Historical And Modern Canoe Trails

I spoke with a travel writer from the Boston Globe yesterday who was writing a story about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), a water route from Old Forge, New York in the western Adirondacks to Fort Kent, Maine on the St. John river. I’ve never traveled the sections in New York or Vermont, but have extensive experience on the sections in Maine and New Hampshire. We spoke about the trail, campsites, access, and other practical points for people planning to travel along the trail. I told him that the trail, and others like it, were the original highways through this country, and I mentioned that there are other trails that aren’t as well documented that traverse the entire northeast.

The detailed NFCT maps show the route from western New York to northern Maine. However, Duane Hanson, a friend of mine who lives on a remote pond in northwestern Maine that lies on the NFCT told me recently that he’s met several parties traveling through that were relying too closely on the map without talking to locals. He said that sections that are listed on the map have become impassable due to the Alders and weeds, necessitating a long carry around Whipple and Hall ponds. The point of this anecdote is that current, local knowledge always trumps what is printed on the map, and if you’re planning a trip you should actively seek it.

The Davistown Museum website has sketched maps of several trails (scroll to the bottom for the maps). There is also great descriptions of some of the routes. These include:

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail

The Eastern Maine Canoe Trail from Chiputneticook Lake on the New Brunswick border to the Penobscot river. This trail passes near the the headwaters of many downeast rivers, which can be accessed by carries.

The Maliseet Trail, which runs from the St. John river, through Chiputneticook Lake and the Mattawamkeag river to the Penobscot river. There is also another great site about the Maliseet Trail at: http://www.kubik.ca/

There are also several tidewater maps listed.

Anyone interested in researching more about these trails needs to get a copy of David S. Cook’s book “Indian Canoe Routes of Maine”. In it, Cook documents many of the routes and has an extensive bibliography on the original sources. I’ve got an old copy, but it’s scheduled to come back into print in August, 2007 under the title “Above the Gravel Bar: The Native Canoe Routes of Maine”. It’s a must if you’re interested in historical water trails.

The big picture of all this is that if you’ve ever paddled in Maine or New Hampshire, or probably anywhere else, you’ve probably paddled on a native canoe trail. An analogy would be to say if you’ve ever ridden in a car, you’ve traveled on the North American road system. from your street you can drive anywhere. Similarly, from your watershed you could probably paddle a canoe anywhere.

The most well known of the canoe travelers, the Voyageurs, traveled from the St. Lawrence river near Montreal into the Great Lakes, and from there across the Grand Portage into northwestern Canada. From the Northern Forest Canoe Trail there are many ways to turn north into the St. Lawrence, and from there you could retrace their steps. There are lots of people who have done just that. If you go, be sure to stop at the chapel of the Voyageurs, the Catholic church of St-Anne-de-Bellevue on the west end of the island of Montreal. According to Grace Lee Nute in “The Voyageur” they all stopped there for their last church service before heading into the wilderness.

One couple from New Hampshire paddled from their home in the southwest part of the state to Fort Yukon, Alaska, over three consecutive summers with their two kids. Their names are Carl, Margie, Tina and Randy Shepardson, and they wrote about their trip in the book “The Family Canoe Trip”.

Another neat book is “River Horse” by William Least Heat-Moon. He started in New York harbor, traveled up the Hudson River, across the Erie Canal, into and down the Ohio River, down the Mississippi, and up the Missouri river. Then he portaged over the mountains following the trail of Lewis and Clark and headed down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean.

In Jerry Stelmok’s book “Building The Maine Guide Canoe” there is a quote by Myron Smart on page 7 that sums up the possibilities of travel with the canoe:

Stop and think. You take that canoe and there’s no place in the State of Maine you can’t go with a pole, a paddle and of course on a big lake you can put a motor on it if you want to. You get a stream that’s too shallow to paddle and you got to pole. We used to pole day in and day out. We used to put in on Cross Carry Brook, go up head of the lake on the steamer. Pole all day and into the second day and go to Bog Dam, carry across, snub down the branch. You couldn’t do that with anything but a canoe, not travel like that. Fellow down here at the sports shop, he’s always trying to sell me a boat, one of them big motors to take on the lake. ‘I got just what you want, here,’ he says. I says to him, ‘You ain’t got anything that I want. I can go anywhere that I want to go, and if I got that boat I’d have to yard it somewhere in a lake and I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere. If I want to go to Fort Kent, I can go with this canoe.

I’ve never heard anyone put it better than that.


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