Peter Macfarlane's 2018 Solo East-West Through-Paddle of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
in a Cedar-Strip Canoe by Otter Creek Smallcraft

NFCT's Map of Overall Route Peter & Sylva completing the NFCT


What I'm writing beforehand ...

In the light of experience ... (to come)

Jump to:
Packing ethos | Timing | Canoe | Paddle | 'Tent' | Route | Safety & Communication |
Food | Water | Stove | Wheels? | Fitness | Lining & Tracking | Poling | Accommodation

Packing ethos - the plan

As last time, I intend to travel light and fast, carrying nothing more than is really necessary. That said, I have learned a few lessons, and will be carrying more to ensure comfort in adverse conditions, including a good under-quilt for my hammock, a warmer sleeping bag and warmer clothing for both paddling and nights. To offset the extra weight, I shall be carrying less food at any one time, using three re-supplies rather than one. Since food is the heaviest single item in my pack, it may be that my overall pack weight is lighter than last time, but that remains to be seen.

Packing ethos - the reality

Timing - the plan

My start date is Monday 14th May, and I have a 28-day schedule planned out as my goal. That's ambitious, I realise, but my intended average daily mileage is informed by experience. In 2013 on the Missisquoi I managed up to about 20 miles in a day while the river was flowing at 6+ mph against me. And my progress up white-water, such as rapids on the Androscoggin, Spencer and Little Spencer Streams and Caucomgomoc Stream gives me an indication of how I'll fare against rapids, which to a large extent are intermittent rather than continuous.

I expect non-upstream days to be quite long, taking advantage of downstream or of deep lake water to leave many miles in my wake. And I'm hoping that warmer sleeping conditions may make for more restful nights, encouraging me to make prompt starts in the mornings. Of course, it may be that a warmer sleeping bag is more enticing, making it harder to emerge into a frosty morning!

Timing - the reality

Canoe - the plan

The culmination of my 2013 through-paddle was, I'm not embarrassed to say, a pretty emotional occasion. A not insignificant part of that emotion was reserved for my canoe – a mix of pride and affection (yes, affection for an inanimate object). We had shared so much intense experience and emerged triumphant together. I dubbed my canoe – my self-designed and -built 14-foot solo Sylva – “the little canoe that could … and did!” This canoe served me so well then that I cannot conceive of undertaking this trek in any other.

Canoe - the reality

Paddle - the plan

As with my canoe, I shall be using the same paddle that has been part of my paddling for 20 years and counting. This will be my propulsion in all deep water. In white-water and shallow conditions I shall once more use a shorter paddle with wider blade, but not the clunky home-made one of last time. I had an old wooden kayak paddle, made by Mark Gees, left over from my kayak slalom competition days, and it had seen no use for well over 20 years. With a certain amount of regret I cut through the shaft and grafted a T-grip on to the cut end. So I now have a white-water canoe paddle with a curved blade and a reinforced metal tip. I expect it to see much action.

Paddle - the reality

'Tent' - the plan

Once again I shall use my camping hammock. It's light, easily packed with no rigid parts, erects in just a few minutes, and is comfortable for sleeping. One problem of hammocks is their lack of underside insulation. Last time I used a Thermarest inside, but tended to slip off it, and so ended up with cold spots. Since then I have made an underquilt from an old sleeping bag, and have been impressed by the insulation that is achieved by having lofted material in the right place (duh!) Furthermore, in anticipation of cold nights, I have even made it so that an extra layer can be held in by velcro under my torso and hips, doubling up on the insulation. If it's too warm (yeah, right), it's easy to adjust so that more air circulates.

'Tent' - the reality

Route - the plan

Once more, I'm drafting my own directions, complete with mileages, obstructions, rapids, carries, towns etc. This, together with the 13 NFCT maps, will be my guide. To a greater extent this time I have focussed on the uptream sections, looking at whether I can realistically make progress and, if not, what alternatives there may be. Of course, I shall not know for sure what conditions are like until in situ, so there will undoubtedly have to be some decision-making and improvisation on the fly.

Route - the reality

Safety & Communication - the plan

All of the safety considerations relating to my 2013 solo trek are applicable here. Maybe to a greater extent fatigue will be something to take into account, what with being older and facing more upstream. I shall be carrying a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, and thereby able to summon help if necessary, either from my support crew or from relevant emergency services. This device will also leave waypoints online and send check-in messages to my support crew, so they will know how I'm proceeding (if not how I'm feeling).

Safety & Communication - the reality

Food - the plan

Here I shall put into practice a lesson learnt last time. I shall carry less food at any one time, but have more re-supplies (three instead of one). My meal portions will be a little larger and definitely more calorific. They will also contain more protein. When your body develops very specific cravings, it is telling you that something is missing. I aim to avoid such cravings, and, in doing so, to fuel my body better for the undoubtedly large work-load that it will experience.

Food - the reality

Water - the plan

I shall carry the same MSR water filter with SiltStopper pre-filter as last time, together with a Camelbak bladder as a reservoir for those bodies of water that are better not to drink.

Water - the reality

Stove - the plan

Another lesson I learned last time was that a twig stove works well if there are any twigs that are not totally saturated with water. Having been unable to cook on several occasions in 2013 due to a lack of dry fuel, I shall carry, in addition to my Emberlit twig stove, a small gas stove and cylinder, ensuring that I shall always be able to prepare hot food and drink. The extra weight is an investment in looking after the body of which I'm expecting a lot. I shall also be carrying a bag of dry birch bark as tinder for the wood stove, at least giving me a fighting chance of getting it started.

Stove - the reality

Wheels? - the plan

I'm a committed carrier. Wheels to me represent extra weight to lift out of the water at every carry, extra weight to carry on unwheelable portages, and potentially several pounds of junk to be carried when they fail (as many have done). I have a light boat and shall pack reasonably light, so expect to be able to carry all with comfort, making 3 mph on good terrain. This worked well last time; I see no good reason to change.

Wheels? - the reality

Fitness - the plan

I expect my training to be similar to last time, a mix of back-country skiing, running, free weights, paddling (once the ice is out) and so on. One thing that I shall do more of this time is to walk, laden, in the shoes that I shall be wearing, just to ensure that my feet are ready for them. Mental fitness is something that is hard to nail down. I'm busy planning my way along the trail, trying to foresee problems and solutions, but there's a limit to how much of that can be achieved.

For a long time I merely felt daunted by the prospect of this journey. It was not until December 2017 that I began to feel a sense of excitement in addition, and it was that that allowed me to commit to the undertaking. The balance of excitement and apprehension keeps fluctuating, but so far has not swung back to seeing this as nothing but an uphill struggle.

Fitness - the reality

Lining & tracking - the plan

Having totally failed to line or track last time, I suspect that this time will be no different. To that end, I'm going to shorten my bow and stern lines to make them lighter (they'll still be long enough to join together to hang my bear bag). I'm sure there will be some tracking up rapids, but I'm not convinced that I shall be able to control my canoe by means of lines, so will probably, as last time, wade with a hand on the gunwale if necessary.

Lining & tracking - the reality

Poling - the plan

Having had so much success last time with double poling (and, indeed, having submitted an article on this technique to Small Boats Monthly magazine), my ski poles will accompany me, and will probably see a lot of use, depth of water permitting. They will be strapped in the bow, easy to grab when necessary. And a ski pole makes a very useful walking stick when wading on slippery cobbles.

Poling - the reality

Accommodation - the plan

In 2013 I intended to check into indoor accommodation about once a week for a shower. In reality, I was glad to get inside out of the rain and cold on several more occasions. This time I shall not balk at splurging on some comfort, if any is to be had at the ends of my days.

Accommodation - the reality

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