Home / Destinations / The Northern Forest Canoe Trail: In the Footsteps of History by Sam Brakeley

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail: In the Footsteps of History by Sam Brakeley

Sam and Andy setting out on the NFCT at the western terminus in Old Forge, NY
Sam and Andy setting out on the NFCT at the western terminus in Old Forge, NY

Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I grunted as I re-adjusted the canoe on my shoulders. My tumpline (the leather strap running over the top of my head that helps to spread the weight of the canoe across my back and shoulders) was biting into my head and I shifted it forward to a new spot on my scalp. Black flies buzzed in my ears and nose, and the smell of my unwashed shirt mixed (not disagreeably) with the smell of rotting vegetation in the ankle-deep muck that was the portage trail. A quick calculation told me that I should be nearing Eagle Lake and the end of this carry, so I took a deep breath and continued forward on the portage trail.

I was thirty-five days into what would be a thirty-nine day trip on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The trail, (NFCT to many) is a 740-mile paddling route that runs from Old Forge, NY to Fort Kent, ME, tracing many of the old Native American travel and trading routes. Andy Rougeot and I had set out to paddle the entire length in the summer between our junior and senior years of college, and we were nearing our goal as we marched through the woods towards the next body of water.

I could see the water glinting through the trees and, with my shoulders aching, I picked up the pace. We rounded the final bend in the trail, and I stopped dead in my tracks. “What’s up?” Andy asked as he came up behind me. “We’re nearly there, don’t stop no-…Oh.”

Two massive locomotives reared their iron heads in a small clearing in front of us. We stood miles from any road, house, or sign of civilization, in the middle of the north Maine woods, and yet here were two metal behemoths, standing proudly in the forest. I put down the canoe, Andy dropped his load of gear and we stood for a moment in awe as we regarded the engines in silence.

Andy examining one of the locomotives on the shore of Eagle Lake
Andy examining one of the locomotives on the shore of Eagle Lake

Our goal in paddling this trail was not to explore new territory, or push the boundaries of human knowledge. Explorers were the trail blazers, long before we were even twinkles in our mothers’ eyes. (And even they rarely “discovered” something new. Native peoples were always there before them. Columbus, Cook, and their explorer brethren were not making discoveries but rather “re-discoveries”. The millions of people who already lived in these “unknown lands” knew very much where they were. In fact, as history tells us, being re-discovered decimated most indigenous populations.) Exploring and trail-blazing are rarely done in the 21st century – only some remote mountain peaks, parts of the Arctic and the depths of the seas remain untouched by humans.

For example, I guide canoe trips to northern Quebec for a boy’s summer camp based in central Vermont. This past year we paddled for 36 days, seeing no other people and few signs of civilization – only a scattered hunting cabin or two at the beginning and end of the trip. For days on end there were no signs of any human influence – no signs, no trails, no campsites, no nothing. In all my days of canoe tripping never have I felt so alone and isolated as I did on this trip. Yet on the sixteenth day, on a lake with no name, having just come down a river with no name, we decided to take a short hike to a nearby peak (with no name) to take a look at the surrounding landscape. As we neared the top, a vast patchwork quilt of lakes, land and swamp spread below us. It was an untouched wilderness paradise. We hurried the few remaining steps to the top, the better to take in the view, when what do we find but a small pile of rocks perched at the very summit, unquestionably stacked there by humans. Even here, in the vast northern Quebec wilderness, we had found indisputable evidence that someone had been there before us.

Quebec wilderness panorama
Quebec wilderness panorama
Pile of rocks on the summit – clearly the hand of man
Pile of rocks on the summit – clearly the hand of man

So Andy and I did not take this trip thinking we would explore something new. Instead, we set out on this journey to embrace all that was old. Yes, we were there for the outdoors, to brave wind, rain and bugs. Yes, we relished the sun beating on our faces, whitewater challenging our skills, and serene nights on the water. But we also went to immerse ourselves in New England culture and history, to get a taste for what it’s like today and what it might have been like yesterday, last year, last century. Rivers are mankind’s highways and before the advent of mechanized travel settlements occurred along these natural pathways. So even in this young country, centuries of history exist along the shores of the rivers and lakes we traveled. We paddled through a hermit’s old tromping grounds in New York, past battle sites on Lake Champlain, under a bridge burned by Confederate raiders in Vermont, along the route Thoreau paddled through Maine and down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

Many outdoor recreationists go into the woods to “get away from it all”, to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. They don’t want to see signs of humans, houses or buildings, structures or roads. They have fantasies of playing in forests “untouched by mankind”. I find myself heading into the woods, especially in New England, to escape life as well. But instead of trying to find an untouched paradise, I go to immerse myself in a region that has been impacted by humans for many centuries, and to embrace the idea of travelers before me. By doing so, I allow their experiences to shape mine as I meander through woods and along waterways. And instead of rejecting and evading every sign of human impact, I seek out the region’s history, asking questions and seeking out clues and answers to discover just what has occurred before.

Living history: An old railroad trestle stands as a monument to a past age on the Connecticut River
Living history: An old railroad trestle stands as a monument to a past age on the Connecticut River

Unlike many other recreational trails, the NFCT has embraced the past. As a water trail, it lacks much choice in the matter – it’s tough to avoid towns that were purposely built along these navigable routes – but by emphasizing instead of shirking the history of the region, the organization has added another dimension to the experience.

Look around you, next time you are in the forest. Few spots have not been traversed by humans time and time again. Here in Vermont, stone walls crisscross all but the high mountain peaks. Old cellar holes dot the countryside and forgotten farmsteads abound. As recently as one hundred years ago, Vermont was more than three-quarters de-forested from logging and agricultural interests, and that legacy is still present on the steep hillsides of the Green Mountains. Very few old growth forests can be found in Vermont. And where agriculture or timber has not touched, hundreds of hikers, bikers, skiers, and other home-grown explorers have crisscrossed the terrain. In short, there simply are no more blank spaces on the map. Human impact is ubiquitous.

Which was proven by the engines now looming in front of us. Andy broke the spell first and with a whoop he climbed aboard, donned his imaginary engineer’s cap, and let out two long blasts from the defunct train whistle. “All aboard,” he hollered out, “Last call for the Fort Kent train!” I took my time, pausing to read the short plaque placed in front of the locomotives. They operated for a short time between 1927 and 1933, running continuously night and day, except for repairs, and were a hugely profitable enterprise for their timber baron owners before the local timber was used up and they steamed to a halt here at their final resting spot. Then I climbed aboard the second locomotive for a very raucous and entirely stationary race to Fort Kent. Had anyone else been able to see what was in our mind’s eye, they would have viewed a race that would have gone down in history as one of the fiercest train battles in history. Never had those locomotives been put through their paces like they were that day. It was a hotly contested photo finish but given that my locomotive was offset slightly ahead of Andy’s, I won. He accused me of getting a false jump at the start and we dismounted from our iron horses amidst good natured argument and ribbing.

“All aboard!” Sam drives his locomotive to victory and laurel wreath
“All aboard!” Sam drives his locomotive to victory and laurel wreath

We hoisted our gear – I the canoe, Andy our bags – and continued to the shore, but we were in for another surprise. Between the locomotives and the lake ran a set of railroad tracks and perched upon them, decaying, were what appeared to be dozens of boxcars, stretching into the distance in both directions. Roofs were caved in, sides jutted out drunkenly, trees arose between the rails and moss lay in sheets over everything, but with chassis intact they were recognizably boxcars. We paused again to examine these remnants from Maine’s historic logging era. The boxcars appeared more fragile than the engines, however, so we disturbed nothing and after a thorough examination we crossed the tracks, dropped the canoe in the water and gear in the canoe, and paddled off.

Trees grow between the old tracks in the underbrush
Trees grow between the old tracks in the underbrush

What is junk and what is history? Who is to say that these locomotives and boxcars are not simply trash that belongs in a landfill, that this shoreline should be returned to a pristine state where no tracks or boxcars remain? Where is the line between history and garbage? I think it’d be tough to argue that the train engines deserve to be destroyed, but what about something less obvious? If you find a Coca-Cola bottle in the woods, it’s trash but if you find a 1920’s Coca-Cola bottle, is it still trash or is it a relic, a piece of memorabilia from a bygone age. If put up on eBay, one could make a nice profit on the sale, I suspect. Or a more apparent conundrum – graffiti from 400 years ago is protected under federal law as petroglyphs whereas graffiti from four years ago is just graffiti, and illegal as well. These are questions beyond my ability to answer, but it is certainly something to ponder – the line between present-day junk and historical artifact. What if the timber company had left a huge scrap heap instead of two complete locomotives? Would that have been okay? Probably not.

So we took to the NFCT not to escape from it all, but rather to embrace mankind’s interaction with the environment. One certainly doesn’t need to accept every bit of trash or junk as a valuable sign of times past, but it is irresponsible to not acknowledge the people who have visited before. Had we tried to escape human history and focus on an untrammeled wilderness, we would have missed an integral part of the experience. Whether we want to admit it or not, we live in a working landscape and the age of exploration (if it ever truly existed) is far behind us. So next time you are out in the woods, whether it’s New England, the Deep South, Mid-West or Pacific Coast, instead of donning your blinders and trying to create a fictitious experience, instead open your eyes, take in the living history around you, and understand that by walking in the footsteps of someone who has trodden this path before you are not degrading your own experience. By looking not just at the three-dimensional world around us, but by also considering the fourth dimension of time, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the landscape, and perhaps learn to appreciate not only what you are experiencing in the present, but also what long-forgotten people experienced in the past, and finally, what future generations will still appreciate in years to come.

Sam and Andy upon completion of their 39-day thru-paddle of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
Sam and Andy upon completion of their 39-day thru-paddle of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

About Sam Brakeley

Sam Brakeley is an avid hiker, paddler, skier, and outdoorsman. He has thru-hiked the Long Trail in 2007, the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2008 and thru-paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) in 2009. He continues to guide canoe trips to northern Quebec where he frequently finds himself waist deep in swamps and covered in black flies – yet he goes back for more. He currently is Regional Field Coordinator for the NFCT, AT Volunteer Coordinator for the Dartmouth Outing Club and Owner/Founder of Hermit Woods Trailbuilders, LLC as well as a member of the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team.

He wrote his first book in 2012 on his NFCT thru-paddle experience entitled Paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail: A Journey Through New England History (available for purchase on the NFCT website where proceeds support the NFCT organization.)

He currently resides in Norwich, VT where he is in the midst of planning his next adventure.

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22 comments

  1. Thanks for reminding me of the memories on the NFCT.

    • You bet! As you know, there are lots of them to be made all along the Trail. Where have you paddled on it? What’s your favorite section?

      • My favorite section was the one just before Island Pond, VT. The stream and swamp were just real pleasent to paddle, even if the turns were a bit tight.

      • And lots of bird wildlife through there! Its a place folks frequently get lost (I know I got turned around near there) – hope you made it through with a better sense of direction than we did!

  2. Great article! I’ve been doing a lot of research of this area recently and I’m hoping to take a trip to the Allagash Wilderness next summer. I always enjoy finding old railroad or firetower relics on my hikes; the Pemi Wilderness in NH is full of them. You pose an interesting question: when does junk stop becoming junk? Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  3. The Allagash is a fantastic and beautiful place for a paddle – keep your eyes open for the locomotives if you pass along that portage (they’re tough to miss!). May the bugs be asleep and the sun awake on your trip…

  4. What a beautifully written article! Thank you for sharing! :)

  5. A very good article.

  6. Your perspective on the history of wilderness regions is one I hadn’t given much thought to, so I really appreciated your exquisitely written post. I was raised in Cambridge and Boston, MA, so saturated in history that I took it for granted. But you make an excellent point that the sense of those who’ve gone before us is enriching rather than something to be resisted. Most of the canoeing I’ve done has been in Colorado and Utah, and I’ll never forget rounding a corner on the dirt road descending to the river to see a rusted bus on the cliffside. As you ask, “What is junk and what is history?” A beautiful question, thank you!

    • Makes you wonder how that bus got there!

      And you’re right – Cambridge and Boston are brimming with history, but frequently in the woods its overgrown, rotten, and barely noticeable – you need to work a little harder to discover it since no plaques or tourist maps point the way. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t just as important, just as powerful, or just as interesting.

      And I’m jealous – I have not paddled much out west – sounds like some amazing trips!

  7. I’ve done a few hundred miles of canoeing in Texas, Mexico, Arkansas, Wyoming, Washington, Wisconsin, Missouri, Virginia, Maryland, and possibly a few other places, however, it’s been too long. Reading this makes me think I need to load the canoe on the truck, the grandkids in it, and hit the water somewhere.

  8. Wow, those trains are unbelievable. I just bought your book and am looking forward to reading it.

    • Thanks Liz,

      They are indeed unbelievable – quite a sight for them to appear when just the bend in the trail before you thought you were in a howling wilderness…

      • I’m glad you posted the photos of them. I’m surprised at what great condition they’re in.

      • I finished your book last night and really enjoyed it. Do you have any more photos of the trip?

  9. We keep learning new things about the NFCT, did you know there are 5 abandoned ICBM missle silos within a mile of the trail, three WWII prisioner of war camps as well? I really enjoy leaning about this stuff, it is one of the great pleasures of the trail.

    Keep writing articles, you’re very good at it.

    • I’ll have to go and check them out! Thanks for the tips on the history tidbits – its all neat stuff! And it is indeed one of the great pleasures of the NFCT, or any trail anywhere – its just that some trails/trail organizations have embraced the innate history to differing degrees than others – so in some spots if you’re interested you have to work a little harder for it than others!

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