pull the boat along behind me. About halfway to Clayburg, I found I could not pull that much load, so I put most of the heavy gear into a duffel bag and tried pulling with that arrangement. Soon, I was reduced to pulling the boat 100 yards, then going back for the bag which I would then carry 100 yards past the boat, then repeat the process. Several cars stopped to let me know that I had dropped my bag. However, none offered a ride. Were they crazy? Or was I? Finally, at 5:30 pm, I arrived in what I expected to be Clayburg only to find a sign saying “Things to do in Black Brook”. My heart dropped and I approached the sign to see a “You are here” arrow pointing to Au Sable Forks on a map. Had I made a wrong turn? Could I possibly have left one watershed and entered another? I was devastated. Then a fellow drove up and asked if I needed directions. I told him to please tell me I was not in Au Sable Forks and he told me I was in Clayburg. I asked why the sign had an arrow saying “You are in Au Sable Forks”. He wasn’t sure. At any rate, the rain was now getting steady, my feet were killing me, and I was faced with getting my boat and gear down a steep bank and into a stretch of rocky quickwater. As I got into my fully loaded boat, I knew I was in trouble and most likely would not make it to my planned destination of Picketts Corners, 6 miles and 2 portages downriver. Didn’t have much time to dwell on that, as I was soon focused on avoiding as many rocks as I could, and scraping over those I couldn’t. Approaching 2 Class 3 rapids called the Separator Rapids, I could not find the take-out for the portage. Darkness was looming, rain was steady and cold, and my feet were in agony, so I turned against the current and paddled back to several small islets that were once used to separate log drives. One was just big enough for my boat and tent. Highway Rt. 3 ran alongside the river here, and I thought of being seen and having the police tell me to move along. If they did, they would have to come out and get me. I was prepared to say it was an emergency. Tied bowline of boat to shrub, set up tent in rain, crawled in and removed socks to find soles of both feet badly blistered. Applied ointment from first aid kit and tried to sleep. I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of sirens. Was this a signal of a dam release? Knowing that I was only about 8 “ above the river’s water level, thoughts of being washed into the river and the roaring rapids 50 yards downstream ran through my cranium for what seemed like an eternity.

I crawled out of tent at 5:30 am to find it still raining. Folded up wet tent, loaded boat and paddled to river’s right bank where I hauled boat up onto steep bank and then hiked along river’s bank until finding the sign marking the start of the portage. Take out was just upstream from the start of rapids. Now knowing the location of the take-out, I hiked back to my boat, re-launched, paddled down to the take-out and began the toughest portage I have ever done. There were trees across the trail, and the terrain was so rough, wheels could not be used. I carried first the boat, then all my gear to the road portion where I then was able to use wheels. My only goal now was to somehow make it the 6 miles to Picketts Corners. I did the 1.4 mile portage at High Falls Dam and limped into Picketts Corners and the Baker’s Acres campground. My trip was over. All I wanted to do was to get dry, warm and rested. The owner had a little trailer I could rent that, though it had no heat, was at least dry. It was like the Ritz compared to setting up a wet tent. As I walked to the nearest payphone, I became aware that my gait was not normal and that I had pulled a hamstring, probably when I pulled the loaded boat up onto the riverbank or when I carried the boat over downed trees. I called for my shuttle and the next morning, thanks to Steve of Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters, I was on my way back to Saranac Lake. On the subsequent long drive home to Massachusetts, I tried to regroup and decide if I was up to doing this trail or not. I had tried to take a big bite out of this trail and had been humbled in the process. Perhaps smaller bites would get it done. I would have to find a better way to deal with the sections of riffles and whitewater that are numerous on the trail. Yes, it was going to take longer but what’s the rush? I have the whole rest of my life! It isn’t a race!

Soon it was summer 06, I was back at work, and hoping for another shot at the trail before the onset of winter. This time, October 06, my plans were more modest. I would drive to Lake Umbagog, car camp there and paddle the lake and the short section of the trail across it. Campground was nearly empty, foliage was beautiful, and I was treated to encounters with otters, ospreys and eagles. Next, I drove the roadways that ran closest to the trail across New Hampshire and northern Vermont until I reached Swanton, VT. There, I checked into a motel and walked to the Abenaki museum which I had read about beforehand. It was late afternoon and the door to the museum was locked, but the door to the adjacent Tribal Center was open and there were several women inside playing cards under a cloud of cigarette smoke. One of the women agreed to open the museum for me. The exhibit that was most fascinating to me was a map of Wobanakik. It depicted the world as the Abenaki saw it and used only waterways and mountains as reference points. No political boundaries whatsoever. The map looked east from the Saint Lawrence River towards the Atlantic Ocean off of Maine and New Hampshire and showed the locations of villages. The perspective of the map made perfect sense considering their name means Dawn Land People. I guess I spent more time there than they expected and had been a little too quiet, for after hearing what I thought was someone preparing to open the door, I heard a car start and realized the door had just been locked by one of the card players. Despite my attempts at getting her attention, she drove off completely unaware that she had locked me in. While I liked the museum and found the exhibits very interesting, it really was not where I wanted to spend the night. Fortunately, there was a telephone in the small office and I had the phone number for the nearby motel in my wallet. After a phone call to an amused motel manager, a less amused tribal member came down to let the nutty guy from Massachusetts out.

The next morning, after scraping the first ice of the season off of my car’s windshield, I drove to Louie’s Landing on the Missisiquoi River and paddled down the last 4 miles to where the river empties into Lake Champlain’s Missisiquoi Bay. Sitting in my kayak, in the very shallow waters off of Shad Island, I looked across the bay to the shoreline of another country, Canada. In fact, the actual international border ran across the water about a half mile from where my boat sat bobbing. Returning to the river, I paddled upstream to a point about 2 miles past Louie’s Landing at the confluence of Dead Creek and the Missisquoi. There, up on a bluff, stood a totem pole and stone monument. The totem pole is definitely worth the short hike. There are 6 animals carved into the wood. From bottom to top are the turtle, otter, wolf, beaver, bear, and eagle. I will always remember the sight of it as I looked up from the water. My drive home was much better than my last, and I now knew that I would be able to continue paddling the trail, but in smaller sections and remembering to stay within my comfort zone.

June 07 found 2 friends and I paddling our composite kayaks down the 20 mile stretch of the trail that follows the Connecticut River, from Bloomfield, VT to Groveton, NH. One friend, Pete, did not receive a copy of the email message that mentioned the first mile being very rocky, and was paddling a brand new composite kayak. He grimaced and wailed at the sounds continuously emanating from beneath his hull. No amount of saying “they’re badges of honor, Pete” would assuage his pain. However, once we were past that section, we were treated to a night under the stars and the haunting sounds of a middle of the night freight train on the Saint Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad. The next day was one of the hottest of the summer, and found 3 over-55 year old guys taking a midday swim like boys while a farmer worked his fields in a tractor nearby. Yeah! It’s a boy’s life!

Reaching the confluence of the Ammonoosuc River, I tried to picture the surviving members of Roger’s Rangers who stopped here during a desperate retreat, following their attack on an Abenaki village at Saint Francis in Canada. Today, these guys are credited with being the model for the military’s ‘Special Forces’. After reading about their exploits at Saint Francis, I’m not sure they were as heroic as some may think.

The more I travel on the trail, the more I realize the significant role that confluences played in the trail’s history. These locations would have been logical spots for rendezvous’ to take place. Travelers could camp here while awaiting the arrival of others. Of course, scheduling such a rendezvous would have been different than using modern day watches and calendars. Native Americans might have used the cycles of the moon in place of our calendar. Like the 13 sections on a turtle’s shell, they divided the year into 13 moons, each with a name. Using such a system would not be very exact, but why would it need to be. A day or two’s difference would not impact their lives the way it would wreak havoc with our rigidly scheduled lives. I have sometimes heard of ‘Indian Time’ as being “we will get there when we get there” and I envy anyone that could live a life that way. Today’s people aspire to live like that only while on their vacations. Imagine living your whole life as one long camping trip!

July 07 found me hot on the trail of another fellow from Massachusetts. One hundred and fifty years earlier Henry David Thoreau and a friend from Concord, MA began a canoe journey with their Penobscot Indian guide, Joe Polis. They traveled the length of Moosehead Lake from Greenville to Northeast carry where they left the Kennebec River watershed and entered the West Branch of the Penobscot River, ultimately riding the East Branch all the way down to Bangor. I picked up their trail where it joined the NFCT at Rockwood, ME and paddled past their first night’s camp at Kineo. Because of how much the upper section of Moosehead can be affected by summer’s prevalent southwest winds, my goal was to make it up to the upper section of the lake and camp within striking distance of Northeast Carry. This goal was achieved after paddling approx. 14 miles to Seboomook Point where an excellent campground was fortunately vacant. This left me a little under 3 miles from the carry. The next morning I awoke to a building wind from the SW. Because the campground here had a spectacular view, was on a prominent point elevated 10 ‘ above the water and a breeze was almost a certainty, I decided to leave my tent and most gear here and plan to return before nightfall. I launched into the lake and rode the wind’s fetch till it washed me up on the beach at Northeast Carry. Sat on a log and switched footwear for the 1.9 mile portage to the Penobscot. This carry is one of the most continuously used portages in the Northeast. Walking along while my boat trailed on its little wheels I thought of how many feet had trod this trail carrying birchbark canoes. The gradient is not too severe and the highest point is reached at the halfway point where it then begins the gradual descent to the Penobscot. The last half mile is less straight and less evenly graded. A beaver dam flooded about 25 yards of the trail near the end of the portage. After slogging through the standing water, I got my first glimpse of the Penobscot River and Penobscot Farm perched on the opposite bank. The river was beautiful. Flatwater, uniform width, and both banks lined with pine spires. I had only paddled about a mile downriver when I encountered a bald eagle sitting in a tree. I began seeing small middens of freshwater clamshells every 1/2 mile or so; probably the residue from raccoons feasting during the nights. Arriving at the river’s confluence with Lobster Stream, I decided to paddle the 4 miles up to Lobster Lake, have lunch, and then retrace my steps back to Seboomook Point. Both the stream and lake are beautiful and I felt privileged to eat my peanut butter and jelly bagel on a sandy shore bearing numerous moose footprints. Paddling back to the Penobscot, I promised myself that I would return here asap to follow the West Branch further.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long before a 3 day mid-week period of time off from work, and a spectacular early October 07 weather forecast had me driving 300 paved road miles to Kokadjo, ME and then 21 miles of dirt roads to the Caribou Checkpoint operated by the North Maine Woods organization. They control $8/day access to the logging roads that penetrate the north Maine woods and collect $5/night fees for using State maintained campsites on the Penobscot River Corridor. Now, permits in hand, I drive another 13 dirt miles on what is called the Golden Road. Because of the very dry conditions, each oncoming logging truck totally envelops my car in a dust cloud leaving me with zero visibility and no choice but to pull over and wait for the dust to settle. Finally, 8 hours after leaving home, I arrive at the Lobster Trip boat launch. Everything looks much the way it had looked 2 months earlier, except there are black flies, in October? I remember looking at my headnet as I packed and saying “there won’t be any bugs at this time of year”. These must be the bugs that were supposed to hatch next spring? Sort of a bonus, I guess! Whatever, I am back on the NFCT and also following Thoreau’s route again. Soon after paddling beneath the Golden Road, I see the little island where Thoreau and company camped. The island is appropriately named Thoreau Island. Today, there is a State maintained campsite on the island. I push on and pass several other State maintained campsites before reaching Big Island where I negotiate my first quickwater stretch for a little over half a mile. As the river gets shallower and the channels narrower the current increases substantially. Going downstream as I am, it’s a lot of fun, even though I feel a few rocks run the length of my hull. The only aspect that isn’t fun, is that I know that I will have to find a way to get my boat back upriver in order to get back to my car. The upriver paddling I do on the Assabet River in West Concord doesn’t come close to the current I find here on the Penobscot. I try not to dwell on the issue and start thinking about finding a place to camp for the night. Another mile downriver I find the ‘Little Ragmuff ‘ campsite and it provides all I need. All of the campsites I pass are vacant except for the South end of Big Island where some canoeists are staying. My site is located at the junction of Little Ragmuff stream and the river. A little supper and cup of tea and I am sawing wood and scaring away raccoons until nature calls me out of my tent in the middle of the night. The sky is filled with bright stars right down to and behind the spire-like Larch trees. A blue heron is standing sentinel on a large rock jutting out of the river near the opposite bank. A few more hours of sleep until a splashing and diving group of mergansers working their way methodically upriver, wake me for the day. After breaking camp, I decide to continue downriver to Chesuncook Lake if possible, but know I should turn around at 11:00 am regardless, and start working my way back to Lobster Trip. The river made the decision earlier for me, due to lack of sufficient water depth at Rocky Rips. Knowing that I will have to work my way back through quickwater near Big Island, I see no point in adding too much additional work. My turn around point affords me my first glimpse of Katahdin though and that is enough to whet my appetite for the next section. Working back upriver through the quickwater section is a chore and requires lining my boat through some of the narrowest sections. I am very relieved to paddle up to the south end of Big Island for a well deserved lunch break and, while taking a rest, am treated to a bald eagle flying overhead. The afternoon is spent paddling steadily upriver until I reach Thoreau Island which is vacant and available. I don’t usually have a campfire but do so this evening to drive away the bumper crop of black flies. Oddly enough, there isn’t one black fly the next morning, when a State of Maine Ranger pulls her motorized canoe up to my campsite. She checks for appropriate permits and then is on her way downriver to her section limit at Little Ragmuff. She is able to get her motorized canoe through the quickwater sections near Big Island by knowing every shallow area and rock to avoid and by leaning the canoe to keep the motor’s prop close to the surface. She runs that route of river until the end of October. Not a bad job!

A few hours later, I am loading my car back at Lobster Trip and beginning the journey back to my job, chores, worries, etc. Driving down the very dry and dusty dirt road, I have to stop to let a couple of moose cross in front of me. They are going from the west side of the Golden Road to the east side. I remember the Ranger telling me that the moose hunting season for the east side is over and hunting on the west side will begin on Monday. Who says moose are dumb?

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