Just a Bit From the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
Even the slightest wave from any hint of wind seemed to splash water in the canoe. Ned and I knew the hazards of piling all of our stuff and our large bodies into a craft better sized for two pre-pubescent boys (which aptly describes our maturity levels but not our physical stature), but we figured, “Hey, the trip is mostly flat water, right?”
We were on our last day of a four day trip on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail trying to keep up with our nearly twice our age friend as he began his 1500 mile paddling odyssey from the Adirondacks of New York to the northern-most point of Maine. From there he will switch from a canoe to a kayak, and start paddling out to the Atlantic Ocean on the St. John River and down the entire coast of Maine. Just writing that makes me tired, but John is still out there paddling as I sit in a warm coffee shop reflecting on the short portion of our trip.
Paddling north on the Saranac River, we heard the water moving faster through the river channel and as we rounded the bend we saw the first set of rapids. A quick move around a downed tree on the right and we were fully into it.
“Rock straight ahead,” Ned warned.
“Yep, I see it. Give me a draw on the right,” I instructed.
While Ned tried directing the bow, I made a big draw stroke in the stern but it was too late. We hit the rock, flipped the boat and were instantly in the cold spring melt-off of the river. Too concerned with keeping all of our gear together, the temperature of the water didn’t even register.
Back in Maine, and before we left, Ned and I had been packing, repacking, calling outfitters, borrowing gear and finally loading up the car for the seven-hour drive from Portland, Maine to Long Lake, NY. We had made hasty plans to meet up with our friend, John, on his second day into a 75 day canoe and kayak trip dubbed the “PaddleQuest1500.” At 60, John is a force to be reckoned with. He’s in top notch shape and his positivity is contagious. This trip had been a dream of his for a long time, and of course, Ned and I hatched ours over a few beers one night in the weeks leading up to John’s departure. We borrowed a boat, PFD’s, paddles, dry bags, paddling jackets and pants, and even next-to-skin layers made for paddling. We obviously needed all the help we could get to pull off this trip. Thankfully our friends at Good To-Go, provisioned us with tasty meals to stoke our furnaces each night as we recounted each day on the water and zipped up our sleeping bags to stay warm in the 20 degree temps we saw each night in the Adirondacks. During this time last year, the lakes were still covered in ice and snow, but due to the mild winter, ice out came early this year and we saw ourselves paddling in 60 degree temps during the day, but anytime we dipped our hands in the water we were quickly reminded of the solid state these lakes were in just a few short weeks ago.
We met up with John in the small hamlet of Long Lake, enjoyed a delicious meal at the local inn, and crashed out early to get a jump start on our first day of paddling. We awoke to calm waters and were excited to get the boats wet. Paddling north up the 10-mile lake was wonderful. It was as if we were traveling on a mirror the water was so calm. Long Lake drained into the Raquette River and after a few more miles of paddling we came to our first portage trail. With heavy packs on our backs we worked our way over a rugged and muddy mile to put back in on flat water. As the afternoon waned, we found ourselves at the three-wall shelter that would be our camp for the night. Water treated, stove cranking, hot food, bellies full. A bit of rain overnight kept things brisk and damp in the morning as we packed up and put back on the slow-moving river. We portaged the boats again and stood on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake facing a stiff headwind and whitecaps on the water. We all took a moment to be thankful we didn’t have conditions like this the previous day! After a quick lunch we launched the boats and didn’t stop paddling for what felt like hours, but it was realistically only 30 minutes or so. We’re strong like that. More portages, more paddling, a trip through the upper locks and we called it a day by the time we arrived to an island campsite on Lower Saranac. After Ned made a few casts that came up empty on the fly rod, John and I started up the stove to boil water for our delicious dinners of Thai Curry, Classic Marinara with Penne and Smoked Three Bean Chili. Now you might be thinking, “These guys brought some serious fine dining cuisine with them!” and you wouldn’t be wrong, but preparing this dinner doesn’t take a full backcountry kitchen. In fact, you just add boiling water and wait a bit while you share stories of the day, the month, the year—whatever! Of course eating food out of a bag is convenient, but rarely tasty. However, the folks at Good To-Go have done things right. All the ingredients are real and the dehydrated food comes back to life so much better than freeze-dried. Disclaimer time. I shoot photos for the company, but I promise my opinion is not biased. Even before I started working for David and Jen I was buying their food and relishing every bite. Seriously.
Sleep came quickly and morning came even quicker. We paddled through another set of locks onto Oseetah Lake and headed north to the town of Saranac Lake. We met up with the folks at St Regis Canoe Outfitters who helped shuttle our car and provided us tons of good info on the remains route for the next two days. Ned and I also arranged for a set of wheels to be dropped off at the beginning of the 5-mile road portage we had coming up the next day (and I tell you what, they made that walk a breeze!). We walked around town, had some lunch and a pint, and put back on the river for the afternoon. By the time we made it to Franklin Falls Pond, it was getting close to dusk and we were ready for more food and bed.
A beautifully calm sunrise got us up and ready for the day. By the time we’d lay our heads down that night, we’d have a full-value day. We made quick work of Franklin Falls Pond, portaged around the dam, paddled across Union Falls Pond, portaged around that dam, and put back on the Saranac River. Lots of dams in the Adirondacks. Within two miles, the river grew louder, we hit the rock, and you know the rest.
Of course John was able to pull out into an eddy and help rescue Ned and me from our predicament. Unfortunately, in doing so he scraped the bottom of his kevlar boat to the point a serious fiberglass repair was in order. We still had a few more rapids to paddle before taking out for the five-mile portage, and after searching around for a bit and a bit of bushwhacking, we found the faint trail that took us out to the road. Ned and I found the stashed wheels (Thank you Mike Lynch!) and we made our way down the road. We discussed options for repairing John’s boat and determined the best course of action, with rain in the forecast that night, would be to hitchhike to my car, come back and grab our stuff and head into town for a night in a hotel where the fiberglass patch could cure overnight and John wouldn’t have to skip a beat for gashing his boat while trying to help Ned and I. After five miles of walking, I finally caught a ride and made it back to the car thirty minutes away. As soon as I started driving back to the guys, I saw Ned’s arm wildly waving out of an oncoming truck. We both pulled over and made sense of the situation. Ned had thought I wouldn’t be able to hitch all the way to my car and he had scored a ride to come help if it was needed. We got lucky catching each other, and the family driving the truck Ned was in invited us all back to their home for a superb meal of prime rib, grilled potatoes and veggies, and of course a couple pints. It was late by the time we loaded up John’s boat on my car and we made it into the closest town with a hotel by nightfall. John knew the place from previous travels, but what he failed to mention was that there was an indoor water park attached to the hotel! We were as kiddy as schoolboys and with fifteen minutes to spare, we downed board shorts and received awkward looks from the presumably fifteen year old life guard on duty as we giggled our way down multiple waterslides until they kicked us out. Next stop was the brewery, again attached to the hotel, and after a few more pints we went to work patching John’s canoe and hit the hay soon after.What a wild day. When morning arrived, we ran some errands in town (after Ned and I hit up the water park again), and drove back to where John could put back on the water without missing a beat. We said our goodbyes and watched as our friend continued his amazing journey by himself.
It was such a wonderful time on the water with John, and we were so happy to share the tiniest bit of his experience with him. Knowing he’s still out there going strong makes me excited about the prospect of meeting up with him again soon! Much thanks to everyone who helped us get out there: Good To-Go, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Wenonah Canoe and DeLorme inReach!
story and photography courtesy of: Brian Threlkeld and BST Photography