Peter Macfarlane paddled into a headwind on four-foot waves on Lake Champlain. He saw ospreys, eagles and canoe kingfishers on the Missisquoi River. And he ate pizza in Swanton and dined at the Montgomery Center Inn after a day of boating.
These experiences — rigorous paddling, admiring serene landscapes, dining in restaurants — all took place during Macfarlane’s voyage on the North Forest Canoe Trail. The 740-mile waterway stretches from Old Forge, NY, in the Adirondacks to the Saint John River in Fort Kent, Maine, and includes 145.5 miles in Vermont. Macfarlane, a fiddler and canoe maker who lives in Addison, hiked the full trail twice.
“For a trip of this length, if I had to describe it in one word, I’d say it’s immersive,” the 59-year-old said. “The usual daily life fades into the background a lot. You become totally immersed in the process of moving through the natural environment.”
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is run by a Waitsfield-based nonprofit, and the waterway crosses four states and Quebec. The trail was completed in 2006, half a dozen years after organizers began work on it, said general manager Karrie Thomas.
The project was led by Kay Henry, former co-owner of Mad River Canoe, and Rob Center, who was the company’s chief marketing officer. Both were inspired by Native Trails, a defunct Maine-based group working to research and map pre-industrial travel routes, Thomas said. For much of its length, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail follows waterways that were historically used by Native American travelers. When mapping the trail, organizers worked with people from the local communities it passes through, Thomas noted.
Paddlers following the route will discover a range of paddling experiences, including calm rivers, whitewater, glacial lakes and portages. They will float along farmlands, forests, wetlands and small towns. It’s unclear how many people complete the trip each year, Thomas said, because not everyone reports their trip. Ten were known to have paddled the full 740 miles last year, she said. The trip can last from three weeks to two months.
“It depends on your boat, the water and how many days you want to stop and smell the flowers,” Thomas said, adding that she is “blown away and impressed” by the people paddling the entire distance. .
“I tend to go out with the intention of having fun,” she said.
The not-for-profit organization performs a variety of functions in its stewardship and management of the waterway. His job includes establishing and supervising campsites along the trail, which are placed every five to 10 miles. The group also builds and maintains water access points and builds relationships with landowners whose property is along the trail. The use of this private land builds on the region’s tradition of a “wonderful outdoor culture,” Thomas said.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to use Vermont’s waterways because so much of it is private,” she said. “The generosity of these private owners is what allows us to do this.”
In addition to maintaining the trail infrastructure, the nonprofit organizes canoe-related events and provides trip plans, navigation tools and maps. He recently introduced a GPS-enabled app, working with an adventure guide company FarOut, which “includes over 1,400 waypoints, site photos, and several base maps,” according to the Northern Forest Canoe Trail website. The app marks campgrounds, portages, natural attractions and more.
In Vermont, the trail goes from Lake Champlain in the west to the Connecticut River at the New Hampshire border. State waterways are joined by a 28.5 mile plunge into Quebec. “The trail has a huge variety of water types in Vermont,” Thomas said — including Lakes Champlain and Memphremagog, a stretch of whitewater on the Missisquoi River near Swanton, and the meandering Clyde River, which crosses the swamps of the Northeast Kingdom.
Thomas’ family enjoyed a trip that combines canoeing on the Missisquoi River and biking on the river Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, which flows along the water’s edge. The excursion involves first locking your bike along the rail trail, then canoeing to that location and returning to your starting point. Missisquoi Paddle-Pedal, an annual event organized by the Cano Trail Association, follows a similar course; this summer, it will take place on July 16.
Macfarlane, Addison’s canoe maker, paddled the trail both ways: steering his cedar boat from the Adirondacks in Maine along the conventional route and “raising the stakes” on a more rigorous journey from east to west. In this direction, canoeists face substantially more upstream paddling.
Both times Macfarlane traveled alone and packed light so he could carry his canoe and gear in one go over the portages. He slept in a hammock, ate lots of rice and beans, and canoed long distances every day.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Macfarlane said, “if that’s what lights your candle.”
hit the track
Karrie Thomas, Executive Director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, provided the following three route recommendations.
Missisquoi National Wildlife Reserve: A beautiful 10 mile loop can be done from Louie’s Landing via the Missisquoi River, Lake Champlain and Dead Creek. This flatwater route passes the heron colony on Shad Island and allows people to swim in the great waters of Lake Champlain without spending too much time in the larger lake. If you get to open water and the wind is strong, you can turn around and backtrack to avoid getting tangled up in potentially dangerous conditions. This section of the river holds water all summer and can be paddled even when other places are too low.
Paddle and Pedal Missisquoi: The Missisquoi River parallels the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail from Richford to Sheldon Springs. This 27-mile stretch can be broken down into a number of day trips that all have easy bike commuting, or a few overnight options. For an easy beginner overnight stay, start in Richford and camp at Northern Forest Canoe Trail’s Doe Campground, about five miles down the river. After a leisurely morning, exit a mile downstream at the Route 118 bridge in East Berkshire. If you want to extend this, start about five miles upstream from Richford at Stevens Mills and finish 10 miles downstream at Lawyers Landing above the Enosburg Falls Dam.
Nulhegan Swamp: The Nulhegan River of the North East Kingdom flows through the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and the designated Audubons Nulhegan Basin Important Bird Area. Start at the exit of Nulhegan Pond, just east of Island Pond, and end at Wenlock Crossing. This eight-mile stretch winds through boreal forest, bogs and marshes. An active population of beavers means this section holds water year-round, but you’ll definitely come across evidence of their dedication, which will require getting out and knocking down dams. In the spring, this is a relatively low effort; later in the season, it can be daunting. Needless to say, the wildlife viewing and solitude is magical. When you’re done, remember to cool off at the Essex House and Tavern in the island pond!