Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fort Kent, ME

Ben and I pulled into Riverside Park in Fort Kent about three hours ago, and thereby finished our trip. We were on the water for 33 days and in that time paddled or portaged 710 miles. When I get home, I will retrospectively make several entries about the section from Rangeley to Fort Kent, so stay tuned for those. I would wait until I got home, but I wanted to alleviate any fears that the two fatalites on Chamberlain Lake this week were us, to put it bluntly. We were on Chamberlain the same day, but were safe and sound, out of the wind. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the two fisherman.

Stay tuned for details on the last few hundreds miles of our trip. For now, its time for steak and beer and all the nightlife Fort Kent can offer us.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Maine, Finally

We crossed Rangeley Lake this morning in a light rain, but by the time we had reached the opposite shore, the clouds had begun to clear and blue sky appeared- Saddleback Mtn could just barely be seen in the distance. When we reached the public landing, the sun had come out and the rain had ceased. We had not seen the sun in over a week.

The last few days have been difficult, not necessarily due to the terrain, but more due to the astoundingly terrible weather we have had. Yesterday, we could only paddle for forty-five minutes before being forced to shore. The wind had not picked up, but, rather, we were simply too cold to paddle. Our fingers did not work. We stopped, set a tarp, got a fire up in the pouring rain, and waited for the weather to improve. All that changed was our attitude, and we got back on the water and busted out twenty-five miles to Rangeley Lake State Park and, to our surprise, hot showers.

We portaged most of the Androscoggin, paddling only about seven miles of the flatter sections. Either way, we did it in a day and enjoyed seeing cars flat over flooded sections of the road. Errol brought elk burgers and beer, and Umbagog a welcome relief from upstream paddling and excessive portaging. We celebrated crossing the border into Maine by continuing to paddle in the rain and then portaging around one of the premier whitewater runs in the state.

From Umbagog to Richardson Lake runs the Rapid River, and we were going up it. The portage runs along the north bank for about five miles. It was our first real bush portage since New York, and it really kicked us in the pants. A Class I rapid ran down the first section of the flooded portage trail, while about ten feet to our right standing waves six or seven feet high danced and broke without stop. Once on the carry road, it did not get any easier. We have become accustomed to pavement, and the rough trail reminded us what real portaging is like.

As we passed through the Rapid River Fly Fishing camps about halfway through, we met up with the owner and one of his employees. We had been talked most of the day about whitewater trips in the area, and Ben, a kayaker, was interested in running the river in the future. We talked about two of Chewonki's trips that run the Rapid, and sure enough, the only employee of the camps at that time was soon to lead one of those trips for Chewonki. We chatted for quite awhile about the river, about the people we knew in common, and how our trip was coming. It was nice to meet someone that has something of the same training, roughly, as me; he even used the same knots. This was one of the more unexpected meetings we've had, but welcomed it all the same. Colin was a good dude, and hopefully we'll see him again.

Mooselookmeguntic gave us a light headwind and a pouring, driving rain that only let up when we made our last crossing to the start of our portage. Moments after the rain stopped, the winds picked up. Even by the standards of the lakes of Maine, the chop that resulted was shocking. The wind only had about a mile of fetch on the water, but it still managed to give us the harriest seas I have ever paddled in interior Maine. It was one of those kiss-the-beach moments when we reached the other side.

The weather is rapidly improving, though every few miles we still see piles of snow in the trees. For now, the radio has us expecting gorgeous weather for at least the next five days. Finally. I would write more, but we are using the computer in a business downtown, as the library is again closed on the one day we pass through. Sun! Downstream! Maine!

Thursday, May 17, 2007


We hit Mile 355 today, our half-way point. We were portaging at the time, in the middle of a rather large trek, as will be described below. It was a good scene: an overcast sky, no rain, a chill wind, and a long and straight stretch of NH Rt. 110 in front of us. We had the weather radio juiced up and rigged in to the boat and, albeit in a rather fuzzy manner, to the Red Sox game. They won their afternoon game today, and just a few moments after the announcers signed off we realized we had crossed some imaginary boundry that marked us as being half-done.

From Groveton yesterday we began our ascent of the Upper Ammonoosuc River with a portage around the three dams in town to the flat water above the last dam. We put in and spent about an hour fighting the current to gain less than a mile. We have a sliding scale of propulsion: paddling, poling, lining, and portaging. As the conditions change, we are pushed down the scale, and the Upper Ammonoosuc, with its bushy banks, pushed us all the way to portaging. The heavy rains from the day before had caused the river to jump its banks, and it was clear each time we saw it through the trees that paddling it would just end in frustration. In the end, we portaged most of the river during the day today, ending our portage in West Dummer and the house of two Bates alumni who were kind enough to open their doors to us. Thats about a 12 mile portage, if you do the math. We expect the Androscoggin to be much of the same.

It is this variety of kindness that has touched us time and again during our trip. People seem so willing to open their doors and offer their time to help us on our way. The Brown's in New York, the O'Donnell's in Vermont, and the Wyman's in New Hampshire are just a few of the many particularly generous people that have made the trip such a pleasure so far. A hot shower, a big meal, and a soft bed are just the ticket sometimes, especially when the temperature is getting into the low 30s as it has been the last few days. We are currently less than a mile from the river, staying in a beautiful house owned by the Wyman's. Both were active in the Bates Outing Club in the 1960's, and had some facinating stories to tell about the BOC and Bates way back when. In addition to being active paddlers, Mr. Wyman was in the forestry industry in the Northern Forest for many years and has explained a great many aspects of this working forest to us. It is a pleasure to talk with people like these, whose kindness and generosity are matched only by the depth of their connections to both the outdoor life, Bates, and northern New England; things Ben and I also feel connected to.

Tomorrow brings the portage over the Whites, and then the ascent of the Androscoggin River to Errol, NH. I feel like a coiled spring, just waiting for the lakes of Maine. So much upstream and portaging has taken its toll, and Umbagog and the Maine border will bring sweet relief. We have 327 miles to cover in Maine before we reach Fort Kent, and considering the fact that we have done the hardest 355 miles in 18 days, we expect to cover the next 355 in at least as much time. We expect to cover a tremendous amount of ground quite quickly, as Maine seems designed for expeditious canoe travel. We will finally and unequivically be in the bush, and our eagerness is palatable. The great state awaits, as does a tremendous meal prepared by Mr. Wyman. Thats my ticket.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Weather is Here, Wish you were Beautiful

Well, the beautiful weather of the last week or so was sure to end, and so it has. It has been dumping rain for the last 12 hours or so without stop, and the winds picked up mid-morning, gusting to around 25 mph. The temp is around 41 degrees as well; not really good traveling weather.

We are in Groveton, NH right now, finally in a public library again. The last three towns we passed through all have libraries, but each one was closed on the day we passed through. We have been moving fast recently, leaving Newport, VT and racing up the Clyde River in about a day and a half. Then we portaged over the Green Mountain divide to Nulhegan Pond and then flew down the Nulhegan River under cloudy skies. Today brought us to the confluence with the Connecticut River.

We hit the Connecticut a few hours ahead of the swell from the rainstorm, but we still made great time as the river is big and fast with no real rapids. Still, it was quite cold out and we decided to stop in Groveton and hope that the rain lets up soon. We are within spitting distance of catching up with our original itinerary, and are almost seven days ahead of our current schedule. We might actually make it to Fort Kent after all. That is, assuming the snow that is predicted to fall tonight does not get out of the mountains and we start seeing some better weather. Snow. No kidding.

We had an interesting run-in in Island Pond, VT the other day. I am sure alot of stories have started like that, incidently. We have gotten pretty efficient at portaging, so when the river does not look like fun, we just hump up to a nearby road and bypass that section. We did about seven miles of portaging along the Clyde due to heavy blow-downs and shallow water, most of it yesterday. As we were pulling into Island Pond, a pick-up truck stopped and the guy driving started chatting with us. He had a but bushy beard and appeared to be about fifty years old. He invited us over for dinner, to stay for the night if we wanted, and to visit his shop in town, the whole nine yards. We had found the Twelve Tribes, or more accurately, they had found us.

The Twelve Tribes are a religious community that has settlements all over the world; their numbers reach about 3,500. The community in Island Pond, VT is one of the oldest, it may be but I do not know. Alot of people call them a cult, but they do not quite fit the description. We went into town and visited their shop, Simon the Tanner, a shop and clothing store. It was just about to close and was full of people from the community, all with the characteristic huge beards and long hair, pulled back and clasped on their necks. They gave us an invitation to visit them; their house was just up the hill. The invitation had a photo of the commune and all its members, and in the corner of the photo it said: "Come for a day, or to stay!"

While they were among the nicest and most accomodating people we've met along the trail, there was obviously something a little bit unsettling about the whole situation, and we decided to camp across the lake.

Time to face the rain again, and see what we can do about getting to Maine. Our halfway point, Mile 355, is about one day's paddle away. Just after Mile 355 is our portage over the White Mountains, which should prove to be interesting.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Our Methye

Well, it might be a bit of a stretch to compare the NFCT's Grand Portage to the Methye, but either way it is done. We paddled into Newport, VT around 3:30PM and had quite a hard time checking in with Customs and the border patrol, as there was no one in the border station and the phone relay did not work. We had to look the border patrol up in the phonebook and call on the harbormaster's office phone to finally check in. Nice job, Homeland Security.

In anycase, the Grand Portage ended up being not much of a hassle. We did it in one trip and, because of the cooler temperatures, did not even break a sweat. We started the day near Highwater, QC, and paddled about 5 miles upstream on the North Branch of the Mississquoi River to Mansonville. We did about half of the short portage through town and then stopped in the park; Ben went looking for sandwiches, while I settled for cheap and delicious French pastries and a map mounted on the side of gas station. It struck me that the road to Vale Perkins would get us to Lake Memphremagog just the same as the road a bit further north that is the official NFCT route, and we would not have to load and unload the boat again or paddle that extra mile or so upstream. A quick look at the contour lines on the maps settled it, and we set off on what turned out to be a fairly easy portage, considering it was 7 or 8 miles long.

Once we reached the height of land, the landscape opened up and we could see quite a few farms, hills, and, eventually, the lake. Because of this- and because there is actually a pub (one of maybe 3 buildings on the entire route) at the height of land- the portage was not too hard on us, and we made it to Perkins Landing before lunch. In all, we put away about 22 miles today, including a fair bit of upstream and a beast of a portage.

The Missisquoi River since Enosburg Falls has presented us with a variety of challenges. From Richford to the international border, there was not enough water in the river to paddle, and we to line and drag for several miles. From the border station on things settled down a bit and we put away almost 10 miles in the late afternoon. There have been over 100 islands in the river that are not marked on our maps, though this has not impacted our navigation much. My guess is the scale of the maps and the constantly changing river path are the cause, along with the low water. It is interesting to note that while the water on the Saranac was a few feet too high, the water on the Missisquoi seemed a few feet too low.

We've camped in some interesting places this past week, among them Davis Park in Richford, VT. It is just around the corner from the tiny downtown, and features a gazebo, several park benches, and about a hundred foot swatch of flat, green grass between one of the main roads in town and the river. Richford served up one of the best vanilla milkshakes yet, I am happy to report. It is a bit unsettling to me that we can paddle until we cannot move, and then every couple of days check our e-mail and have a milkshake (I've spent about $30 on milkshakes thus far. Go figure.) I am not used to paddling in the front-country, well, the quasi-front country. We've seen quite a few more cows than people lately.

It was in Davis Park in Richford that we realized yesterday morning that we had lost our landing gear- that all important set of wheels that makes portaging on roads so blissfully easy. We had had a hard afternoon the day before and guessed they must be at the end of the last portage 4 or 5 miles back. We decided not to straight-out hitchhike, as our realization of the missing wheels coincided with the arrival of the border patrol. An unmarked black SUV pulled up to the park and a man in a suit came out to question us. He had been informed of suspicious activity in the park.
He left without giving us any trouble, and we headed downtown to look for a ride.

We ended up solicting a ride from a guy named Porky, and I rode with him in his pickup as close to the river as I could get, then waded across, grabbed the wheels, and waded back. Porky was something of a character, to put it lightly, but also one of the nicest people I have met thus far on the trip. He was an older guy, about 50, shirtless and with a bit of a bearded with his long hair pulled back under a Harley-Davidson bandanna. His accent was thick, almost Irish-sounding in that very northern Vermont style, at least to my ear. When I approached him in town, he and his friends we dragging a car out of someone's yard to sell for scrap. Right as I was about to ask for a ride, someone dropped a heavy chain on the car's hood, denting it. They apologized, but Porky laughed, jumped on the hood and dropkicked the windshield in. He then hopped down and we started talking. He owned one of the brick buildings in town, renting the apartments above and running the house of pizza below. He did carpentry work mainly, but picked up scrap when the opportunity presented itself. He did it all, otherwise, he said, "ya'd starve. Not a lot going 'round here."

Porky was a also a fisherman, and a grandfather. He did not charge the old ladies he sometimes did carpentry work for, because he knew they did not have any money. He is a perfect example of a dynamic of the northern forest I have noticed and been told about. Few people can make ends meet with just one source of income, so they do a half dozen different things to keep their families fed. When the heavy industry gone in many of these towns, there is much less captial flowing into them, with the resulting need to follow Porky's example of diversifying one's interest. The connections here are readily apparent as we paddle and see the relics of past industry along our route.

Porky and I also talked about the river. He fished in it often, usually eating the fish he caught. I wondered about this, as I knew we could not drinkt he water beacuse of agricultural run-off. He said the fish were fine, and he also said that when ever he finds a good sized dead fish, he drives it into Burlington to have it tested. "If the fish ain't good, then the water ain't either. Kids swim in there."
The tests and gas cost about $60 each time, and for a man that did not have a huge amount of disposable income, this interested me that he cared enough about the water quality to go to the trouble of getting the fish tested for chemical posioning. Stewardship, whatever its basis or aim, seems to exist in a variety of forms.

Onward and upward to the Clyde River in the AM.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Mighty Missisquoi

We pulled into Enosburg Falls, VT early this afternoon and after a bit of lunch headed into town. A solid milkshake apiece followed, and then the search for the Enosburg Public Library. It seems like we're doing a tour of the public libraries of northern New England, but with the air conditioning, computers, and chairs with backs, they are a great stop.

The Missisquoi River has been an interesting ride so far. We have been going up stream for about forty miles now, past farms and under old railroad bridges. We entered the delta in Missisquoi Bay and enjoyed easy paddling despite the flood stage. The river has always been easy to ascend, as it is a classic pool and drop system, with long flat stretches interspersed with short rapids and falls. That dynamic began to change yesterday afternoon as we noticed a bit of a current in a section that was supposed to be flat. The water levels in the river are actually quite low once one ascends past the end of the delta and into the interior of Vermont, and we have been doing quite a bit of lining, wading, and portaging on account of that. The land is made for lining and tracking though, as the water is so low that it has exposed sometimes as much as twenty or thirty feet of grassy banks with huge boulders that stick out into the current. Still, it is slower than paddling the flats.

The majority of the portages are around the larger rapids and around the hydroelectric dams each town is centered around. Most of the towns we pass through are quite small, a collection of houses and maybe a gas station, with Enosburg Falls and Swanton being the exceptions. Yesterday afternoon's portage in the 80-degree sunny weather was particularly hard, as the low water created a rapid between the take out and what looked like the take out. The resulting portage was exhausting, but by late afternoon we had settled into the Lussier campsite with its soft green grass.

The dominate feature of the Missisquoi, however, are the farms. Most are dairy farms, and the smell of manure jumps at us with some regularity. We cannot drink the water in the river because of this, and because of the fertilizers used; even with treatment the water would make us quite sick. This is an interesting dynamic for me, as I have never paddled a body of water for any length of time that I cannot drink from, albeit with chemical treatment or filtration. Still, when we pass a tractor pulling a spreader that is firing manure slurry a dozen feet from the water's edge, I acquiese to carrying our own water.

Because so much of the land acround the river is dominated by farms, there is little riverside public land, and few campsites. We have to take the rest of today off because we would not be able to make it to the next upstream site before dark.

The other day we pulled into the lee of the railroad bridge near the Missisquoi Bay Bridge to Alburg, VT, and Quebec. We had just finished our last big crossing with heavy seas, and we happy to be able to rest a bit. As we sat there on the jetty supporting the tracks, a freight train came around the corner. It was moving slowly, but brought with it a surpise, approximately sixty-seven cars into the line. There, towards the back of the train, were eleven flatcars piled at least fifteen feet high with lumber wrapped in plastic. The plastic wrap was stamped with the Chantier de Chibougamau wood products company. This is their website:

I was shocked, and barely managed to snap a photo before the train pulled away across the bridge toward mainland Vermont. Chantier is a smaller, regional producer located about an hours drive south of Lac Mistassini and the Cree village of Mistissini. In March of this year, I travel there with my friend Naomi to help with her senior thesis research on forestry in the area, and we actually visited the factory and mill that can be seen on Chantier's website. We met some of the management, and drove around the factory before heading north. We were told there that Chantier exports much of its products to the northeast, and here was proof: a train that had crossed the border less than an hour before.

New England is one of the wealthiest parts of the country (with two of the top ten wealthiest states). New England is also far most heavily forested today that it was 150 years ago, a fact touted by both regional and national environmentalists and anti-environmentalists. This fact plays into both of their agendas. The question must then be asked- "where does our wood come from?" the lumber and the pulp and the engineered wood- where does it come from? As it turns out, New England imports its wood and exports its deforestation to other regions. As illustrated by this case, New England is maintaining its forest cover by exporting its deforestation to a much poorer, thinly settled, and politically disempowered region- that of central Quebec and the Cree Nation. I had read about this dynamic before, specificially in the case of Japan. Japan has far more forested land than any other industrialized nation, and imports more forest products as a result. Indonesia and southeast Asia bear the burden. Apparently, there is no free lunch.

A few photos from the last few days:
1.) Our friend on North Hero during his performance

2.) The Chantier shipment

3.) Bridge Portage

4.) The Inland Sea

Monday, May 7, 2007

Swanton, VT

We pulled into Swanton, VT about an hour ago, and have been exploring the small town a bit. Unfortunately, the Abenaki Museum was not quite what we expected. We headed up to New York on time, and found the boat hung up about a quarter of a mile down stream from where it was lodged several days before. The water had gone down signifcantly, placing the boat was in the middle of the river amidst shallow Class I rips. Just upstream and around the bend, the ledges we had stumbled into the week before could be heard, still roaring.

We got our lines together, pfds on, and came up with a plan. The water was not very high, but the Saranac had screwed us once, and we were not about to play into a repeat performance. Ben lost the rock-paper-scissors, so I got to stay in the larger eddy and anchor him while he eddy hopped to the overturned boat.

We fixed lines, and pulled her in; it was readily apparent that the river had given her a working. She was no longer the new, beautiful canoe I had picked up at Chewonki several weeks before. Ben thinks it adds character, while I disagree.

We had a great dinner in Plattsburgh, NY before saying goodbye to Ben's mother and checking into the Rip Van Winkle Motel, just across the road from Cumberland Bay and within sight of a massive Georgia-Pacific complex. If any one reading this ever visits Plattsburgh, I would highly reccomend the Rip Van. The place stinks of class like no place I have ever laid my head.

A mere four hours later, we were up again and portaging over to the shores of Cumberland Bay. By 4:30AM we were on the water. A few quiet miles later we rounded Cumberland Head, just as the sun just peeking over the horizon by the lighthouse. The day was cool and sunny, and we pushed ahead, mixing big crossings with hard miles won along the shore. We weaved up through the Hero Islands to Stephanson Point, and our campsite. Twenty-two miles into a headwind on the 6th largest lake in the country, not bad for the first day back on the water.

Stephanson Point State Park was just about drowned out by the floodwaters, but we found a north-facing patch a few feet out of the water to set tents and relaxed for a few hours before bed. As the sun began to set, we cooked up some dinner, and while it was a bit bland, the local flavor was not. A middle-aged carpenter and his chocolate lab Angus joined us on the beach for a about an hour. He drove his Ford Ranger pick-up throug the shallow flood waters to reach us, and, grinning beneath a white mustache and with a coozy-clad can of Gennessee Cream in hand, he regaled us with the tales of a North Hero Island local. He called the park there his "church," a place were he came every day of the year after work "to run his dog, watch the lake, drink a beer, smoke a joint, and love life." He also used the f-word or some derivation of it no less than 65 times during our chat. He also managaed to put away three beers. Needless to say, we were impressed.

He knew every thing about the land we camped on. The cycles of the trees and the turtles, how the ice was grinding away the point every year, eventually to destroy his beloved land, and how Vermont is the best state in the country because it is the only place where it is legal to shoot fish. In fact, he was headed home to a dinner of shot pike. We spoke about the lake and the quifers beneath it, about the spotted turtles we would see the next day, and about the Missisquoi we would encounter the next day. Eventually, he took his leave of us and drove back across the water and down the gravel road. As we prepared to turn in, he raced back in reverse and jumped out of his truck, across the water dividing us. He got down on his knees and pulled out a harmonica. He serenaded us as his dog howled, and in that moment Ben and I both realized that we and the trip in total were going to be just fine. He bowed, returned to his truck, and raced off with Angus in hot pursuit.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Pour le Pays Sauvage...

Rivers and ther contemplative flat sections and passages of heart-stopping, moving water have been my most influential teachers. The riparian world is a world that breeds in journeyers humility, knowlegde and enduring principles about the fragility and sanctity of all life.
-James Raffan

I read those words a while ago, but they make a bit more sense now. Raffan was a smart guy, and a wicked good writer, as you can see. A few days have passed, and we are preparing to get back on the trail. Most of the gear has been repaired, recovered, or replaced, and a ideally when we head north tomorrow we will find our canoe sitting peacefully in an eddy. This is pretty unlikely, to be sure, but we may yet find her safe. If not, we have a few tricks up our collective sleeve.

Alexander Ross was a Canadian historian and scholar that lived and wrote mainly in the first half of the nineteenth century. His subject was that of many Canadian scholars: the fur trade and the voyageurs, with their cry of "Pour le pays sauvage!" (for the wild country!). In 1855 he wrote a book called "The Fur Hunters of the Far West." It is written in an older style, but still appeals to any student of Canadian history or the culture of the canoe. While he traveled, researching his subject, he encountered an old French 'coureur de bois' (runner of the woods), the proto-voyageur. The man related his life story to Ross; here is one verion of what that old Frenchman said:

"I have now been forty-two years in this country. For twenty-four of those years I was a light canoeman. I required but little sleep, but sometimes got less than I required. No portage was too long for me; all portages were alike. My end of the canoe never touched the ground till I saw the end of it. Fifty songs a day were nothing to me. I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I pushed on - over rapids, over cascades, over chutes; all were the same to me. No water, no weather ever stopped the paddle or the song. I was once possessed of five horses and six running dogs trimmed in the first style. I was then like a bourgeois, rich and happy. I wanted for nothing. Five hundred pounds twice told have passed through my hands, although now I have not a spare shirt to my back nor a penny to buy one. Yet, were I young I should glory in commencing the same career. I would spend another half-century in the same fields of enjoyment. There is no life so happy as a voyageur's life; none so independent; no place where a man enjoys so much variety and freedom as in the Indian country. Huzza, huzza! Pour le pays sauvage!"

Whether it was a rapid, cascade, chute, or all three that dumped us does not matter: the water will not stop the paddle or the song. It has slowed us, but wiser, more cautious, and with better maps we return to set paddle to water and see what we can do. The water in the Saranac has dropped 1000 cfs since the 29th, and tomorrow we will see it again. Thank you to everyone that has called or wrote to check in on us and offer help. We are lucky boys in many ways: that we had the opportunity to attempt this trip in the first place, that we've had the support to see it through this far, and that we now will be able to continue.

Huzza, huzza- pour le pays sauvage-

The Flying Canoe

We were supposed to cross Lake Champlain starting on April 30th, and we did. The trip, however, was made on a car ferry and not in our canoe.

On the 29th, Ben and I were on the Saranac River, as planned, and only about a half day from Plattsburgh, NY and a few hours more than half a day behind schedule. The thick ice on Raquette Lake had set us back a day or two, and we had been steadily making it up on the downhill run off the Adirondack Plateau. It was clear from our experience on the Raquette River that everything on the eastern side of the 'dacks was in flood stage, so it was time to be very careful.

We portaged most of the rapids we saw on principle, as the maps all reported them to be Class II or III, and with the amount of water we were seeing that was too big. We did several long portages, including the one around Permanent Rapids. The whole mile stretch of Class II & III rapids are famous, but with the melt water swelling the river, they were mostly drowned out. The whole stretch was a magic carpet of fast riffles. Like multiple other stretches of the river it looked like fun, but we took to the road and avoided it just in case. On a trip like ours, the emphasis must be on minimizing risk wherever possible. Later that same day, we would learn a very hard lesson in minimizing risk.

After a series of large pond crossings and portages around the small-scale hydroelectric dams that created them, we dropped back into quickwater section of the Saranac. As the banks steepened, the flooded river returned inside its normal course, and the wave trains began to grow in size. An open canoe could handle it, but we stopped anyway and attached our homemade spray cover and tightened our spray skirts. As errant waves splashed across the boat, they slid harmlessly off and I was glad for the long hours spent coaxing my mother's sewing machine into punching heavy thread through nylon and canvas.

Eventually, we came to a portage that was marked on the map. It went .1 miles around Tefft Pond Falls, and was clearly mandatory. We inched up along the bank to the start of the trail and unloaded quickly. The trail was barely noticeable, but we pushed through carefully for about a tenth of a mile, then decided to portage further down to another eddy that provided more space for a safe peel out with the fast water. We also know that there were a few Class III or IV ledges a-ways downstream that would require quick eddying out and we didn't want to be too far out in the current, even if the ledges were a good distance downstream.

As I finished loading the boat, Ben walked downstream to scout the section that followed the falls. He returned with the all clear, so we got in the boat, snapped on the three-piece cover, and peeled out. We rode fast for a short time, and then drew left to avoid a large spill-over. The boat responded, and dropped into a short chute to the left. We both realized as the bow of the canoe crossed over into the chute that it was far too big and we had made a grave mistake. The canoe turned over to the left and threw both of us out into the water. I grabbed onto the overturned boat and held on, but lost sight of Ben immediately. Within the seconds the boat turned so that I was downstream of it, so I let go and pushed off as it had become more of a danger than a help. I turned and saw Ben on top of a rock on river right, and then got into position with my paddle in one hand, spray skirt in the other, and the toes of my boots poking out on the river, pointed downstream.

About a half mile or mile downstream I got ashore and started back to look for Ben. The water was cold, my guess was about 40-45 degrees, so I was expecting hypothermia to set it quickly as the sky was cloudy and the air was not that warm either. To my surprise my temperature stayed up and I was adequately warm, though my legs were much colder than my core and responded a bit slower because of that. Insulating layers really do work, I supposed.

I was shocked when I saw the canoe. The bow painter had come loose, seized, and snagged underwater despite the lack of the knots beyond its attachment to the boat. Two-thirds of the canoe was out of the water just downstream of a small ledge, and it was surfing in place with all of our gear tied and wedged in. The canoe was in perfect shape, and more interestingly, it looked like it was flying.

Ben was just downstream on the island, and he was obviously the more immediate concern. We communicated with whistles, but we couldn't assertain each other's exact condition other than a thumbs up. All of my rope, including the throw bag, had been at my feet when we dumped. I made my way up the banks and through the trees until I got to level ground, and a ways after that, a pasture and a road. A scattering of farms and camps were strung along the road, and I returned to the river later with about 100 of heavy rope from an old man's pick-up truck. Not perfect, but the best I could do with the afternoon already just about over. The river was far too wide and fast to get me or the rope across there, so I hiked upstream about a mile and swam across in the fast, but flat water. We set up one system, but the rope was too elastic and would have put Ben in the water about halfway across the narrower channel river left. Instead, I anchored and Ben swam; the rope went taught and he swung into an eddy just downstream. We abandoned the boat for the night as any rescue that late would be far too dangerous. We were taken in at a farm down the road for a hot meal and hotter showers.

The next day we met up with a group of guys from the fire department and their swiftwater rescue instructors. They were running a training class, which they were kind enough to turn into a canoe rescue mission. When we returned to the river, the boat was miraculously still surfing along, still flying. The rescue crew went in, and when they had maneuvered as close to the canoe as possible, got lines on the bow painter and tried to pull the boat in. Instead, the boat immediately filled and sank just below the surface, discharging the remaining gear into the river. That was the last effort, it was too dangerous to try again. They were able to retrieve the pickle barrel (with sat phone) and Ben's dry bag, along with my day pack downstream. When all was said and done, after Ben and I walked the banks for miles downstream, we had lost quite a bit of gear: three paddles, an ice hook, setting pole, my ammo can (wallet, cell phone, camera), and my blue dry bag with tent, sleeping bag, and clothing. My tumpline was ripped off the wannigan, but I managed to fish the wannigan out from a small strainer. Interestingly enough, the packs that were not tied in survived, while some of the gear that was tied in (my dry bag and ammo can) was washed away. It doesn't usually work that way, but it goes to show that you can always secure your gear more. For a gear head like me, it was a mean, square kick in the teeth.

The river was running at about 2500 cfs, 690 cfs higher than its mean average of 1810 cfs. It was big, but not absurdly so. After the ledge, it would be OK for an open canoe, even a tripping canoe, but not one loaded with gear and not one on a long trip in cold water; we should have portaged much farther than we did, even cutting a trail if necessary. We should have scouted better, the maps could have been clearer, we could have braced better, the line between the thwarts would have been thicker or better tied, or we could have not even tried to do this trip. It is also not much of surprise that this happened at the end of the day. Searching for causality in this mess is important, but assigning blame is not. Mistakes like this are not an excuse to give up, but rather a call for more training, more education, and above all else, more caution.

One guiding principle of my efforts in the out of doors has been to avoid doing anything that Jon Kraukaur could write a book about. It soulds funny, but it is true. Plan and prepare until it hurts, don't take unnecessary risks, and get the education you need to minimize the risks that are necessary and to control situations when the shit hits the fan. Both of us are a bit bruised and sore, but we are alive. The boat is in fine shape, and when the water goes down (amazingly, it has dropped 500 cfs since I started writing this) we'll try to fetch it out. I lost some gear, but a tent is just a tent and a paddle only a piece of wood or aluminum: it is a small price to pay. Some of the gear may wash ashore and get turned in, it is not a wholly wilderness river.

With the help of several good friends, new and old, we have dried off, warmed up, and gotten a half dozen good meals in our bodies. Now we plan. There are still about 580 miles to go, and we're not stopping yet. Stay tuned.