Chasing Records on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

60-something sets out to break speed record on 740-mile NFCT

By Conor Mihell

Skip Ciccarelli with his canoe prior to his June 27 departure. Photo: Ciccarelli collection

On Monday, June 27, Skip Ciccarelli will set out to shatter the speed record for paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which stretches from Old Forge, N.Y. to Fort Kent, Maine. His goal is to complete the 740-mile journey in 27 days; the current record, held by Mike Stavola (aka Kayakathon Man), is just over 32 days. To do it, Ciccarelli, a high school shop teacher from a small town in central Massachusetts, will need to average 27 miles per day, traveling up- and downstream over rugged portages and across some of the biggest lakes in the eastern United States.

Ciccarelli is no stranger to pushing it long and hard on paddling expeditions. In 2008, he celebrated his 60th birthday by sea kayaking 1,700 miles from Chicago to New York City with the goal of raising awareness about prostate cancer, which he had just recovered from. This time around he has another goal: To heighten the profile of the NFCT, inspiring his students and other paddlers to embark on journeys of their own. Because of the water trail’s 55 miles of portaging, Ciccarelli will be making this mission in a 17-foot Hornbeck canoe, which he will propel with a double-bladed paddle. We caught up with Ciccarelli in the midst of preparing for his departure.

C&K: I’ve heard that the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is one of the prettiest places to paddle in all of the United States. Why do you want to blast through it to set a new speed record?

Skip Ciccarelli: I don’t want to blast through it and miss the whole experience. Actually, I want to enjoy it. But I think I can comfortably do it fast. In my 2008 trip from Chicago to New York City I averaged 40 miles per day. Granted, there were no portages on that trip. When I learned about the current [NFCT] record I said to myself, “Gee, I bet I could do it quicker than that.” My strategy is to paddle four to five miles per hour for eight to ten hours per day.

Tell me about your attraction to the NFCT. I paddled parts of it unknowingly in the Adirondacks and Maine, unaware that they were really sections of the water trail. It’s in a gorgeous part of the country and has a nice history—first Native American, and then being the route of the French trappers.

Why is it important for you to raise awareness about the water trail? Because not enough people know about it. I’m just trying to get the word out. I’m hoping that it will grow through word of mouth and get a lot of people up to the challenge. I work in a high school and am involved with the outdoor club, so a part of this is trying to get the kids thinking about the outdoors.

What do you think will be the hardest part about this trip? I’m thinking the downstream section on the Saranac River, from the Adirondacks to Lake Champlain. I’m not a whitewater paddler and will be fairly timid around it. The entire New Hampshire section is going to be tough—it’s all upriver with a fair amount of portaging.

You did your last big trip in a sea kayak. What will it be like to paddle a canoe this time? I’m just learning about how canoes work compared to a sea kayak. I’m sure I could go faster on the lakes in my kayak but my logic was that the canoe would be much easier to portage. My kayak is a real bear … I was afraid it would croak me on the portages. The canoe only weighs 30 pounds.

And what about your gear? Are you going to pack like a minimalist? I want to keep it light as possible so I can portage everything in a single load. At first I was thinking 30 pounds for gear but it’s probably going to be 35. I’m trying to minimize clothes, taking a lightweight tent, minimal sleeping bag, and a small Jetboil stove. I only luxuriate when it comes to sleeping—I have a 2.5-inch pad and a camp pillow. I will be eating all freeze-dried food and stopping to eat in restaurants when I can. I have a couple of food drops planned and know a few locations to buy more food. Starting on Moosehead Lake I’ll have 136 miles of wilderness so I’ll need to be totally self-contained for that section.

Will you have time to write a blog en route? I’m kind of low-tech like that and don’t think I’d even have the capability. I will be lucky if I have cell phone coverage in most areas. But I know I will come back with some great stories.

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  • tom gergler

    I will have to order canoe & kayak magazine . We are always looking for supplys and new adventures. Also love your “Yoeman Lifevest”ad.

  • Don Evans

    I ran into Skip C today as I was kayaking on the Saranac River 12 miles west of Plattsburgh. He was looking great, and I had an opportunity paddle with him up to Cadyville, N.Y. I admire his dedication and wish him the best of luck. Go Skip! Enjoy Lake Champlain.

  • Maura Rosenthal

    We ran into Skip on the Saranac River on June 30. We were inspired by his trip and enjoyed spending time with him and sharing fresh strawberries! All the best to Skp!

  • peter close

    Met Skip (July 5, Newport Vermont) while my family and I were pulling my sailboat out of the water. He had just crossed back into the U.S. and was wondering where to check in (Customs). He had justed paddled several miles of Lake Memphramagog. Godspeed Skip!!

  • kalmia

    Huh, I suspect this is who we saw just above Pontook Dam on July 10th, heading up the Androscoggin as a group from the Androscoggin Source-to-the-Sea trek was heading down river…

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