The Northeast's newest wilderness trail is also its oldest. But that's not the only unusual thing about it. Instead of leading to craggy Green Mountain summits, it meanders almost haphazardly through farmlands, under bridges and around dams. Rapids, rather than ridgelines, take your breath away. And hiking shoes are about as useful here as high heels -- the sinewy, 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail demands a vessel, a paddle and a belief in time travel.
The route is a network of rivers, streams and lakes stretching from Old Forge, New York, to Fort Kent, Maine, that passes through two countries, four states and 45 towns. First envisioned three decades ago as a retracing of Native American travel routes, the NFCT has finally taken shape, thanks to the work of hundreds of outdoor experts who have logged the massive waterway's every curve, campsite and contour.
On Saturday, June 3 -- National Trails Day -- the NFCT officially opens to the public with events at various locations along the route. In Newport, a ribbon-cutting calls attention to the paddling and heritage trail that offers everything from family day trips to extensive expeditions, and from cushy B&B stays to portages and riverbank-roughing it. The last two installments of the 13-map series -- one for Vermont's Missisquoi River and Valley, the other for Maine's Jackman region -- are hot off the press.
The idea of navigating the region via water is hardly unprecedented. "The native view of the geography of New England is an interlinked series of river roads," says Fred Wiseman of Swanton, an Abenaki archaeologist. "People didn't really think of overland, or as-the-crow-flies mileage; they thought portages, rapids, how fast were the rivers going; they thought of distances as days in canoe travel."
In the late 1970s, three avid paddlers from Maine and Maryland proposed preserving pre-colonial travel routes through a group called Native Trails. The organization researched canoe routes in upstate New York and New England. But none of them connected the dots to create a navigable trail.
Enter Kay Henry, former owner of Mad River Canoe, and her life partner, Rob Center. In 2000, after the Waitsfield company went downstream to a new owner, Henry and Center formed Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Inc. Other U.S. water trails -- on the Maine coast, in the Florida Keys and in Washington State's San Juan Islands -- were developed by single entities. Henry and Center conceived the NFCT as something different: a grassroots, community-based effort built from the ground up.
They spent the next two years reaching out to local and regional community and resource-development leaders who might be able to oversee the 13 sections of the trail, which are around 40 to 50 miles long and dotted with campsites every 10 to 12 miles. "The attempt was to engage experts in natural history and cultural heritage, and paddlers to contribute to a section map," says Center. "That became the nucleus of our work in a section."
Center, Henry and other NFCT organizers also consulted Native American representatives, including Wiseman. He says the trail honors the spirit of pre-colonial travel. "When the Indians wrote out papers, direction wasn't important; it was just lakes and rivers," Wiseman says. "If the Abenakis were going to Moosehead Lake in Maine, for example, they'd basically follow what the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is today."
The NFCT's 13 water- and tear-resistant maps are now available at the organization's website and in outdoor shops and bookstores. Each is a comprehensive guide not only to the oxbows, bridges, waterfalls and dams on the riverine route but also to adjacent rail and hiking trails, museums, lighthouses, towns and wildlife refuges. In addition, the legend points to international checkpoints; another unique feature of the NFCT is the way it wiggles into Canada.
"The border crossing is fun," says Kate Williams, the NFCT's executive director. "You just pull your boat over and walk up to the customs house."
Other parts can be a lot less jolly, especially for the inexperienced paddler. The Vermont and Quebec portion -- which makes up 174 miles, or 23 percent, of the trail -- features the often-hairy crossing of Lake Champlain, plus portages and unpredictable rivers. "The Missisquoi can be a fine, big, glassy snake, but it can also have a lot of water flowing," says Williams. "Being on the water can be challenging; you need to know a lot of skills, how to read water -- and everyone needs a lifejacket."
The NFCT has been compared to the Appalachian Trail, the 2175-mile hiking route from Georgia to Maine. But while thousands have been inspired to complete the entire AT in one summer, the NFCT may not have the same allure, partly because of the physical challenge. Before the map project, plenty of paddlers knew about the NFCT, but only one -- a Maine Outward Bound instructor named Donnie Mullen -- is known to have "through-paddled" the entire trail, in 2000. It took him 55 days. This summer, three fellow Mainers are also attempting a through-paddle. "Portages are the most difficult part of the trail so far," one of them, Nicole Grohoski, writes in an online journal. "I mostly think about how different things would have been for the Native Americans before there were so many dams. Damn dams."
NFCT organizers expect most of the trail's users will be day-trippers. "There are sections for whitewater junkies, but also sections where you can go stay at an inn and do easy paddles," notes Williams. She's explored kid-friendly portions of the trail with her two young children, who named their canoe the Green Fox after discovering a slew of fox dens along the Missisquoi. "I'm such a fan of canoeing with kids because they really can do more," Williams says. "They're not slogging along with a heavy pack."
With the maps published, Center and Henry's next task is spreading the word to a wider audience. "There are people from Montreal, and 70 million people within a day's drive south of the border who can come up to enjoy these water playgrounds," says Center. "We just have to make it easy for them."
The maps mostly accomplish that task -- the tougher job ahead, say Henry and Williams, is helping communities capitalize on the paddlers' visits. "It's a lot more than just a recreational resource," says Henry. "It's an economic development stimulant, it's an opportunity to give people a sense of place. It's become something that can grow to benefit both the traveler coming into the area and the people who live here."
The NFCT is working with the University of Vermont to examine the potential economic impact of the trail. "Our hope is to create a baseline sense of use along the trail and how that might translate into dollars," says Williams.
On Saturday, celebrations take place in Newport, as well as Saranac Lake, New York; Groveton, New Hampshire; and Greenville, Maine. Newport's festivities include a ceremonial mixing of waters to symbolize the multi-state nature of the trail, which aims not only to lead paddlers through the wilderness, but through the ages.
"The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a time-capsule experience passing through farmlands and wilds and the hearts of small towns," says Center. "These waters were the main streets of these communities at one time."