In September, Old Forge residents Catherine and Ryan Thompson completed a paddling and hiking trip that most people wouldn't even contemplate attempting.
The pair paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail in the spring and followed that up by hiking 130 miles along logging roads to the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Baxter Park, Maine. From there, the married couple hiked through the summer all the way to the southern end of the trail in Georgia.
Benefitting from an early ice-out this year, the pair left their Old Forge home at 5:45 a.m. on April 15 and wheeled their 17-foot Royalex canoe to Old Forge Pond, where they set off on a cool, calm and clear day.
The Thompsons take off at the start of their journey.
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Catherine Thompson)
Over the next month, the pair would paddle a variety of Northeastern waters, from large, isolated lakes to Class II whitewater rivers.
Probably the biggest challenge for the Thompsons was dealing with the elements. Because they left so early in the season, they frequently found themselves paddling with temperatures hovering around freezing. They experienced cold rains, snow and winds strong enough to tip a boat.
"It is nerve racking because the air temperature was really, really cold," said the 27-year-old Catherine, who works as a manager at the Old Forge Campground. "The water temperature was really, really cold, and some of those remote sections, especially in Maine, there is no one else around."
Northern Forest Canoe Trail
Starts: Old Forge Pond
Ends: Fort Kent, Maine
Length 740 miles
Starts: Mount Katahdin in Baxter Park, Maine
Ends: Springer Mountain, Georgia
Length: 2,179 miles
For more information about Ryan and Catherine's journey, visit their online journal at www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=299710
Luckily, they never tipped, enduring various conditions that were presented to them. The couple crossed Lake Champlain on a day when the water was like glass and fought through whipping winds later on Chamberlain Lake in Maine.
They would wake as early at 3:45 a.m., paddling in the still morning waters and sleeping where they finished that day's paddle, not necessarily at designated sites. Sometimes they paddled all day; other times, they found themselves stopping early to wait out the weather.
"I think the part that we liked the best was that when you get wind bound, on the those big lakes - the weather's nasty, huge waves - we would wait, camp, and on the next morning get up at 4 o'clock in the morning and it would just be glass," Catherine said. "It was amazing to see the transformation. The night before you could never imagine paddling on it, and the next day it was a completely beautiful, sunrise paddle."
Averaging about 25 miles a day, the Thompsons had the canoe trail to themselves. Outside of a couple of kayakers, they didn't see any other paddlers the entire trip.
"We never saw another single canoer the entire way," said the 28-year-old Ryan, who spent 2005 to 2007 as the assistant forest ranger in the Moose River Plains. "We had every single waterway to ourselves."
But the isolation was part of the lure. They saw a moose wading in the water in Maine and an eagle dive for a fish.
They also got to enjoy the water in more ways than one.
"That was one of our favorite parts of the canoe trip, that we drank out of pretty much every lake that we paddled and river that we paddled," Catherine said.
But by May 10, the day they finished up in Fort Kent, Maine, the pair was ready for the second part of the adventure.
"It was really exciting to get out of the boat, at first, because by the end, we honestly got so fed up with canoeing," Catherine said. "It was cold, miserable, our hands hurt. We were sunburned. We looked like we were 15 years older. ... We were ready to stretch our legs."
So after finishing up the paddling portion of the trip, they ditched their boat and paddles by leaving them with a new friend, a local couple who offered to store them until a family member could pick them up.
They then replaced their paddling gear with hiking gear that they had mailed to a nearby post office in Portage, Maine, and headed for the Appalachian Trail. To get there, they hiked 130 miles through remote logging country, finally arriving at Mount Katahdin on May 27.
"It was exciting," Ryan said. "Leaving Old Forge, our goal was to get to that first white blaze on top of Katahdin. So that was like the high point."
But for every high point, there was always a dose of reality. High on Katahdin, that came when the couple considered how far they had come, but also how far they had to go.
"I think the newness (of hiking) kind of wore off a little because once you get to the top of the mountain, it dawns on you that you have 2,179 miles left to walk and that's only the beginning," Catherine said. "So the immensity of it took over."
But at least now they were in familiar territory. The pair had hiked the Appalachian Trail from south to north in 2008 and had hiked long sections of it 2005 and 2006.
They were able to use that experience to their advantage. The first time they attempted the Appalachian Trail they burdened themselves with 50- to 60-pound backpacks. This time they had packs that weighed only 10 to 13 pounds when fully loaded.
Catherine actually made smallish packs out of ripstop nylon that weighed less than a pound. She had also made a 1.75-pound tent. They shared a sleeping bag, which they often didn't even need because it was so hot, and carried literally the bare minimum. For rain gear, they used 99 cent ponchos.
They didn't carry the water filter from the canoe trip. Instead they relied on treating their water with chloride or iodine. Sometimes they picked up water in jugs left along the trail by good samaritans.
They also ditched their homemade denatured alcohol stove halfway through the hiking trip, preferring to eat cold food over pasta. They didn't have to carry more than three or four days worth of food because there were frequent resupply areas along the trail.
"It changes your mental state when you're hiking, especially when your carrying 10 pounds, because you're no longer focused on how much it hurts and how tired you are and how much your feet hurt," Catherine said.
But this trip was challenging for the Thompsons for several reasons. One was that they were heading south instead of north, so the end of the trip lacked the climax of hiking the White Mountains and then Katahdin to end the trip. Plus, the weather was hot in the south in the summer.
"It was hard," Catherine said. "We thought, honestly, that it would be easier because we knew what to expect and we had our system down, but it wasn't. It was a mental game."
By Virginia, the August heat had worn them down to the point that they decided they needed a break. So they took a few days off from the trip and stayed in a town. When they returned, they felt reinvigorated and blasted through the last part of the trip. On Sept. 23, they arrived at the southern terminus on Springer Mountain in Georgia.
Although they both said it was difficult to end the trip and readjust to living in society again, the immediate gratification of finishing the long trek was intense.
"We did what we set out to do, so there was an overwhelming sense of completion and fulfillment," Catherine said. "Old Forge to Georgia. It's kind of cool."