My ash paddle slices into the black water of Lake Umbagog, silently propelling our canoe forward. A great blue heron peers lazily at me as we drift by, part of an odd flotilla of seven caramel-colored boats glowing in the evening light. A bald eagle circles overhead, coldly assessing whether we’re worthy of becoming his lunch. He passes us over in favor of tastier fare: Suddenly spiraling, then dive-bombing, talons outstretched, he snatches a fish and soars off to feast in his nest high atop a nearby tree. Birds, fish, humans, earth, water, sky–out here, the boundaries between species break down. We are one in this watery ecosystem.
Iroquois, Algonquin, and Wabanaki peoples once plied these waters in canoes to hunt, fish, and travel. European pioneers struck out for the impenetrable interior by following the rivers and lakes of the Northern Forest. Slowly, New England’s dense north country was explored and settled. Hundreds of years later, these historic arteries of commerce and culture have been given a name: the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT).
In 2000, Kay Henry, co-founder of Mad River Canoe, established a nonprofit organization that champions this water trail. Now on a hot August evening, as she sits in the cloistered “Cave” room of The Balsams hotel in Dixville Notch, she orients 15 of us who will paddle the trail together for three days. She traces a long red line arcing 740 miles across New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire, and Maine. “This,” she declares proudly, “is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.” She then places her thumb in the middle. “This is the portion of the trail that we’ll be paddling.” Our itinerary has us heading down the Magalloway River as we traverse the length of the spectacular 20,500-acre Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge on the Maine border; tackling the rapids of the Androscoggin; meandering through the undeveloped Thirteen Mile Woods; and continuing on down the river as far as Pontook Dam.
Sitting around a smoky campfire at Cedar Stump Camp on Maine’s Rapid River after our first day of canoeing, Henry tells me that the water trail is much more than a paddler’s paradise: “This is a recreation resource, and a way for river communities to understand the resource that they have.” The water trail, says Henry, “is a catalyst for helping these communities.”
The next morning, we set out back across the vast expanse of Lake Umbagog to reach the mighty Androscoggin River. The open expanse of the lake abruptly narrows. We paddle alongside Floating Island Bog, a National Natural Landmark. Old timber booms line the shore, evidence of an era in the 1800s when northern waters were jammed with millions of logs floating downriver to the mills. The calm, lazy river soon quickens, until we arrive at the famous Errol rapids. Standing waves curl over the bow of our canoe and slap us in the chest. We brace to keep from tipping over and steer through the wave train; my partner and I finally relax as we near the end of the run.
Just then, the bow plunges into a frothy hole. In an instant, the canoe fills with swirling whitewater. Our hearts pound as our bathtub boat drifts listlessly to the bank. As we wring out our gear on shore, we feel a sodden humble bond with the log drivers and early explorers who once encountered these rapids. The power and beauty of these mighty arteries of the North Woods has not diminished one drop.
For more information: northernforestcanoetrail.org