Solo on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Laurie Chandler's new book captures the highs and lows of a thru-paddler

On June 20, 2015, 53-year-old Laurie Apgar Chandler launched her yellow Kevlar canoe in the Adirondacks at Old Forge, NY, and began a journey she hoped would take her 740 miles across lakes, rivers and portages, through New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, and deep into Maine's North Woods, on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

A long canoe trip forces its participants to embrace uncertainty; Chandler was no exception. "Although I had researched, trained, planned, and prepared, so much hung in the balance," Chandler recalls. "Water levels, weather conditions, stretches of difficult whitewater to portage, the durability of my new boat and not-so-new body. What I was sure of was that I was not going to give up, as long as my boat was intact and I had any strength left."

On Lake Champlain. Photo: Peter Macfarlane

Chandler eloquently weaves her personal path to long-distance canoe tripping and her 2015 solo thru-paddle of the NFCT in Upwards, a memoir released in 2017. The book is equal parts meditation and travelogue, and certain to become a must-read for paddlers venturing into the wilds of the Northeast. Chandler was introduced to canoeing by her late husband, Chris, on a 2005 honeymoon trip on Maine's Allagash River. She admits to knowing nothing about the NFCT until 2008, when she met a solo paddler on the trail, in the Penobscot River watershed. "I was in awe of his large green tripping canoe, packed with gear for the long expedition, and his quiet confidence about the journey," says Chandler.

Chandler was left adrift after the sudden loss of her husband. She went back to the Allagash with her father, for a trip in Chris' blue canoe. That set about her dream of accomplishing something bigger. In 2011, Chandler completed a monthlong "Paddle for Hope", raising funds for cancer research. It "gave me the courage to believe that I might make it all the way," says Chandler, who kayaked 350 miles and raised $10,681. "It also clarified what to change and what to keep the same, when it came to gear and logistics."

Upwards overflows with inspiration. Chandler's story is clearly one of ambition and possibility--laced with practical tips. For example, she made use of a Wheeleez Tuff Tires cart to make it across the NFCT's 65 portages in two trips. Chandler calls Katina Daanan's NFCT guidebook "essentially the bible for thru-paddlers."

"I would definitely recommend some shakedown trips," adds Chandler. "Test all of your equipment, practice loading your boat and paddling in wind. Practice balancing the boat on the wheels and portaging on rough woods roads as well as pavement."

Chandler didn't hesitate to go alone, and her prose smacks of the observations and reflections of a lone traveller. "The freedom of answering just to yourself, the joy of silence, and long hours to commune not just with nature, but with yourself, are what renew me as a person," she notes. "I came to Maine with a lot of experience backcountry camping alone in Shenandoah National Park, so it was already comfortable for me."

She averaged 14 miles per day on a summerlong expedition that included over 70 miles of portaging. Chandler struggles to isolate her best day. She conceded it might have been an idyllic bug-free campsite after a hard slog on the Upper Ammonoosuc River ("I was just about as content as a person could get," she says). The hardest day on a summer of near-constant rain was one she will never forget:

"I trudged over 12 miles, numb and exhausted, to bypass difficult rapids on the Saranac River," recalls Chandler. "I got lost near the start and added another mile, or two. Alone and without strong whitewater skills, I was choosing to be particularly conservative in this stretch that had destroyed the boats and dreams of more skilled through-paddlers than me."

The whole experience, Chandler says, was "challenging even before you consider the fact that there was a desperate escaped convict on the loose, who my imagination placed behind every tree on those cold and lonely miles of often deserted roads."

Chandler at Long Lake, NY, the end of the NFCT’s first segment

In the end, she became the first woman to complete a solo thru-paddle of the entire NFCT. (Nicole Grohoski was the first woman to paddle it with a partner in 2006; others, such as Cathy Mumford, have combined paddling with assisted shuttles on portions of the trail. The NFCT website maintains a list of thru-paddlers, and defines various distinctions based on direction of travel and percentage of the trail covered self-propelled.) Chandler acknowledges that she had to break a cycle of procrastination to complete Upwards, and the paddling community should be thrilled she did.

"I discovered an inner strength that I had only hoped I had, emerging fit and confident, capable of long days of travel without always knowing where the miles would take me," says Chandler. "I am usually an organized, detailed planner. [On the NFCT] I had to adapt to not always knowing how I would negotiate the miles ahead, when I would need to take out, or what a difficult stretch might demand. The journey affirmed for me that the only direction to go in life is forward."

More Northern Forest Canoe Trail at CanoeKayak.com

-- Get the inside track on Skip Ciccarelli's 2011 NFCT speed record and read his personal highs and lows

-- Read editor-at-large Alan Kesselheim's review of NFCT-worthy wheeled portage carts and take a look at his full NFCT kit

-- Follow Eric McIntyre on his 2014 NFCT journey