Kate Williams with Her Family on the Allagash
Kate Williams is the Executive Director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a role that she has held since 2004. She lives with her husband and two children in Waitsfield, Vermont. Travel New England had an opportunity to catch up with Kate a couple of weeks ago to learn more about the trail.
TNE: Hi Kate. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. If you could start by telling us a little bit about your background – how long you have been Executive Director of the Northern Forest Canoe Tail etc.
Kate: Sure. I have been the executive director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail since March of 2004, which puts me into my ninth summer on the trail which is exciting. When I came on, the organization had just been around for about three years. So I was fortunate to come on when we were really ramping up and going public. We developed our maps and installed kiosks and really got the trail underway.
TNE: What state was the trail in when you joined? Was it a case of mapping it out from end to end still, or did you still have to get rites of passage and things like that?
Kate: The route for the trail had been sketched out in the 1990s. In the early 2000s the organization was incorporated to essentially take that route and make it a public recreation resource. We were doing the mapping which involved looking at the 13 different sections of the trail – we subdivided it into 13 sections – and securing all of the final permissions. We weren’t really figuring out the overall route but we were buttoning up all of the details of exactly which land owners we needed permissions from and all of that kind of stuff.
TNE: How much of the land that you go through is public and how much is private?
Kate: It’s roughly 80 percent private which is a unique feature of a long distance trail. Many of the western trails are on public land because there is so much more public land there. So we have the Allagash Wilderness Waterway that is about 92 miles and that’s a state administered public access point and then we go through a few state parks and things like that but otherwise it’s mostly private.
TNE: Who had the vision to create the trail?
Kate: The original route finders were three guys who worked with an organization called Native Trails Incorporated. Ron Canter, Mike Krepner, and Randy Mardres did the route research and essentially produced the initial hand-drawn map. Then Kay Henry and Rob Center of Mad River Canoe incorporated the Northern Forest Canoe Trail organization and then took the next step to commit to making the route into a public recreation resource. When I came on in 2004 I was the staff person charged with essentially delivering on that promise.
TNE: What do your duties as the Executive Director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail entail?
Kate: Well in a nice way and sometimes overwhelming way they entail a little of everything, as is often the case in small non-profits. I do a lot of fund raising. I do the overall staff management to insure that we deliver our work plans and deliver our mission. I do a lot of public speaking and public outreach to help promote the trail, and a lot of direct project work with partners. I also work closely with our board of directors on the overall trail management.
TNE: What was your background before joining the Northern Forest Canoe Trail?
Kate: Right out of college I spent the 10 to 15 years as an educator, primarily an outdoor educator first at the National Outdoor Leadership School and then at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico that had an experiential education program that was very extensive and all the students were required to participate in. Then I shifted out of field work and more into some classroom teaching and then I kind of took the next step into working on behalf of outdoor issues but not in the field and that was at the Trust for Public Land. Then I came indirectly from there to the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
TNE: How much had you paddled prior to joining the Northern Forest Canoe Trail?
Kate: Not a lot. I certainly spent a lot of time as a kid in a canoe just in a very informal recreational way but I never thought of myself as a paddler, never described myself as a paddler. I was a little worried about that when I first came on but the great thing has been I’ve been able to be a learner as part of doing this job and have spent quite a bit of time now paddling with my family. We’ve done several week-long trips and we’ve done trips on the trail and my kids have done quite a bit of the overall trail with me. We’ve probably done about 500 miles.
TNE: How old are your kids?
Kate: They are now 13 and 10. We did our first overnight trip in the Adirondacks when they were probably four and seven. I took the job when my son was two.
TNE: They love paddling as much as you do?
Kate: They do and the beauty of paddling with kids is that they don’t always have to paddle. So early on we did the Allagash as a family all in one boat when we could all fit reasonably comfortably in our 17 foot boat, and so they could paddle and contribute but if they got tired or didn’t feel like it any more they could also read a book or play cards on the dry bags. So it’s nice because you can have a real expedition and cover some ground and they can be part of it but they don’t have to carry a heavy pack. And I’m saying that as someone who loves hiking but recognize that it can be something difficult to do with young kids.
TNE: Having been a learner yourself you are probably a good example for the next question. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail offers a great diversity of environments and it can be a bit daunting to somebody who is either a novice or not a terribly experienced paddler. What advice or what would you have for those kinds of Paddlers?
Kate: A couple things. One is that while the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is the longest inland water trail in the country, and we tell stories about our heroes the through paddlers, most of us are not through paddlers and the trail lends itself very well and in fact we really have set it up to be a trail for people who can paddle for a weekend or a week and who may not have the skills to do all of it. It’s very well set up for that. Our community partners welcome that. There are a lot of sections of the trail that are great places to get your paddle wet for the first time.
My two main pieces of advice for people who are really just getting into it and who want to hit the trail are one, don’t hesitate to find a guide and outfitter to work with even just for a morning. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a guide even to just do a half day to get some basic instruction can be very helpful from the practical standpoint of you knowing what to do but can also help you to understand that you can do it. That it’s accessible to you. Then secondly I would say pick an area of the trail, of which there are many, that has some easily accessible waters that are on the friendlier end of the spectrum so you can minimize the surprises. Examples would be smaller lakes or ponds, or slower moving rivers or stream where there may be some wind but it’s not going to have as big an impact.
TNE: What’s the section of water across Lake Champlain like?
Kate: Lake Champlain is a beautiful but can be a pretty burley paddle because it’s so big and it tends to get the north/south winds that kick up waves that run the length of the lake, so they can really get quite large. That said, it’s beautiful in that you can spend a great weekend on the Champlain Islands paddling around the islands and finding your way into coves that are very well protected but the larger lake is certainly worth exploring but doing so with a good level of knowledge and good set of information.
We have worked closely with the Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail which is a project of the Lake Champlain Committee and they have extensive information and can really set people up to do much more extensive paddling of the lake then we can. For us it is a relatively small section of our overall trail so we provide good information about the actual crossing that is included in our trail but we are not the go to resource for the whole of Lake Champlain.
TNE: It sounds like you need to treat Lake Champlain with the same respect that you would give the ocean.
Kate: Exactly, and really just about anywhere along the trail you want to approach it that way – be knowledgeable, be educated, talk to locals, find out what the water levels are, wear your life jacket at all times, which is one of the most important things. But on the bigger lakes like Lake Champlain, Moosehead Lake, some of the Rangeley Lakes – Mooselookmeguntic is notorious for getting big waves. You just have to recognize that conditions can change fast and can get quite significant so being educated is important.
TNE: Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum. Let’s talk about what the trail holds for the expert paddler.
Kate: There are two categories of challenge for expert paddlers. One is the ability to do longer distance trips that require capability on multiple and changing water types but also being able to pack and travel in an expedition mode. The trail certainly lends itself to that for the through paddler doing the whole thing to week long or two week long expeditions on certain chunks of the trail. And then there is also white water which is a unique kind of challenge which requires a unique set of skills which many people love and others don’t. We do have white water, not extensive and in some ways the route of the trail was chosen to not be an entirely white water route and has good season-long water levels for the most part. But the trail does in each state have some nice white water for those who are interested.
TNE: What are the levels of the rapids you will find on the trail?
Kate: Anywhere from Class I to Class V. There’s really only one section in Maine on the Rapid River that has some Class V and then the Saranac River in New York has some ledge drops that are fairly significant. Then the Androscoggin River in northern New Hampshire is kind of classic white water where a lot of white water paddlers in New England got their first taste of it. Then the Moose River over toward Moosehead Lake has a section of rapids called the Demo rapids. Those are kind of the biggies along the trail. There’s also the Chase Rapids on the Allagash River and then otherwise there are some Class I and II smaller sections on different parts of it. All of our rapids are well marked on our maps and in almost all cases there are portage trails for those who want to paddle the trail but do not necessarily want to paddle through the white water sections.
TNE: So for the most part if you want to do the entire trail, even if you are doing it in sections, you can do it and avoid the rapids.
TNE: Do you have some personal favorite sections of the trail?
Kate: I do. I always hesitate a little bit because I don’t want to leave any one out, and also I fall in love with every section as soon as I paddle it, but recent favorites are the west branch of the Penobscot including Lobster Lake and also including Chesuncook Lake It’s a great trip that I did with my family last year, putting in at the Roll Dam on the West Branch and taking out at the southern end of Chesuncook Lake. What’s really nice about it is it’s doable. We did it easily as a family in five days, but you feel like you’re out there, and you are, in a way. It’s also just a beautiful mix of white sand beaches on Lobster Lake and then the meandering West Branch which is moving along but is very gentle, and then the big wild Chesuncook Lake where you almost feel like you’re along the Atlantic coast as you paddle along the rocky shoreline.
I also really love the Missisquoi River in northwest Vermont. I’ve just done day trips there but there is something about paddling through this big agricultural valley which is pretty cool.
TNE: Talk to us a little bit about the wildlife along the trail.
Kate: There’s lots of it; animals and birds need to drink and they come to do that at waterways, so you are kind of guaranteed a lot of different kind of creatures showing up on the shorelines. What’s cool about paddling is you’re so quiet and you’re right in the environment. In a pretty unique way as far as modes of outdoor travel go you really do set yourself up to see some wildlife. So you see lots of different kinds of water fowl from Ospreys and Bald Eagles, Herons and Mergansers and other kinds of ducks and Canada Geese as well. There’s also River Otters. There’s foxes. My family saw a den of foxes on a bank in the Missisquoi River with lots of little baby fox ears poking up out of a little den. It was very very exciting. There’s Moose, most people tend to see them in Maine and tend to see them on the trail mainly starting at Umbagog but almost guaranteed in the Allagash. That’s always exciting; you can come around a bend and find yourself quite close to them. You obviously want to not get too close as Moose can charge – you want to keep your distance but you can definitely get a really good sighting of them. We had a through-paddler who saw a bear swimming across Flagstaff Lake which was pretty cool. Lots of great sightings and what’s neat about seeing wildlife while you’re paddling is you are truly coming around the bend and finding something so it always feels like a gift because it’s kind of surprise in a really nice way.
TNE: Shifting gears a bit, what are some of the biggest challenges you face in your job as Executive Director?
Kate: I think like all small non-profits I’m constantly thinking about how to raise the money that we need to do all the great work that we want to do. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity because our axe is sharper the more hungry we are for what we need to do the work we want to do. It definitely requires a good piece of work and I would say that right now we have a great board and a great staff working together on that. We’ve had some good success and we have been able to do pretty well on that front. We have a nice diverse budget with a lot of different revenue sources so that certainly helps.
Other challenges are the geography and that is also an opportunity. It’s obviously a great feature of the trail, but from a staff and running the organization standpoint it’s a challenge. We drive a lot of miles. We have partners in far-flung places and so face-to-face meetings can either be hard to make happen or when they do happen it requires a lot of effort to get there. But again it is also a huge opportunity. I would never say that the distance of the trail is a negative; it’s just from an operational standpoint figuring out how to best set ourselves up to manage across a big geography. I’d say that one of the opportunities that comes out of that is that we had to realize really early on that there’s no way that we can do everything we want to do alone. So from the get-go we structured ourselves to be very grass-roots and partner oriented.
We have partners who we work really closely and who we rely on for a lot of our programs all along the trail and that’s both really effective and really fun ‘cause there’s a lot of great people that we get to work with.
TNE: What are some of the successes that you’ve had or things that have given you great pleasure running this organization?
Kate: Top of the list would be the people that I’ve gotten to work with. You know when I began doing the work I thought I knew New England fairly well, but getting to meet people and communities from the western edge of the Adirondacks up to northern Maine has been just such a great gift. I feel like there are all of these creative, wise, energetic, enthusiastic people in small communities throughout the trail and it’s just a pleasure to get to work with all of them. I think also, when I came on the organization was just getting started so I got to be part of, and continue to be part of, although we are moving to the next stage, a start-up organization which has its risky challenging moments but also just a ton of creativity and learning and figuring things out which I really like. It’s just been really fun to have the opportunity to be a mission driven non-profit that’s also pretty entrepreneurial and needs to stay creative and so that’s been really fun.
TNE: Are you a native of New England?
Kate: I grew up outside of Boston and my family has a camp on Great Pond in Belgrade, Maine and that’s pretty much where we spent every summer when I was growing up. So I very much feel like Maine is part of my home turf although I certainly wouldn’t claim any native status. I realize that’s earned over many more years than I have spent. I do feel like I have strong New England ties.
TNE: I think in Maine it might be earned over generations.
Kate: Yeah, exactly. Vermont is the same. My son was born here in Vermont so we joke about how his grandchildren might get to call themselves native Vermonters if they still are here.
TNE: What does the future hold in store for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail?
Kate: Well the big thing we are focusing on right now is that we really do feel like we have emerged from the start-up phase and now we are really looking at how do we just continue to grow and focus our programs in ways that make sure that we make the difference that we want to make. The initiative we’re launching this year is called the “Trail Town” initiative and we’re really using that as a way not necessarily to do entirely different work than what we’ve been doing – our three program areas of trail stewardship, community economic development, and youth outdoors. Those three programs all intersect at the community level and we’re really committed to having our trail make a difference for these small communities.
So through the Trail Town Initiative we’re going to drill down into some communities and ultimately all communities will have access to this. We are going to focus on a few communities and put the pieces together to see how we can work with community partners to make sure that there’s community access to recreation, that there’s services needed to support recreation, and not just paddling recreation but the other forms of recreation as well. To make sure that community members contribute other priorities that they think will enhance economic opportunities linked to recreation in their communities. So we’re focusing on a couple of communities in Maine right now and a community in northern Vermont to pilot to help us figure out how we do this work. Then we will essentially create a model that we can put in place in other communities as well.
TNE: Thank you very much for speaking with us, Kate.
Kate: Thank you and thank you for the exposure for the trail.