Mike Lynch
The Saranac River section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, east of Bloomingdale in Essex County.
 
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For centuries, one of the best modes of transportation for Native Americans, loggers and guides through the northern forests of New York to Maine was by boat.

That changed in the 20th century with the advent of modern transportation, but long-distance trips by canoe and kayak across the lakes, ponds and rivers of the Northeast are once again on the upswing, in large part because of the nonprofit group, Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Inc.

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is named for the 740-mile paddling route that starts in Old Forge and finishes in Fort Kent, Maine. The organization has been working to connect, promote and provide stewardship for the waterways from New York to Maine since at least 2006, when the nonprofit became official.

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail goes through four states and one Canadian province.

The 147-mile New York section of Northern Forest Canoe Trail route is broken into three parts. It starts in the southwestern Adirondacks on Old Forge Pond in downtown Old Forge. It then continues through the Fulton Chain of Lakes, heads north to Raquette Lake and eventually ends up in Long Lake.

The second section goes from Long Lake to Saranac Lake via the Raquette River and Saranac Chain of Lakes.

The final part starts in downtown Saranac Lake on the Saranac River and heads north to Franklin Falls. From there, it continues to follow the Saranac River all the way to Lake Champlain.

One of the advantages of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is that it goes through both very wild stretches and also through small rural villages. This gives paddlers the opportunity to appreciate all types of settings.

“The paddling experience is a pretty amazing way to connect people with places,” Northern Forest executive director Kate Williams said. “Waterways are pretty amazing tools or venues in terms of the different kinds of experiences they can provide. You can paddle directly through a town like Saranac Lake. You go right through that channel and you can pull up your boat and pick up your supplies at St. Regis Canoe Outfitters. Or go get a milkshake and then keep on paddling, and go around the bend and you’re in the wilderness again.”

The idea for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail actually dates back to the 1990s with Mike Krepner, Ron Canter and Randy Mardres of Native Trails, Inc. The group researched the traditional east-west water routes used by Native Americans and early settlers in the Northern Forest Region, from the Adirondacks to Northern Maine. In 2000, Kay Henry and Rob Center — former principals of Mad River Canoe Company — incorporated the Northern Forest Canoe Trail organization as a way to translate this research into a recreational, community and regional resource.

Among the Northern Forest Canoe Trail’s most obvious accomplishments in recent years has been the creation of 13 waterproof maps for the 740-mile trail, a paddler’s guidebook and a dynamic website that provides trip-planning tips and other services.

Today, Williams runs the nonprofit. She said that as the group moves forward there are three programs the group is focused on: waterway stewardship, economic development and connecting people to the waterways, primarily through youth programs.

“The focus of our (youth) program is to connect rural youth in communities along our trails with experiences on the waterways,” Williams said. “It’s called the Northern Forest Explorers Program and it sets a unique niche. There are quite a few programs that bring urban and suburban kids out into the wild for an experience, but not so many that serve kids who live there. So we’ve found it’s been quite amazing for these guys that live in these communities and see visitors come in these communities to have them become an expert in the place they live. So we’re pretty excited and hope to grow that program even more for the region.”