Putting it all together: The Challenge that is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
By Tim Simard
In 2000, Camden's Donnie Mullen became the first to complete the trek in one season
Donnie Mullen wasn't quite on the homestretch, but he was nearing the end of his journey. Relaxing by the banks of Maine's Moose River, listening to the water softly flow downstream, the 28-year-old paddling enthusiast sat near his beloved wooden-canvas canoe on a warm June evening and thought about what lay ahead on his epic canoe trip. He was 41 days into his paddling adventure and had already covered nearly 600 miles on various waterways in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and western Maine. Ahead of him was the rest of northern Maine, including the beautiful Moosehead Lake and the world-famous Allagash and St. John Rivers. By his calculations, he would be finished with his trip in nine days, paddling into Fort Kent and becoming the first person to have ever paddled the 740-mile-long Northern Forest Canoe Trail in one season.
As the sun set and the air grew cold on the spruce and fir tree-line shore, Mullen decided to build a fire for the night. A friend of his, Jodi Hausen, had stopped by his riverside campsite for the evening and was looking to paddle with him for the next few days. She had brought supplies and food, which Mullen was running low on. He had been paddling solo for two weeks and Hausen would be the first partner he'd had since Vermont. While Hausen gathered sticks for kindling, Mullen used his hatchet to chop up some old logs for the fire. Kneeling down with one foot a little too close to the log, Mullen, who was not wearing shoes, began hacking away. In a quick instant, the hatchet accidentally bounced off the log. It struck Mullen in his left foot. He cried out in pain and jumped away from the log. He looked down at his foot and noticed a deep gash between his two biggest toes. Blood was pouring out from the wound and covering the ground in front of him. He rushed to apply pressure with an old sock and cleaned it the best he could with water. Looking at the deep cut, Mullen thought the cut didn't look that bad. It missed his toes and didn't sever anything. Hausen offered to help Mullen out of the woods, to get him to a hospital to get checked out. Her car was not far from the campsite, just through the woods and along Route 201. Mullen refused, not wanting to give up on the trip. Leaving the river - leaving the trail - could be the end of his journey. He'd come so far, he couldn't stop now.
That night, Mullen couldn't sleep. The throbbing pain in his foot was too great. It was obvious that he would have to leave the trail and seek medical attention. That morning, Mullen and Hausen left the riverside and drove to the nearby Jackman Hospital. At that point, Mullen believed his trip was through.
"It was very tough for me to stop," Mullen said. "For me, what made my whole trip novel was that it was in one swoop. It was my mark that I was leaving on the trail, was that I did it all at once. So it was upsetting, but there was a certain amount of relief that came because it was such a tense experience."
When Mullen set off on his trip, the trail was still in its conceptual beginning. Only two sections of the route, the Saranac River and the Rangeley Lakes, had any signs on where to portage. For Mullen, this added to the ruggedness of the experience.
"It made it more of an adventure," Mullen says. "At times, it was frustrating, but it was a lot more novel and enjoyable. It really had a sort of adventureness to it. Most of the times, I knew where I was going. A couple of times it was confusing."
From the beginning, Mullen knew that the trip would not be a classic wilderness experience, since much of the trail passes around dams and roads, as well as through small and large towns. But he was prepared for that. Much of the NFCT followed heavily used rivers and went past large towns and small cities. Looking back at the Adirondack portion of the journey, Mullen found the region beautiful, but with a definite human stamp. The Fulton Lakes, he says, had old Adirondack cabins lining every bank of the shore. The Saranac River was a little more polluted that he thought it would be, especially down in the Champlain lowlands. At one point, Mullen noticed a "scum line" that was trailing his canoe down the river.
"I had this beautiful beginning and then came the reality check," he says. "This was just the nature of this river. It's heavily used."
Dropping down rapids and portaging around countless dams, Mullen and Chakoumakos finally reached Lake Champlain. Canoeing out of the city of Plattsburgh and onto Vermont's Grand Isle, the two paddlers ran into their first bad weather episode. Hunkering down on a tiny beach, Mullen and Chakoumakos took shelter as best they could from heavy rains, lightning, wind and hail. With their rain gear and water-resistant tent, they tried to keep dry, but it was nearly impossible. The lake kicked up huge waves in the gusty winds. Everything got soaked, but they couldn't continue across the lake until the weather cleared. They couldn't even see the mainland shore through the heavy rain and fog. The rain almost constantly was driving sideways into them, chilling them to the bone.
After two drenching days, the soggy paddlers pushed off, aiming for the Lamoille River. From their shelter on Grand Isle, entering the Lamoille River was the most direct line into Vermont rather than paddling north on the lake to the Missisquoi River, which the NFCT follows today.
Paddling up the Lamoille proved one of the hardest challenges for Mullen and Chakoumakos. The heavy rains had flooded the lower part of the river. The banks of the Lamoille were submerged and the river was a muddy torrent. The upstream battle became the most laborious section of the journey for him. There were few places to relax, and the onslaught of the water made it a constant struggle upstream. After two days, the pair only covered 10 miles, a distance that they could usually cover in less than one day.
"It was a real awakening at that point of the trip," Mullen said. "Those were very difficult and demoralizing miles. I was projecting ahead, thinking ‘What will I do when I'm on my own. I won't be able to do this'"
A little ways into the Lamoille River, Mullen's partner, Chakoumakos, had to leave to return to work and family responsibilities. He was replaced by Mullen's boss at Outward Bound, Barbara Fiore, who resupplied Mullen with food and equipment. A well-traveled paddler, Fiore knew the struggles that lay ahead in paddling against the flow of the river. Luckily for both paddlers, the swollen Lamoille began to calm down and the upstream struggle lessened, allowing Mullen and Fiore to enjoy the Vermont countryside's farms and mountains.
After 75 miles of upriver paddling on the Lamoille, Mullen rejoiced when he changed rivers and headed north to Lake Memphramagog, passing through some very rural parts of northern Vermont. Fiore's tenure of the trip was short and left Mullen to forge on alone when they were through with the Lamoille.
Heading north, Mullen followed a few rivers upstream towards Lake Memphramagog, noting that many of the rivers he chose became more streams than anything else. One such stream passed through a cow pasture, where Mullen was literally chased up the river by a herd of irritated cows. Many times, he was walking up the streams, pulling his canoe with him.
After one such river-hiking day, Mullen found a nice place to camp up in a field. Unluckily for him, two Vermonters noticed him on their land and confronted him in their truck. One of them men kept a shotgun close by, keenly eyeing Mullen in a threatening manner. They asked him, sternly, to clear off the land. Mullen explained the trip and what he was doing, which seemed to calm the agitated locals. From mentioning familiar rivers, the men began to understand Mullen's trip. Mullen says that while they became much friendlier, they still weren't going to let him camp on their land. He grabbed his canoe and gear and lugged them up a nearby road, hoping to find a campsite quickly. Hours later, Mullen found a decent camp along a roadside picnic area. At that point, it was almost midnight.
Mullen eventually reached Lake Memphramagog and proceeded up the narrow Clyde River, a slow-going paddle with trees down across the river in many sections. After the Clyde, Mullen crossed into the Connecticut River watershed, coasting down the windy and fast Nulheegan River to the Connecticut. Once on the Connecticut, Mullen could relax down its slow current for 20 miles. Then it was back to paddling upstream on the Upper Ammonoosuc.
It was on the Upper Ammonoosuc that Mullen became confident in poling, an upstream canoe technique where the paddler stands in the middle of the canoe while using a very long wooden pole to push him or herself and the canoe up a shallow river. Mullen's past attempts almost got him in trouble on the Lamoille, when the wind nearly tipped him and Fiore into the quick moving river.
"It's an exhausting process," Mullen says of poling. "I could only do so much. After I was completely exhausted from it, I would switch back to paddling upstream or dragging the canoe through the river, if it was shallow enough."
In order to pass into the Androscoggin Watershed, Mullen had to portage several miles over a small hill and through thick forest and brush. While today's NFCT makes it easier by having paddlers walk along a road to the Androscoggin, Mullen took the harder way and the more traditional portage route used by Native Americans. Past portages on his journey had been short trips, but this one required nearly two days of transport. First, Mullen hiked his supplies through a thick forest of spruce and fir trees. After bushwhacking through the woods, Mullen arrived at the Androscoggin, but not until enduring many cuts and bruises. He then went back the way he came to pick up his 65-pound canoe and haul it back through the same gauntlet of trees and rocks.
After another difficult upstream battle on the Androscoggin, Mullen reached the river's headwaters at Lake Umbagog, directly on the New Hampshire/Maine line. For Mullen, reaching his home state was one of the most exciting parts of the journey. It was one of those moments of, what he calls, "arms-in-the-air exultation." He had wanted to make it to Maine in under a month and crossed the lake on the 31st of May, just in time.
"It was a neat time for me," Mullen says. "I knew the area well because I worked there for Outward Bound. I was finally in Maine, I'm from Maine, and it was a really fun time. This was the homestretch."
Mullen quickly covered the familiar Rangeley Lakes region and headed north towards Flagstaff Lake with its grand mountain views of Maine's Bigelow Range, then portaged around Grand Falls, a giant waterfall on the Dead River that resembles a miniature Niagara Falls. It wasn't long after the falls that Mullen found himself being rushed out of woods after his run-in with the hatchet.
In recovery, he went back home to Camden and began to have serious doubts about whether he could finish the trip, even though he was so close to the end. Mullen credits his friends and family for urging him to continue his journey.
"It was just a moment when a lot people came together, either family or friends who were part of it, and I just got this support at a time when I was questioning whether or not I should keep going," he says. "I just felt like, in retrospect, I created something that sort of carried and had its own will and existence. When I had a moment of questioning, it was still there. After being home for three or four days, I wanted to get back out. Of course, I had to go back. Sitting at home didn't feel quite right having not done what I set out to do."
Five days after the incident, Mullen returned to the spot where he had his mishap, and continued along the trail, "as if nothing had happened." Along with another Outward Bound paddling instructor, Joc Clarke, Mullen followed the Moose River downstream into Maine's famous Moosehead Lake, where the cliffs of Mount Kineo fall straight into the water. After another rigorous upstream paddle on Spencer Stream, the pair reached the Allagash Watershed. The rest of the journey was smooth sailing, as the trail followed rivers, lakes and portages to the mighty Allagash Waterway. This remote and long river let Mullen relax on his downstream journey north. The river, which flows through forests owned by giant logging companies, has become famous for the "beauty strip." While paddlers along the river see a tree-lined shore, a few yards inland, the land is clear cut and devoid of trees. Mullen noted that, while the trees along the river gave a nice false sense of isolation, the amount of light that was pouring through the trees gave away what waited beyond the strip.
In a few days, the Allagash River met up with the Upper St. John and headed to the Canadian border. At the point where the St. John became an international boundary, he was only hours away. As he dipped his paddle for the final few strokes of the river, he found his family and friends had gathered to celebrate his incredible accomplishment.
"For me, Fort Kent was almost anticlimactic," Mullen says. "It was definitely nice to finish. But the most powerful moments for me came along the way, not just finishing it. Successfully paddling the Lamoille River upstream was a big one as was reaching Maine. And returning to the rivers after my injury. That's what I'll take away most."
Mullen believes that the idea of the trail becoming an "end-to-end" route, like the Appalachian Trail, is limited. While the time it takes to complete NFCT is much shorter than the 2,100-mile hiking trail, there is a certain skill set one must have before embarking on the journey.
"One of the things I think is cool about it is that it really combines all of canoeing," Mullen says. "If you're going to do the trail on the whole, you'll obviously be doing the paddling, but you'll be doing the upriver, the whitewater, the poling, the lining and then the portaging. You've really got to do it all to make it work."
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