I’m home from the last part of the NFCT. My friend Matt and I polished off the last section of the trail extremely fast, rain is an excellent motivator, and we had a great time. Now it’s time to catch up with telling the story of the trip. I’ve already written about the bad part of it, but if I rewind to about ten days before that, things were looking up. Here is the first in a series of blogs about the trip. Note on the title: the 90-Miler is a race that roughly follows the route we took from Old Forge to Saranac Lake, NY.
Marc Creamer, brother of the often-mentioned coach Mike, and I left Pointe-Claire early on a Wednesday morning in early May. Foreshadowing our three days together, we took a circuitous route to Old Forge, NY the start of the NFCT, and arrived a few hours behind schedule. To be fair, the schedule was only in my head. We pushed off at about 14:30 in spitting rain but with a nice tail wind. Liesl did not have the faintest idea what was happening, but stoically bore her ridiculous life jacket and awkward placement in the boat by my feet.
I had a rough idea of what kind of distance we could cover each day, around 40kms or 25 miles, and we nailed it, easily. In a few short hours that afternoon we covered close to 15 miles. Consequently, we were…cocky. That night we went to bed early. We set up camp in a giant leant-to staying comfortably dry in the unpredictable May weather. The next day entailed some big lake crossing and a couple of portages. We knew it would be a hard day, so we went to bed early, even foregoing a slosh of scotch from Marc’s flask—don’t worry, it didn’t happen again.
What we had thought would be a straightforward day turned out to be one of the scariest days of the trip. The next morning was calm and quiet (above). We enjoyed our oatmeal and coffee and were thrilled by the prospect of a sunny day. We left early and made good time. Then the wind picked up. Crossing Raquette Lake, a lake that seemed to be made up of pan-handle bays designed to funnel wind, we faced our only real challenge. The wind was gusting to 50 miles an hour, and later we would learn there had been warnings about paddling on the large lakes. The wind forced us to ferry across the bays (To Ferry (roughly): Pointing into the wind and/or current, with only a slight angle toward your target. Progress is slow but you maintain maximum control and stability). We managed the first of these with relative ease, but the second was treacherous. Rounding a point we discovered that the wind had a straight run down the lake of a couple of miles. We only had a few hundred meters to cross but the big waves and heavy boat caused us to second-guess ourselves. Really, we shouldn’t have tried. We made it, but it was not fun, and a few times we thought about just scuttling to the safety of shore. Our concern wasn’t for ourselves (we wouldn’t have drowned or anything though it would have been unpleasant), but for our gear, the boat, and little Liesl, who, in all her brilliance kept on hopping up to the highest point in the canoe on top of some bags, precariously balancing as we were tossed around in the wind. To its credit the boat handled the big waves well and I was really pleased with its performance that day.
But the wind wasn’t finished with us that day. We still had miles and miles to paddle with the wind at our backs. This wasn’t as fun as you’d think. The waves coming from behind were big enough to cause the boat surf down the waves, threatening cause us to wind up parallel to the coming waves, which could have tipped or swamped us. When we finally made camp that night we were exhausted. It wasn’t the effort of the paddling as much as the stress created by the constant need to focus. It wasn’t a pleasant few hours. But that night, halfway up Long Lake in a windswept lean-to, it made for good conversation around the scotch flask. And actually every time we ran out of things to say, one of us would inevitably bring up what a bad idea it had been to be out in those waves. Even Liesl was tired and dove into the tent the second it was up.
The next day, we made one wrong turn, or I guess one missed turn would be a better description. We were a little carried away with ourselves because of how easily we were moving through the ADKs and how we handled the wind and waves the day before. Chatting away, we missed a turn. The only turn, in fact, with a clear sign naming the adjoining river. We ended up paddling five miles up the Racquette River. A meandering, narrow river with many little false starts which looked like the river proper but were actually marshy bays. At about four such intersections we stopped to look at the map. We earnestly discussed whether left or right made sense, trying to impose our supposed location on the map to an area it obviously didn’t correspond to. Incredibly, we made almost all the right choices. We made it upstream with only one wrong turn (Marc’s fault) on our wrong-turn side trip. It finally dawned on us that we had missed the critical turn about an hour previously, when we discovered lean-tos miles from where they should have been. Our hubris extinguished, we turned around, bending our paddles against the current for the only silent time we had together. It wasn’t all-bad, though. We wound up with beautiful campsite that had the best outhouse in the ADKs: just a box about two feet square over a whole in the ground, but the view down the river was serene and the gentle breeze surprisingly refreshing at seven AM.
The next day we arrived in Saranac after inadvertently joining a race neither of us had heard of—it was a race around a mountain or something. It looked fun and by the time we joined in—our route followed the race, we had no choice, I swear—we were paddling with the amateurs of the bunch. Naturally I brought the rate up. Liesl, balanced bravely atop the bags, became our mascot and eyed each crew as we passed. More fun still was the people cheering us on. Our explanations that we weren’t really in the race eliciting expressions of “then why are you going hard?” We arrived in Saranac in the mid afternoon. We had a beer and some pizza, and I stole a sleeping bag from Marc along with some hot chocolate and a candy bar or two and proceeded, with only Liesl, down the Saranac River and into some unexpectedly shallow rapids, and brutal portages.