Tonight I will sleep in Cumberland Bay on Lake Champlain, just outside of Plattsburgh, New York. This will be my second consecutive stay here at this state park, but not by choice. It is the only place for paddlers to camp until they travel at least 11 more miles across this massive lake.
I awoke early to attempt the crossing, but was forced to turn around 3 miles later when I encountered uncomfortably strong winds and waves. After checking my phone for a weather update, it made more sense why I was the only boat on the water this morning. A high wind advisory had been issued for the entire lake for the entire day. So, as nature has commanded, I have surrendered to my first zero day on the trail. At the end of my second week, Day 13 to be exact, I will reflect and recoup from a challenging week of ups and downs.
The difficulties I faced this week were entirely new. As I moved away from the public highlands of the Adirondacks into the more remote and private section of New York, things changed. For starters, the chains of lakes ended, and I began my journey down the Saranac River. As the Saranac drops 1,400 feet from the Adirondacks down to the Champlain Valley, it develops a certain attitude, one shaped by whitewater and lots of it. This fact alone helped deem this section as one of the hardest of the whole trip.
Whitewater is not a big issue for me as my short 12-foot kayak can handle the twists and turns. Sure, it is frightening; the blood pumps quickly and you are required to react faster, but it is over before you know it, and you are left with a large grin stretched across your face. The thing that has caused the most trouble for me is not the whitewater, but the plague of low water levels.
The final 30-odd miles of the river was bony at best. At times, I was able to line my boat. Other times, it demanded I drag it through the river across the ragged bottom. To save my boat and my feet from further damage, I resorted to many miles of portaging. One long road walk led me to Plattsburgh, where I was relieved to see a large lake full of water.
It is on these long portages that the Northern Forest Canoe Trail feels most like a trail. I reflect on my days spent through hiking the Appalachian Trail and like to compare and contrast the two. That is how I came to the realization that the NFCT is not a trail.
A trail on solid ground is promised; the next step is guaranteed. If you stray, you can easily return. The NFCT is more of a route. You go forward everyday hoping for a way to continue, fighting for every mile. As a paddler you are forced to piece it all together, stroke by stroke. The way is not clear nor concise but always changing, and therein lies the true adventure.
I am 147 miles in, slow and steady. Tomorrow I will once again strike out for the far reaches of Lake Champlain, hopefully crossing into Vermont, where 100-plus miles of upstream river travel awaits me.
Editor’s note: Collin Blunk, a contributor to MaineToday Magazine, is on a month-long solo kayak trip on the North 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.