Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Picture of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail LogoThe Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a 740 mile paddling route that runs from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine. The trail is called a “canoe trail” after the traditional mode of water transportation for Native Americans, on whose routes the trail is based. It should be noted, however, that it is appropriate for kayaking as well.

Along its course the trail passes through:

  • New York – The New York portion of the trail runs 147 miles and is divided into 3 sections (sections 1 through 3).
  • Vermont / Quebec – The Vermont / Quebec portion of the trail is 174 miles long and is also divided into 3 sections (sections 4 through 6).
  • New Hampshire – New Hampshire is the smallest part of the trail with 72 miles in one section (section 7).
  • Maine – Maine has by far the longest stretch of the trail with 347 miles divided into six sections (sections 8 through 13).

Map of the Northern Forest Canoe TrailIn total the trail has 13 sections passing through 22 rivers and streams, 56 lakes and ponds, 55 miles of portages (places where you must carry your canoe or kayak), and 45 communities. To traverse the full length of the trail requires the ability to pole upstream, descend up to class IV rapids, cross large lakes and even carry your canoe or kayak from one body of water to another.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail History

The idea for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail sprang from research done on Native American canoe Routes by Kay Henry and Rob Center in the 1990s. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail organization was incorporated in 2000 to help turn that research into the community and resource that is now the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The trail was officially completed in the spring of 2006 and had its official opening day on June 3, 2006.

Something for All Skill Levels

Picture of Two People CanoeingThe beauty of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, besides the wonderful scenery along the way, is that over its course there are parts of the trail that are appropriate for paddlers of every level of expertise from the novice to expert. In addition, it is easy to carve up the trail into pieces that not only meet your abilities, but also the time you want to commit to the endeavor. You can opt for a paddle of a couple of hours, or a day, or a more strenuous weekend trip, to challenging trips of a week or more. In addition you can mix up your trip so that you pass through both wild areas as well as developed areas. Unlike most hiking trails, the Northern Forest Canoe trail passes through developed areas of many of the communities along the trail.

Most people simply do small sections of the trail that are appropriate for them. There are fewer than 50 people who have done the whole trail either in a through passage (all at one time), of doing the sections over multiple trips. The fastest time for a through passage to date is 32 days.

The first through paddle actually happened before the official opening of the trail when Donnie Mullen completed the course in 2000. The second through paddle was by Nicole Grohoski in 2006.

The Best Sections for Novice / Beginner Paddlers

  • Section 1 in New York – This section features mainly flatwater lake paddling, with some rapids on the Raquette River that can be carried. Along this section there is easy access to services.
  • Section 2 in New York – Similar to section 1, there is flatwater lake paddling, easy river paddling, and the one rapid can be carried. This section also has easy access to services.
  • Section 7 in New Hampshire – The Connecticut River in Section 7 from Bloomfield to Groveton is great easy river paddling.
  • Section 8 in Maine – The parts of the trail on Umbagog Lake and Rangeley are good for less experienced paddlers.
  • Section 9 in Maine – Flagstaff Lake in Section 9 is also appropriate for less experienced paddlers.

The Best Sections for Experienced Paddlers

The most challenging sections of the trail that should only be attempted by experts are:

  • Section 3 in New York – While this segment of the trail starts and ends with flatwater paddling, the middle includes whitewater with numerous carries around falls and drops.
  • Section 8 in Maine – The Rapid River is probably the most challenging whitewater along the trail, although there is an established portage trail around it that most people use.
  • Section 10 in Maine – This section is a challenge both for its remoteness and the Demo Rapids on the Moose River near Rockwood.
  • Section 12 in Maine – This is a section that offers a full range of paddling experiences. Remoteness makes this section a challenge. The paddling in this section is actually very manageable. Hiring a guide and/or an outfitter can help to deal with the remoteness of this location and provide for an excellent experience.
  • Section 13 in Maine – Also a challenge because of its remoteness. Similar to section 12, the paddling here is also manageable. Again, a guide or an outfitter can be just the ticket for taking on this remote section of the trail.

Mapping Out Your Trip

Picture of a Northern Forest Canoe Trail MedallionThe trail and it 13 contiguous sections are well mapped out with information on access points, campsites, lodging, paddling routes, portage routes and more. In addition, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail has:

The Best Time to Go

Seasonal fluctuations in water level give the trail an ever changing character. In late summer some parts of the trail may be too dry to paddle. The best water levels tend to come in May and June and September and October.

Border Crossing

In section 5 and 6 the trail crosses the border between the United States and Canada. It is necessary to check in with the border patrol stations with a valid passport.

Safety Along the Way

Picture of a Moose in WaterThe Northern Forest Canoe Trail publishes an excellent Paddlers Safety Checklist (PDF) as well as a document on Cold Water Survival (PDF) to help plan for a safe trip.

Remember that parts of the trail can be very remote and you need to have the appropriate back country skills to tackle those sections. Also remember that you are traveling through the habitat of bear, moose, and other wild animals. Stay clear of a mother bear and her cubs in the spring time and well clear of rutting moose in the fall.

Easy to Get To

While the trail itself may pass through some very rugged and remote parts of New York and New England, it is within a days drive of major metropolitan areas such as Albany, Boston, Hartford, Montreal, and New York. This puts the trail within easy reach of over 80 million people in the northeast United States and Canada.

Other New England Paddling Trails

Photo credits: The pictures and maps in this article were provided by the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and are used here with their permission. Please help to support them by making a donation or becoming a member.

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