Northern Forest Canoe Trail Pioneer Donnie Mullen


If you think you’re tough, try paddling and carrying a canoe some 740 miles over 56 days. That’s what Donnie Mullen did in 2000 when he became the first person to through-paddle the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which follows ancient Native American canoe routes across New England. The trail starts in Old Forge, New York, and dissects Vermont, New Hampshire and a small section of Quebec before ending on Maine’s St. John River. As the NFCT prepares to celebrate its first decade of non-profit existence, Mullen relates what it was like to portage 64 miles in a single summer. - Joe Carberry


I paddled a wood and canvas canoe that I built myself. It was built after a canoe from the Maine designer, E.M. White. He built one of the earliest wood and canvas canoes in Maine. About as early as you can get for canvas. In a historical sense, I learned a lot about boats and a region of my state I didn’t know much about. At 16 feet, it handled the combination of big water and narrow streams well.


I met up with friends to paddle with during the trip. I started with one and paddled for a couple of weeks through the New York section and then changed partners in Vermont. I was more or less solo in Vermont, New Hampshire, and part of Maine for three weeks. It was a lot of paddle strokes and I got pretty lean.


It was harder to be alone than I thought. At the time, I figured the downtime would be introspective. But it was lonelier than I expected. I became a blabbermouth. Having conversations with people I met, I would go on and on and not let them get anything in. I definitely realized the value of having people around.


In Spencer Lake, Maine, I was splitting wood with an ax and hit my foot. Luckily, I’d just met up with a partner and there was a car nearby. I ended up leaving the trail for a week to get stitches and recoup.


When I left the trail, it was a big moment of relief. I didn’t know if I needed to go back after my foot healed, but my mother was pulling for me to finish and my other paddling partners tried to fire me up. Sitting at home I kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to do it.’ I would have been really disappointed in myself if I hadn’t finished.


Portaging was slow. I usually took two trips, sometimes three. A five-mile portage, like from Spencer Lake to the Moose River, takes all day. You’re walking 15 miles. But I settled into the portaging. It became my lower body workout.


It was pretty unclear when I did this trip how long it was going to take. Mike Krepner, one of the trail founders, thought I could do it in a season. Other people weren’t so convinced.


It was an honor to have a say in the final NFCT map. Old, sort of maverick dudes, hippies, cartographers, paddlers, historians, came up with the idea. I took USGS maps and cross-referenced them with all the information I could find from these people. I certainly contributed my thoughts on where there were major sticking points in the trail. It was a major accomplishment in my life.


NFCT’s Online Auction Runs Through Dec. 3


As the Northern Forest Canoe Trail celebrates its 10th anniversary, Old Town Canoes & Kayaks will partner with the non-profit organization by donating a special-edition classic wooden Guide 16 canoe for its sixth annual online auction fundraiser (hand-shaped from cedar, the canoe retails at $7,800). The auction started Wednesday and runs through Dec. 3, with all proceeds supporting NFCT mission programs.


“We share a common tradition of stewardship and a passion for the waters the New England watershed,” Old Town Marketing Director Sara Knies said of the partnership. “Seven of the 13 NFCT sections lie within the state of Maine alone, and, combined with routes across New York, Vermont, Quebec and New Hampshire, form the preeminent historic paddling trail in North America.”


CLICK HERE for more information or to join in the auction.

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