Vermont resident Peter Macfarlane knew paddling the entire 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine would be difficult. He just didn't expect the weather to be so extreme.
"After having now completed it, it feels like an incredible achievement," Macfarlane said. "The trail was tough as you'd expect something of that nature to be, but the weather took it to another place completely. It raised the intensity of the toughness by orders of magnitude."
Macfarlane started his trip on May 19 and finished 28 days later on June 15. He said it rained all but four days on his trip. One of those was an off-day that he didn't paddle.
Northern Forest Canoe Trail through-paddler Peter Macfarlane paddles into the village Saranac Lake on Lake Flower on May 21, day three of his trip.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Having such wet weather was great for the downstream sections. He was able to paddle nearly all the rapids that were in the Class II range, but it made going upstream difficult.
Some of the toughest days came on and around Memorial Day weekend, when he was headed up the Missisquoi River in Vermont and Quebec. Adirondackers will remember it snowed nearly three feet in the High Peaks during that weekend. The weather was chilly and the rivers were swollen.
"An extra set of rapids prior to Highgate requires a carry as I'm unable to make progress," he wrote in his blog about Saturday, May 25, heading up the Missisquoi. "And then it's hard to reach the take-out at Highate Falls. On carrying to the dam the reason becomes evident: the falls are thunderous. I resume poking up the eddies, under the silver maples which line the banks, sometimes behind them, anywhere that slack water, or slacker water, is available. It's a game of patience. I have to remind myself that this is going to be a long day of patient paddling, and that I should not let frustrations mount which might lead to a rash movement. A swim in these conditions would be catastrophic."
Luckily, Macfarlane said he was able to secure lodging inside for four days during this stretch, including one night when strangers invited him to stay in their home.
In addition to the challenging upstream rapids created by the cold and wet weather, Macfarlane also had to battle hypothermia, which he suffered during the trip.
But he overcame the tough conditions and did the trip in a very quick time, by maintaining a consistent schedule. He rose daily at about 5 a.m., ate breakfast and then hit the water for 10 to 12 hours. His goal was to get off the water by 6 p.m., set up camp and eat a good meal. Often, he was able to do that.
Along the way, the paddler saw a variety of wildlife: bald eagles, waterfowl, beavers and plenty of moose in Maine.
One unique thing about Macfarlane's trip was that he paddled a cedar strip boat that he built. He has a small boatbuilding business called Otter Creek Smallcraft. A few people on Facebook questioned whether the boat would hold up on some of the rocky stretches of river.
For the most part, the boat did extremely well. He had to fix the seat after it sustained some damage at Permanent Rapids on the Saranac River and another river in Maine. Each time he was able to patch up the damage and continue forward.
All in all, the rapids turned out to be great fun, he said. One of the most exciting was on the Dead River near Stratton in Maine, where he got a surprise.
"After completing the carry, I sit for a while to enjoy some lunch, but the mosquitoes have the same idea, so I soon move on," Macfarlane wrote on his blog about June 16, which was Day 19. "Soon after the put-in I'm surprised to find myself faced with a class III rapid. It's only about 200 yards long and I can see the pool below, so, kneeling and with life-jacket donned, I take the wild ride. A few waves splash over the bow, soaking my rucksack, but it's exhilarating enough not to care about this. The route on river right has no obstructions, just a big volume, fast flow and very sizable waves. A bunch of fly-fishermen at the bottom eye my passage. I curl around behind them and sit in an eddy to sponge out, taking care not to overload my seat. The repair is holding and I'm now confident enough in it to sit full weight on the seat once more."
At this point, Macfarlane was in Maine, about to paddle into the wildest stretch of the trip. The next day, he reached Jackman, a small logging town that for many paddlers is the last place to spend time in town. From here, he headed north, enjoying the scenic rivers and the large lakes of northern Maine, including the Allagash River. On the last day, he hit the stretch run on the St. John River, paddling with Canada on his left and the U.S. on his right.
Finally, Macfarlane reached his final destination: Fort Kent. He was greeted by friends and his wife, Viveka, who had provided him invaluable support along the way. It was an emotional moment and one that he wanted to share not only with the people gathered to see him finish, but the tools that got him there.
"In the middle of this I sit down by the canoe, cradling my paddle and have a quiet, emotional moment with the equipment that has carried me far and has brought me safely home," Macfarlane wrote, recalling the moments after finishing his journey. "It is a moment that I have known for a long time would happen, but only now do I realize the intensity of the emotion that accompanies the disbanding of this close-knit team. Yes, we'll paddle together again, but maybe never again will we share the trials and tribulations, the delight and despair, the hard work and the easy cruising, the hundreds of solitary miles of the last four weeks."