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Fall Travel

Paddling Back in Time

A 740-mile canoe trip through the prettiest reaches of northern New England reveals more than the natural beauty of the region's woods and waterways.

Author Paul H. Heintz paddles north across Rquette Lake in New York's Adirondak Park.
Author Paul H. Heintz paddles north across Rquette Lake in New York's Adirondak Park. (Photograph from Paul H. Heintz)
By Paul H. Heintz
September 14, 2008
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Certainly there are faster vessels in which to travel 740 miles than a 16-foot plastic canoe. There are definitely drier places to spend 52 nights than in a tent on the side of a river. And there have to be more relaxing ways to spend a summer than paddling, upriver, through rapids, into fierce headwinds. But there is no better way to witness the incomparably beautiful and beautifully complicated northern frontier of this country than on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, one of the last reminders of the way we once traveled, before highways and SUVs, highspeed ferries and supersonic jets.

From Old Forge, New York, to Fort Kent, Maine, the route is a waterborne Appalachian Trail that follows 78 rivers and lakes through five states and provinces. It winds through wild sections of the north woods but returns always to the 45 communities through which it flows.

"It's a great way to see the area, and it's an adventure, because it isn't just paddling down a flat river. There's challenges in it," Ron Canter, one of the trail's founders, warns me before I quit my job, pack my canoe, and jump on the trail. "You've got to use every trick in the book that you know."

There is no question that the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is an adventure, as Jonathan, a friend who joined me for the trip, and I discover time and again - usually the hard way. Whether battling black flies as thick as night or hauling our canoe on wheels across a mountain, we find ourselves always at the mercy of the natural world. Never is that more the case than in the frothy rapids of New York's Saranac River, where our overconfidence and chronic imbalance collide with a sneaky rock and toss us without apology into the surf.

Clinging to a rock with one hand and to our overturned canoe with the other, I watch helplessly as Jonathan and half of our gear tumble down the rapids. Water is a powerful force, I realize, and though I had thought I could harness it for my own ends, it is clear I am just along for the ride.

WHEN CANTER, MIKE KREPNER, AND RANDY Mardres dreamed up the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in the early 1990s, they were interested in more than just a wilderness adventure. "We were all really fascinated by the old ways people got around when geography was important - before dynamite and bulldozers," says Krepner, who befriended the others in the 1970s when the three were students at the University of Maryland.

Long after they graduated, Canter, Krepner, and Mardres spent their vacations hiking and canoeing together, and their conversations inevitably returned to the seasonal migrations of eastern Native Americans, the trade routes of French trappers, and the expeditions of the British and American navies. After years of idle conversation, they decided to act. They founded a nonprofit called Native Trails, which would devote itself to popularizing ancient travel routes in places ranging from Belize to eastern Maine.

"We really wanted to bring home the message that within a mile or two of our doors we have remnants of these trails in place, and we're losing them in this generation because of our capacity to mold the land with motorized equipment, to reshape the land around us," Mardres says.

Native Trails' work coincided with a growing awareness in the early 1990s of the perils facing the Northern Forest, a 30 million-acre ecosystem spreading from New York's Tug Hill plateau to the north woods of Maine. As landowners and conservationists clashed over the future of the region, the Native Trails trio saw that it could be traversed by water from end to end. After studying reams of maps and deciphering crumbling travelogues, they settled on a route, and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail was born.

It is at once a revolutionary and an entirely obvious concept. Jonathan and I take pride in becoming only the 20th and 21st paddlers to complete the trail - and yet, if it is to have any meaning at all, we were just the latest in a 10,000-year history of humans taking the most geographically logical route from one part of the forest to another.

"This trail is nothing new to our people," Chief April Merrill reminds me when we reach Swan- ton, Vermont, one of those towns that has always been at the crossroads of travel. Merrill is the leader of the St. Francis-Sokoki Abenaki, a Native American band that first settled on the banks of the Missisquoi River 10 centuries ago in a village that would someday become Swanton. "That was our way of life. That was our way of trading."

WHEN WE MEET THEM ON PENSIONER Pond in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, Kay Henry and Rob Center tell us they have just encountered a local entrepreneur renting and transporting canoes along the Clyde River. For these champions of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, it is vindication - a small sign that their work has begun to bear fruit.

We spend the day paddling the snaking, boggy wetlands of the Clyde alongside Henry and Center, who took over the nonprofit Native Trails in 1999. After years of trying to get the trail off the ground while juggling full-time jobs and families, the Native Trails trio had passed it along to Henry and Center, who had recently sold the Waitsfield, Vermont-based Mad River Canoe Company and were looking for a new project.

If Canter, Krepner, and Mardres were dreamers, Henry and Center are doers. They quickly put their business and political skills to work, raising large sums of money through corporate donations and federal grants and reaching out to community groups throughout the Northern Forest.

Henry and Center see the trail as an educational venture and an exercise in economic development and community building. They hope it will draw not just unemployed through-paddlers like us but folks with a little less time and a little more money, who might spend a few days paddling and a few dollars at local businesses.

As we eat lunch on the side of the Clyde, the two speak proudly of their efforts to encourage neighbors who often squabbled over the many controversies of the Northern Forest to collaborate on trail maps and stewardship.

"We were able to facilitate and bring to the table all these groups that often were at odds with one another," Center says, "and they saw exactly what we were trying to do was work with all parties involved."

The two found that the trail itself - by virtue of the way it meandered among communities, watersheds, and states - had a way of breaking down artificial boundaries and making clear the commonalities among towns as far from each other as Old Forge, New York, and Fort Kent, Maine.

"It is a connecting physical thread, so people got it," Henry says, "where they don't always get this whole concept of the Northern Forest."

ON A COOL EVENING IN JUNE, SANDY GAGNON gazes across a field of tall grass and wildflowers. "The river is changing," she says as she looks across a patch of land her family has owned for four generations - a prime piece of real estate at the confluence of the Connecticut Half a year after the last paper mill in Groveton, New Hampshire, shut its doors, many townspeople are hoping the rivers will give again. and Upper Ammonoosuc rivers.

These waters have served as the lifeblood of the northern New Hampshire town of Groveton for two and a half centuries. The town came of age during the great log drives of the 19th century, when floating white pine and spruce trees covered the surface of the Connecticut, and mills and hotels sprouted on the banks of the Ammonoosuc.

Now, half a year after Groveton's last paper mill shut its doors, many townspeople are hoping the rivers will give again.

"The bottom dropped out and so did my stomach," Gagnon says, recalling the October afternoon last year when she and her husband, Mike, learned that they and 301 others would lose their jobs when the Wausau Paper Corp. shuttered its Groveton plant on New Year's Eve.

"There were 15 couples involved of the 300 of us," she says. "It makes it hard when there are two paychecks involved."

Wausau's announcement was a tough blow to a town that just two years before had lost another hundred jobs with the closing of its other major business, Groveton Paper Board. For years, the community had staved off the collapse of its manufacturing base as it watched the paper industry crumble around it. Now Groveton would become just the latest casualty in the continuing economic transformation of the Northern Forest.

When the smokestacks stopped billowing, the reverberations were predictable: Local businesses closed or shed workers, houses went on the market, and a populace accustomed to working 12-hour shifts found itself without anything to do.

But something else happened, too - something few expected. Residents began to look beyond the shuttered mills and saw in the distance, among the woods of the Nash Stream Forest to the northeast, the beautiful twin Percy Peaks. To the south they saw Cape Horn, a geologically unique and biologically bountiful mountain that is home to a dozen rare plant species. And to the west they saw the confluence of the Connecticut and Ammonoosuc rivers, once the very reason for the town's existence. In short, they realized they were sitting on a gold mine of natural resources, chief among them the rivers.

"For years, no one ever really took the time to use the rivers," says Charlotte Shel- try, a Groveton resident whose father and grandfather once worked the log drives on the Ammonoosuc.

Brian Newton, a fourth-generation mill worker who lost his job last year, remembers when the waterways were so polluted they were unfit for recreation. "You could tell what color paper they were making," he says, "by the color of the water."

Now that the rivers are clean once again, Sheltry and others are hoping they will become the centerpiece of a recreational renaissance in town. They have watched a small but increasing number of through-paddlers like us pass through Groveton, and last summer they hosted the first annual Paddlefest, which drew scores of canoeists and kayakers from far and wide. More important, the event demonstrated to townspeople the potential of the resources flowing through their backyard.

"You would not believe how many people got on the river that day who had no idea what - and they had lived on it all their life - what it looked like. They could not believe they were sitting on something so beautiful," says Barry Normandeau, a local business owner. "Everybody who got out on the water that day who had never been down there said, `I can't believe I've lived here 45 years. Wow, this is incredible.'"

On their piece of land at the confluence of the rivers, Sandy and Mike Gagnon hope to rebuild a Colonial fortress that once stood watch over the Connecticut and Ammonoosuc - a building that, long ago, led to the town's settlement and which they hope can once again lead to a new future. Next to the fort they envision cabins they will rent out to those who might one day see Groveton as a destination - not a post-industrial wasteland.

JYM ST. PIERRE CALLS IT "THE LAST BIG place," and from the fire tower atop Mount Kineo, it seems just that. The infinite waters of Maine's largest lake, Moosehead, spread in every direction around us, and to the north, we can almost see the endless expanse of the state's unorganized territories, which, at one quarter of New England's entire landmass, are the jewel of the Northern Forest.

"Here we are," says St. Pierre, the Maine director of the environmental group Restore: The North Woods. "We're standing on the best view you can get short of a bird or a plane."

It is the 40th day of our journey, and I find myself on Kineo, admiring what Henry David Thoreau described as a "glorious wild view" when he climbed this mountain in 1857. Deep-blue mountains are visible through the morning haze to the east, and far below us a peregrine falcon soars by.

For the past four years, the future of this view, this lake, and, in a certain sense, the Northern Forest as a whole has been hotly debated 20 miles south of us in Greenville, a large town on Moosehead's southern shore. In late 2004, the nation's largest landowner, Plum Creek Timber Co., announced its intention to convert a portion of the million acres of Maine timberland it owns into a massive real estate development centered around the lake. Four years and three drafts later, the plan now calls for the construction of nearly a thousand homes and two large resorts in the Moosehead region - and, in a side deal negotiated with several environmental groups, it would conserve close to 400,000 acres of land.

The plan's fiercest opponents, like Ruth McLaughlin, who owns the nearby Blair Hill Inn, feel that Greenville is being fleeced by a corporate landowner that will leave the town to pick up the pieces after it swipes any profits to be had.

"I feel like we're the Indians," McLaughlin says. "We're getting shiny trinkets which are meaningless."

Others, like Craig Watt, who manages the Indian Hill Trading Post, believe the project could be a boon for a town with a fading economy and a heavy dependence on tourism and retail. They worry that if the deal collapses, the land will be developed anyway and any chance at conservation will be lost.

"We're going to secure the economic future of the area along with what makes it what it is today," Watt says. "We're going to conserve the forest and the areas around here that people enjoy so much."

To St. Pierre, there could be no worse future for Moosehead than that which Plum Creek has proposed. It is the very antitheses of a proposal his group has been advocating for years: a 3.2 million-acre national park that would stretch far beyond what we can see from our perch on Mount Kineo - from Maine's western border with Canada to the eastern foothills of the Appalachian range. St. Pierre sees this as an almost apocalyptic struggle between those who would develop every last parcel of the Northern Forest and those who would protect every last inch.

"[Plum Creek's] ownership is essentially the last shore land that's available," he says. "So we are deciding forever, either develop it or save it. That's it. We're at endgame here."

AFTER PARTING WAYS with St. Pierre, we continue our journey to the Penobscot River, the headwaters of the Allagash and eventually the St. John River - but my mind never quite leaves Moosehead Lake. Stephen Blackmer, the founder and former president of the Northern Forest Center, paddles along with us for our final 12 days on the water, and we speak often about the future of the region, which he has spent much of his professional life trying to protect.

"It's much, much, much easier to draw a line around it and make a national park, conceptually," Blackmer says of St. Pierre's plan. "But that's not the right thing for this place. It's not the history of this region."

Blackmer should know. Since the Diamond International Co. put a million acres of its timberland on sale in 1988 - a watershed event that led to the initial recognition of the Northern Forest as a distinct geographical entity - Blackmer has worked to guide the region forward. For years, he concentrated on rallying conservation groups around the common goal of buying land and easements - an effort that over the years created a patchwork of 2.3 million acres of protected land.

But focusing on the land is not enough. For the Northern Forest to achieve a balance between the human and natural worlds, the 1.5 million people who live within its boundaries must be factored into the equation. To create a healthy, working forest - as the Northern Forest has always been - the two will have to live side by side.

Paul H. Heintz is a writer living in Vermont. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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