Ariel and I were walking down the main drag in the tiny town of Jackman, in northwestern Maine, on July 31 when we spotted something peculiar. There was a man down the street wheeling a canoe in our direction.
Wow, I thought, it's another through-paddler. Only a through-paddler would be wheeling his canoe in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere.
This was a rare event. I hadn't met any other through-paddlers the entire journey to this point, which covered roughly 550 miles. In fact, I'm aware of only about 10 people who have done the entire trip this summer.
Northern Forest Canoe Trail through-paddler Pat Welsch, an English teacher from Burlington, Vt., paddles on Big Wood Pond near Jackman, Maine.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Unfortunately, this was extremely bad timing for us to talk to him because this was the first time Ariel and I had been in a town in a few days, and it would be our last planned stop in a legitimate village. Because of that, we had plans to head out to dinner at The Bigwood Steakhouse, which closed its kitchen in five minutes.
Because of the imminent closing of the kitchen, we quickly introduced ourselves to the man, and I arranged to meet up with him later. His name was Pat and he said that was OK. He would be sleeping in the town park, which had been recommend by one of the locals.
After filling up on sirloin steak and some vegetables to the sound of old blues music at the steakhouse, I headed to the park. It didn't take long to spot Pat. He was hanging in a covered hammock strung between two trees next to a large red canoe on the ground.
Intent on Fort Kent
This is the ninth in a series of columns by Enterprise outdoors writer Mike Lynch about paddling the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. His articles will appear on the Outdoors page every week until the end of the journey.
After hearing me approach, he got out of the hammock and stood next to his canoe, a headlamp shining on his forehead. For about the next 30 minutes, we exchanged stories about the trail, about the tough portages, challenging waterways and people we had met along the way.
Pat was from Burlington, Vt., where he is a middle school English teacher. Apparently he's pretty experienced at long-distance trips. He's also hiked the Appalachian Trail and done at least one long trip in Nepal. He tries to do one long trip a year, he said. Oddly enough, he said he'd never done an overnight paddling trip until he started on the NFCT.
It turned out that Pat had a couple of long days because he'd gotten lost on logging roads during a portage the previous day. Instead of finding his way back to the water on Spencer Lake, he wound up walking to a highway that runs through Jackman. A local he'd met told him that where he came out of the logging road was 23 miles from the village, although he said he doubted the walk was that long.
Pat, who said he generally did about 20 miles a day, seemed to be traveling pretty light gear-wise. He had two daypack-sized dry bags for his gear and food.
While Pat's gear appeared pretty light, his canoe was pretty heavy. He was using an 80-pound Old Town Discovery 158 made for two people. It was his girlfriend's boat, he said. Pat was doing the trip solo, except when joined by his girlfriend for stretches. When she wasn't with him, he turned the canoe around and paddled it backward, which is fairly common practice when paddling a tandem boat solo.
One thing that interested me was his hammock. Pat said he choose it because it only weighs one pound and he doesn't need a campsite to put it up. All he needs is two trees. The hammock came with protection from rain and bugs, though it was dark and I couldn't see the system.
When he was with his girlfriend, he slept in a tent. He told me about one particular night when he was camping (I think he said he was in a tent with his girlfriend that night) in what turned out to be an animal path. After hearing several deer go by to get to the nearby water, Pat heard something much bigger - a moose. Pat said when he looked out of the tent, the animal was staring right back at him. He described those moments as being pretty scary, considering the size of the animal, but luckily the moose didn't see him as a threat and walked away.
Pat noted that he had seen many more animals on this trip than when he was hiking. He'd also nearly run into a moose in Vermont in a bog on the Clyde River. I had similar experiences with seeing many animals, although none were up close. To this point, I'd seen moose, beavers, deer, osprey, hawks, eagles and songbirds, among other animals.
Because it was late and we'd both had long days, we cut the conversation short and decided to meet up the next day for breakfast at Mama Bears Den Restaurant and then for an interview by the water for the documentary I was working on about the canoe trail.
A tragic reminder
The next morning went as planned.
On the walk back from the restaurant, we passed something disturbing that I had heard about from some fellow campers a few days back on Spencer Lake.
Knowing we were headed to Jackman, the campers had told us of a tragedy that had struck the town within recent weeks. Apparently, a logging truck driver had fallen asleep while driving through Jackman in the middle of the night. As he went through town, the truck spun out of control and logs fell off the rig, according to reports we got. Tragically, the logs hit the bottom story of a house on a road, demolishing the building and killing a 5-year-old child inside.
It was a terrible and heart-wrenching story, and I didn't enjoy seeing the remains of the house on the side of the road. The house had been reduced to a pile of lumber. In front of it was a memorial to the child who had lost his life.
Like the deaths on Lower Richardson Lake, it was a harsh reminder of reality, but one that I didn't want to dwell on.
After Pat and I arrived at the park, I interviewed him on the shores of Big Wood Pond. It went pretty quickly because I didn't want to delay him; he was hoping to finish up the last 200 miles within the next two weeks.
As we were doing the interview, I noticed an army of teenagers hauling canoes to the water in the background. As it turned out, these children were part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail's Explorer program for youth. They were getting some instruction on the basics of paddling and were preparing to go out on overnight trip.
That meant I would have another interview after Pat's. Later, these delays would play a factor when a serious series of storms came through the region.
Finally, at about 10 a.m., Pat took off in his canoe paddling down the lakeshore. Before departing, we talked about meeting up somewhere down the trail and doing some paddling together. Today wasn't a good day for me, though, because I had some more work-related stuff to do.
Finally, by about 2 p.m., Ariel and I had food and gear spread out on the town park lawn and were making last-minute preparations to leave. That's when we noticed dark, ominous clouds on the horizon across the lake.
With a storm imminent, we moved our stuff under a pavilion and continued our work there. I set up my camera, hoping to get some video footage of the clouds moving across the mountains on the other side of the lake. It only took me a couple of minutes to set up the camera, but by that time, the shot I had been looking for was gone. The clouds had totally obscured the mountains. The storm was moving extremely fast.
Before long, we started to see and hear the rain on the water. Then the wind came. It was stronger than we anticipated, so we scrambled to put our loose belongings into our dry bags. Very quickly, we realized this was no average storm, and we were soon getting pushed around by strong winds and pelted by hail flying horizontally.
We decided we needed to seek shelter, so we made a break for the Jackman information center next to the park. Grabbing a few key belongings, we sprinted to the building, having left our canoe and most of our gear behind.
Standing under the eaves of the roof outside the closed building, we watched as trees swayed around us and hail and rain flew past. At one point, I heard a loud cracking noise.
Finally, the storm passed.
When we walked away from the information center, we were completely soaked but happy to have come out of the storm unharmed. On the way back, we inspected the damage. There were a few branches down and one tree fallen over in the town park's parking lot. Overall, though, the damage was minimal. Later, we found out the storm had been traveling about 30 miles per hour and had winds up to 60 miles per hour.
Standing there in the park, I considered the timing of the day and felt lucky to still be in town when the storm hit. I also wondered if the storm had hit Pat, who had left about four hours prior.