The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) winds from Old Forge, N.Y., to Fort Kent, Maine. Established in 2000, it is the longest mapped inland paddling route in the country: 740 miles.
How would you like to paddle that? No thanks. The NFCT is the canoeist’s version of the Appalachian Trail, another intimidating outdoor challenge that has never been on my bucket list, even though I enjoy hiking and paddling in small doses.
It takes a special breed of outdoors person to undertake these physically and mentally demanding, if not exhausting, undertakings. Those who have done it confess unabashedly that, in the end, it is the mental battle that wears you down more than the sore hands or the blistered feet.
Laurie Apgar Chandler, from Bremen, Maine, is the first woman to solo thru-paddle the Northern Forest Canoe Trail — all 740 miles of it. She tells her story in a new book, “Upwards,” published by Maine Authors Publishing. Although she has penned many articles about her outdoor experiences, this is the 53-year-old paddler’s first book.
As you might expect, experiences pile up when you traverse that many streams, rivers and lakes all alone in a small canoe. For me, the tenacity and courage required for this paddling odyssey would by itself make for an interesting read, regardless of the author’s writing ability. In “Upwards,” though, you get more for the price of the book than just a good outdoor story. Chandler can write as skillfully and passionately as she paddles!
Here is a taste of her prose: “What we carry is pared down to the essentials. Our cares shift from pleasing people and satisfying a thirsty schedule, to navigating the intricacies of the ever-changing trail. Our thoughts focus closer, deeper, truer. We are content with less, and often find more.”
Chandler started her long trip in June and finished up in August. What you come to learn as you share her journey is that this trip was not undertaken merely to get to a destination complete with bragging rights about being the first woman to conquer the NFCT. No, Chandler runs much deeper than that. A young widow with children grown and a dedicated paddler, she wanted the experience of simply being there, and becoming more intimate with nature and her own thoughts.
A woman of faith and a self-described retiring individual, Chandler’s experience was a transformative game-changer in some respects. She found renewed confidence, fellowship and goodness from the “trail angels” who helped her in so many ways along the water course. She writes, “I believe that, in people, in their compassion and enthusiasm, generosity and smiles, we can catch a glimpse of God. And give one, too.”
Allagash guide Gil Gilpatrick, a seasoned paddler in his own right, reminds us that during her solo voyage Chandler paddled 150 miles upstream and did 67 portages totaling 125 miles. “She’s my new hero,” says Gilpatrick.
“Upwards” is a must read for paddlers, and a quality reading experience for anyone who likes the natural world and values thoughtful, sensitive prose.