Water Trails

Winding its way through New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire and Maine, the new 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail offers both the casual and expert paddler a unique window into the very heart and soul of this historic region.


The new water trail, a loose connection of 22 rivers/streams and 56 lakes/ponds, follows ancient Native American travel routes through 45 towns and three nature refuges in a land, it seems, time forgot. A land dotted with symbols of where we as a people have come from and indications, some good, some bad, of where we might be going. A land that inspired the likes of Henry David Thoreau. A land of conflicting commercial, recreational and preservation interests.

But, of course, land is not really what this new water Trail is all about. And, if history is any guide, the opening of the Canoe Trail harkens back to a time when these rivers and lakes, ponds and streams were the only way to penetrate this vast, forested region. In fact, the opening of the Trail brings the region full circle — moving the public away from viewing these rivers and lakes as individual bodies of water available only for commerce and local recreation and, instead, re-focusing its attention and showing that these bodies of water are an interconnected system, useful for navigation, transportation and recreation. As such, they must be preserved.

Organizing The Dream
The new Canoe Trail (officially dedicated June 2006) was the brainchild of three men — Mike Krepner, Ron Canter and Randy Mardres — who, in the early ‘90s, under the auspices of the non-profit organization Native Trails, Inc., undertook the task of identifying, planning and surveying a contiguous canoe trail from New York to Maine. They completed the route research by the mid-’90s, at which point Kay Henry and Rob Center, former principals at Mad River Canoe, took on the project, incorporating the new, non-profit Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Inc. (NFCT), to translate the route into an accessible water trail.

Like all big ideas, this one required the support and effort of hundreds of volunteers who believed in the founder’s mission and worked tirelessly to make it a reality.

But, unlike all big ideas, Native Trails’ organizers hit upon a unique, and, ultimately, very effective way to recruit and support volunteers interested in moving the gargantuan project forward.

According to Kate Williams, Executive Director, Northern Forest Canoe Trail (Waitsfield, Vermont), NFCT facilitated local engagement by breaking the trail into 13 manageable and distinct sections and then working to engage the local communities in each section to participate in the process. The goal, successfully achieved, was to find a local host organization for each section of the Trail and, through them, rally local communities, businesses and volunteers to help with surveying, securing landowner permissions, marking, mapping and so on.

As Williams says, “It’s been an amazing grass roots effort. I give a lot of credit to our founders who laid the groundwork of local connections that has enabled us to develop an active network of 275 local volunteers.”

Now, with the all the work involved in trail creation completed, these same volunteers, under the guidance of Williams and her staff at the new non-profit’s headquarters, have turned their attention to trail maintenance and stewardship — working to care for their local waterways.

As Williams notes, the initial and long-term success of the Trail is dependent upon these local hosts remaining passionate and continuing to advocate for their portion of the Trail.

Of course, even with an army of volunteers, technical know-how and a well-organized approach, nothing happens without funding.

To that end, the Trail received some critical start-up funding through National Park Service-administered federal grants. Williams and her staff have also broadened their funding base to include state-level and foundation grants, corporate contributions, individual contributions, memberships (sold via the web and mail) and trail map sales.

No Comparisons
The Canoe Trail is often compared to the famous Appalachian Trail, and, while Williams understands this, she cautions users and volunteers to understand the several, significant differences between the two trails.

Perhaps the biggest is the way they are managed. The Canoe Trail obtains access for campsites and portages through landowner permission rather than through land protection. And, because it is a trail of navigable waters, the Canoe Trail flows through both developed areas and backcountry — providing its users with a blend of community experiences and wilderness.

In reality, Williams and her staff are more apt to compare the Canoe Trail to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, Florida’s Everglades Wilderness Waterway or Maine’s Island Trail.

Simply put, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a unique, contiguous water trail concept, but one that can be readily replicated in many areas across the country. In fact, several coastal areas in Washington, North Carolina and Alabama are at varying stages of developing similar trail systems.

It’s an idea it seems whose time has come.

Create Your Own Water Trail?
Which is exactly what the founders, employees and volunteers of the Canoe Trail hope for. As they move forward with their work, organized around waterway stewardship, cultivation of sustainable tourism and promotion of local heritage and culture they hope to inspire the creation and development of other water trails.

As Williams notes, there are many, many areas of the country where lakes, streams, ponds and rivers could be mapped, surveyed, improved and connected. If you’re considering doing something like this in your community or region, Williams recommends the following:

• Look at all potential bodies of water (rivers, streams, lakes and ponds) as potential portions of the route

• Generate local community support for the project

• Tie the project to a central theme (such as the Northern Forest Canoe Trail’s use of the Native American travel route)

• And, don’t give up

There are plenty of organizations willing to support a project that provides a healthy, recreational opportunity, improves commerce in rural areas and educates/empowers local residents to be good stewards of their natural resources.

While it’s too early to tell how many people are using the new Canoe Trail (a baseline economic impact study is just being completed), the rush of support and enthusiasm from local volunteers is a good indicator of the long-term success of this spectacular water trail.

Helen Downey is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business. She can be reached via hcdowney@adelphia.net.


The Trail — An Overview
The final, completed Canoe Trail has thirteen, mapped, contiguous sections offering its users campsites (10-15 miles apart), portage routes (62 in all, 55 total miles), trail signs, and frequent access points.

New York — 147 miles
Starting at Old Forge, NY, the Canoe Trail follows the scenic, but challenging Saranac River, otherwise known as the long-established “Highway of the Adirondacks” to the Vermont border.

Vermont/Québec — 174 miles
Lake Champlain is perhaps the most historic lake in America. It’s also very big. From Lake Champlain, paddlers follow the Missisquoi River to Lake Memphremagog – this section has the “Grand Portage,” but otherwise is gentle and has few carries – and finally flows through the Northeast Kingdom on the Clyde and Nulhegan Rivers (many carries, but very scenic).

New Hampshire — 72 miles
This portion of the Canoe Trail follows the placid Connecticut River as it meanders to the Upper Ammonoosuc. The Trail then turns west to east, heading upstream, albeit on fairly lazy water with few rapids. The final leg, on the Adroscoggin, is wide with sections of slowly flowing water and some rapids.

Maine — 347 miles
The section from Errol, New Hampshire to Rangeley, Maine is easier to paddle from Rangeley to Errol. The Trail descends steadily from Maine’s interior plateau through big lakes and tumbling rivers. Beyond Rangeley to the east is the Androscoggin-Kennebec divide — the highest point on the trail east of the Adirondacks. After the divide, the Trail is easiest southwest to northeast as it works across the plateau and then descends to Fort Kent. Flagstaff Lake and the headwaters of Little Spencer Stream hold some of the finest scenery along the Trail, though Moosehead Lake is also outstanding. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is spectacular.


Our Approach
In the context of partnering with local communities, honoring Native American culture, and conserving the human and natural heritage of the region, we will serve travelers and benefit neighboring communities by:

• Encouraging canoe/kayak travel and recreation

• Stimulating economic development by attracting a wide range of visitors to the region’s communities

• Improving local access to regional waterways – rivers, streams and lakes

• Enabling travelers to experience the Northern Forest’s full range of diverse landscapes, from working cities to towns to farms, forests and mountains

• Supporting community-based services and local arts, education

and environmental programs that educate and inspire residents and visitors alike

• Enhancing quality of life by creating opportunities for people to reconnect with place