Part Two: A canoe marathon, the hard way
This is Part Two of a story that first appeared in Vermont Sports magazine. Part One appeared in our Monday, July 22, edition.
ADDISON — In 2013 Addison boatbuilder Peter Macfarlane celebrated his 50th birthday in a way probably only a veteran of many a kayak and canoe marathon race in his native England would dream of.
Late that spring Macfarlane became one of only slightly more than 100 people to through-paddle the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from its western end in Old Forge, N.Y., to Fort Kent, Maine. That’s a 740-mile journey through some of the most scenic and remote terrain in the Northeast — with a brief detour into Quebec.
He did so over 28 days in a canoe of his own design, a 14-pound touring boat that weighs just 35 pounds. With his supplies, a tiny woodstove, a hammock and a tarp, Macfarlane portaged 90 pounds.
Before the spring of 2018, no one had completed the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) going from east to west — and with good reason. Doing so requires traveling upstream on nine of its 13 major rivers, including the Allagash, Raquette and Saranac, plus shorter rivers, such as the Nulhegan in northeastern Vermont. It also means finding a way to battle upstream or portage around the biggest rapids of the trip.
Macfarlane determined he would be the first.
“For me, the uncertainty in taking on a paddling trip of the scale and length of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail lies in the physical challenge, certainly, but also in the psychological challenge,” said Macfarlane, who owes his wiry frame to a love of Scottish folk dancing as well as paddling,
His reason for doing so was simple: Macfarlane wanted to replicate the sense of satisfaction he’d gotten from completing his first trip. But this second challenge required testing his body and his boat in a new way.
Macfarlane had just 28 days to spare from his work as a boatbuilder and fiddle teacher. And he was determined to paddle as much of the trail as he did on his first trip, averaging 26 miles of paddling per day for 28 days, but this time often entirely upstream.
For Macfarlane, doing so was a test of his willpower, paddling technique, canoe design and physical fitness. His primary training regimen? “Splitting and stacking enough wood to fill our empty woodshed,” he said.
He launched his canoe in Fort Kent on May 14, hoping to reach Old Forge by mid-June. To paddle upstream, Macfarlane employed three traditional canoeing techniques: eddy hopping, poling and wading.
Where the river was deep enough for a paddle stroke, he zigzagged his way up rapids by sprinting at intervals through the turbulence at the center of the river to the closest upstream eddy. These slackwater respites are often found behind the obstacles that create river rapids, such as large boulders and logs. They pull a boat in, keeping it from being pushed back downstream. Macfarlane created a system of sling-shotting himself up cascades, sprinting from eddy to eddy until he was forced by shallow water to pole or wade forward.
While navigating Chase Rapids on the Allagash, he battled the current as paddlers headed downstream calling out that he was headed the wrong way.
“Initially, I was able to eddy-hop. Sometimes, it was a thing of beauty,” he recalled. “Accelerating smoothly from the eddy, nosing into the current and maintaining momentum to carry me to the next eddy.”
He’d make four or five moves, rest and scout his next move. In total, he paddled 3.5-miles up the Class II rapid.
Where he couldn’t get his blade fully submerged in shallow water for optimal propulsion, he poled, kneeling in his boat and using a pair of old ski poles to push his canoe up the rapids, double-poling in the riverbed like a Nordic skier.
Where the current was too strong to pole or paddle, Macfarlane got out of the boat and waded upstream, pulling the canoe with one hand and using a ski pole as a walking stick in the other.
This tactic proved especially useful on the lower stretch of the Nulhegan River in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where he navigated upstream between rocks and small waterfalls to emerge at a stretch of flatwater that he paddled to Nulhegan Pond, a quiet stretch in the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Unlike his last visit to this site, one of many days in which he encountered heavy rain, this day was filled with radiant sunshine as well as his own satisfaction.
“Negotiating this stretch of river, which I’d carried around the first time, with its cascades and granite boulders and pristine water, was physically demanding. I had a sense of accomplishment at the top of that rapid that I’d never experienced traveling downstream with my boat,” he said.
After many stretches such as that, Macfarlane finally found himself on his last day of the trail, lounging in the sunshine on the town beach at Fourth Lake in New York’s Fulton Chain, 11.5-miles from the trail’s western terminus. There, he felt more accomplishment, but also a little ambivalence, about the journey.
He weighed the possibility that someone else had completed the trail in this direction in secret, and whether, either way, the whole journey had been worth his while.
In the end, his answer was yes, for the sense of physical achievement it gave him. He had persevered through persistent upstream currents and unrelenting headwinds to reach his destination.
It also expanded his sense of possibility about where his canoes could go — Macfarlane had learned that they, too, were hardy. Like himself, his Little Canoe that Could emerged unscathed, if in need of a second coat of varnish after hundreds of miles of upstream travel through rapids, swamps and bushwhacked portages.
When he arrived at Alger Island, just before the passage to Third Lake in the Adirondacks, his wife Viveka Fox met him, sterning his first canoe, Lutra, along with two friends and a picnic basket complete with a white tablecloth, ready to paddle with him into Old Forge after a glorious lunch on the island.
THERE’S ALWAYS ANOTHER RIVER
A year out from his journey, Peter Macfarlane is still dreaming about adventurous canoe routes. His new fascination is with river trips that start and end at Lake Champlain and the Otter Creek, which lies just a few miles from his home in Addison.
“Imagine paddling down the Richelieu, to the St. Lawrence, the St. Francis and on to Lake Memphremagog and back to Lake Champlain,” he says.
He’d gladly do the NFCT again, he admits. Since 2013, he’s volunteered as an NFCT steward, helping to maintain campsites and collect information about trail use for the nonprofit that operates it and goes by the same name, Northern Forest Canoe Trail. He cares for the roughly 10-mile section from the southern tip of North Hero to the mouth of the Missisquoi.
“Having got so much out of the trail on my first trip, I thought it would be good to put something back into it, so I adopted the nearest bit to home and have cared for it since,” he said.
Macfarlane said he appreciates the trail’s variety as well as its challenges.
“The Northern Forest Canoe Trail offers the whole gamut of paddling, except for saltwater,” he reflected. “I’m not aware of another trail like it. You’ve got highly populated lakes like the Fulton Chain in the Adirondacks, near Old Forge. You’ve got rivers that flow through inhabited areas, like the Saranac, where you’re paddling past houses along the banks. Then you’ve got agricultural environments along the Missisquoi and Connecticut Rivers, where cows come to graze by your campsite and there are fields right up to the riverbank.”
Those industrial and human-shaped zones are interspersed with some of the wildest waters of the Northeast.
“You have, too, the small streams in the wilds of Maine and big magnificent rivers like the West Branch of the Penobscot, the St. John. You have managed wilderness with designated campsites, and then you find these wild places in Maine that are not managed as such but are effectively more wild, more remote and more rugged. You can battle four-foot waves on the sixth largest lake in the country (Lake Champlain) and Class II rapids on the Allagash,” said Macfarlane.
However, he doesn’t plan to attempt the trip upstream a second time.
“Frankly, it was a bit of a stunt,” he said with a laugh. “It really tested me.”
But he added, “Aside from the cursing at algal rocks — and there were quite a lot of both, cursing and slippery rocks — I really enjoyed the upstream travel and my surroundings.”
Still, to the intrepid paddler looking to repeat that east-west trip, Macfarlane offers this: “Good luck.”