At the end of Week 3, I wish I had only good tales to tell. It was a trying week in which I became very familiar with the ever-changing hardships the Northern Forest Canoe Trail can throw at you.
After a windy but successful crossing of the dauntingly large Lake Champlain, I made my way into Vermont via the Missisquoi River.
The Missisquoi marks the beginning of a new style of travel for paddlers, one that is completely upstream. After a mellow start, things quickly became dire as I fought through the hardest three days of the trip thus far.
My second day on the river brought endless cobble bars, the type you run into moments after you just finished entering your boat from dragging over the last one. This, paired with some nasty dam portages, made for a long day.
Late in the afternoon, with 3 miles to go before reaching the next available campsite, a storm rolled in overhead. Not just rain, but a vicious downpour paired with frequent lightning strikes. I knew that I desperately needed to evacuate the water but had no option to do so. The water had eroded the farmland river banks to sheer walls on either side. I had no escape and was forced to push through the miles as seemingly all the forces of nature fought against me. As much as I have hoped and prayed for rain, this was a truly miserable and frightening experience.
With each new challenge and new body of water, the elements change, as do the forces at play. I guess it helps to have a short memory because on Day 3, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into and yet I was up and at it again.
This time, I faced increasingly strong currents in an even more wildly sporadic and winding river. From my experience over the past two days, I thought I was well versed in upstream paddling, but on my third day in Vermont, I learned that so far I had been lucky. I paddled the entire day at an outstanding rate but covered distance at a snail’s pace. It seemed like I was on a descending escalator, trying to climb a mountain. As soon as I stopped or reduced efforts slightly, I would lose ground. It was exhausting.
By Day 4, I believed I knew all of the Missisquoi’s tricks, but the river turned it up another notch yet again. A 51/2-hour struggle got me through my final 7 miles to the Quebec border, where my three days of exasperated efforts came to an exceptional end.
Upon entering Quebec, the Missisquoi takes an odd and almost instantaneous turn of temperament. Taking after the country’s kind and respectful people, it decides to just relax for a while – plenty of depth, plenty of water.
However, leaving the states was still challenging in its own right. I essentially went off the grid, losing my GPS mapping ability and phone signal, and stepped into a world detailed in French. Although initially a bit overwhelming, the culture shock, along with the beautiful countryside, made for a lovely though short two-day Canadian paddle.
After walking the “grand portage” of 5.7 miles to Lake Memphremagog, I was back to international waters, where I made my way south back to the states through Newport, Vermont.
Here, paddlers must stop for what I would claim to be the most nonchalant border crossing I have ever experienced: a phone call to customs via a video box to say you are home.
Tomorrow, I will leave the shores of Lake Memphremagog and head up the Clyde River for the second half of Vermont. So far, it hasn’t always been kind; the struggles are real, but the lifestyle is fantastic.
Editor’s note: Collin Blunk, a contributor to MaineToday Magazine, is on a month-long solo kayak trip on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The 740-mile trail starts in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, passes through northern New England and Canada and ends in Fort Kent. These are his dispatches from the wilderness.