Tag Archives: Paddling

Escape the Urban Book Review: The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Guide Book

17 Apr

In the dark, cold space between prime outdoor seasons, a fire to warm the shins while the wind howls and snow flies, or the occasional nordic ski or snowshoe on brilliant blue and white days, can take the edge off the worst of the wanderlust. Similarly, there are times when the rolling hills of Western New York fail to satisfy, the ski runs feel short, the whitewater small, the cliffs less craggy, the panoramas less sweeping. The cure for both afflictions are the same: a little dreaming and planning for the next Big Trip, a more epic expedition for which weekend local excursions serve as effective training and preparation.

I find the planning for a Big Trip almost as enjoyable as actually being out in the thick of the act. My best partner in such fire-side winter daydreaming is a good guide book, the encyclopedic report on mastering an area or trail. In this regard, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail guide has been a good friend and companion these last several months.

The NFCT itself earns epic status. At 740 miles long, from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine, it is big, and winds through some of the wildest places left in the northeast – reminiscent of, and a tribute to, the voyageurs who traveled the same path nearly 400 years past. After starting at the southwest end of the Adirondacks, it takes advantage of some of the best small boat flatwater in the world in the Raquette, Long and Saranac Lake sections, before crossing Lake Champlain into Vermont, sneaking into southern Quebec, and nipping through New Hampshire on the thin northern end. Here, though, you are only half done, as the trail spends half its time in the utter humanlessness of rugged western Maine, terminating at the last homely house at the far northern tip of the American eastern wilderness. Despite this massive scale, the NFCT is also amazingly accessible – five hours from driveway to paddle in the water from most of Western New York.

Photo courtesy northernforestcanoetrail.org

I have only traveled a short section of the NFCT myself, along Stony Creek and the accompanying ponds, north from the old hamlet of Axton Landing to the Indian Carry portage that connects to the Saranac chain of lakes (Segment 2, Map 8-20). If the whole trail is like that small section, then months of utter zen await the lucky kayaker who runs the whole gambit. Waterways are best experienced when in a craft well proportioned to its size. I often feel lost in my kayak in the Niagara River or on the Great Lakes – the vista is too sweeping and wide for a such a small, slow moving boat, and you never feel like you are making headway; better to be on a sail boat when plying larger water. Conversely, this section of the NFCT was perfectly kayak sized, the wild close and intimate. My paddle nearly reached from one side of the stream to the other in some places, as the slow moving creek wound back on itself like a coiled rope, between pined ridges and among water lilies and swamp grasses. And then, a breakout into the open pond, an horizontal view of mountains and stony banks, loons bobbing for fish on the mirror surface. My heart aches as I remember that warm late-summer day. 

The official NFCT guide, newly published less than a year ago, contains everything a comprehensive handbook should: thorough descriptions of the route, tips for negotiating tricky passages, sidebars of both natural and human history along the trail, and photographs that whet the appetite and induce a piercing longing for the sore backs and cramped legs that come from hours in a boat. It also provides an elevation and weather guide, to allow for planning of portages around rapids and dams, and predictions of when streams will be rushing but buggy (May and June), warm but perhaps low (July and August), or reliable but cool (September and October). If I have one complaint, it is that the maps, while broadly complete, are lacking in detail. This guide is meant to be used in conjunction with large maps also available from the non-profit organization that has worked to assemble the easements, clean and steward and promote the water trail the last 11 years. I do not begrudge them the desire to raise a little money selling you additional materials, but as a lover of maps, I could spend hours just pouring over foldout charts, imagining what lies beyond each bend and lake.  

Ten days ago it was snowing on my car’s kayak carrier, newly installed in preparation for the breaking Spring. Today, the sunshine is rushing into my writing office in a waterfall of hope. Time to get outside and do it.

Escape the Urban: Resolutions and Revolutions

2 Jan

Just past lunch on Christmas Day, after the unwrapping frenzy had subsided and the last of the red and green paper had finally fallen back to earth, the kids engrossed in novel board games, books and small brightly lit screens, I strapped my own new presents to my feet and trudged out my back door.

The snow was old and tight, crunching like squeaky foam packing peanuts under my enlarged feet. I tromped through my open yard, along the pine treeline, and into the young mixed woods that makes up the bulk of our property. This autumn I laid down a new hiking path, transversing bog and thicket, and I was concerned the snow would obscure my little trafficked, unworn track, making it impossible to follow. I need not have worried – our local fauna had found the path, and had clearly been using it for some time. I followed large and small deer prints, wide splayed turkey feet, the small hops of mouse and squirrel, back through the dense wild grape, across the open clearings under towering oaks. The path is not long – less than a quarter mile to our property line, though because of the maze and volume of owners of this several hundred acre wood, no one pays much attention – but it transported me to a world of quiet and stillness. At that moment, I decided I would spend significantly more time snowshoeing this coming year. Not a New Year’s Resolution, mind you, broken by the end of the week. Just a simple noted intention of how I want to spend my time.

The huffers and puffers appeared out my window the day after Christmas. Sporting new running pants and sweatshirts, bought by spouses as perhaps a less than subtle hint, these poor men and women labor miserably down the road, shuffling and creaking. My neighborhood is home to its share of outdoor runners – we all brave the elements year round, and wave and recognize each other. Each January there is a new crop that don’t join us for long. I wish they did. I wish they made a choice to live an active lifestyle, and changed their habits and routines. But they don’t. Instead, “Going on a diet” and “Getting in better shape” is a New Years Resolution. The huffing and puffing won’t see February.

I have plans for 2011, but not ill-fated resolutions, unreasonable expectations that focus on end-states and not processes. I run, bike, paddle and hike, try to eat healthy, especially foods I grew myself. I’m far from perfect and slip up plenty. But I don’t seek ways to skip the trip to the gym. I don’t dread running; I look forward to it. I miss my bike in January, and pine for the sweaty exhaustion it brings. I work out and stay active because I made a self reinforcing lifestyle change, not because I set a New Year’s Resolution I didn’t take to heart. 

Don’t be a temporary huffer and puffer. If you want to run, bike, get outside more, climb a mountain or cross-country ski all afternoon, don’t wrap those desires in the cloak of a doomed cultural conceit. There is no shortcut to a changed lifestyle and honest motivation. I’m planning on writing all year about explorations in the outdoors, new books and gear, and the wonders of nature. But I can’t give you the heartfelt desire to come along.

Escape the Urban: Holiday Gift Guide

16 Dec

Need a gift idea for your granola nephew? Sick of getting socks from your Mom, and want something you’ll really use for your outdoor adventures? Here are some things I love that I’ll recommend, or am asking for myself this Christmas.

Winter was the season I missed most when living down south. Great Lakes winters are most tolerable when made enjoyable by keeping active, but that doesn’t mean you need to make regular trips to downhill skiing meccas. Instead, redo your favorite hikes in the snow with Tubbs Venture snowshoes. To tackle our mixed woodlands, rolling hills, and escarpments, you don’t need alpine snowshoes with a monster spikes for traction – you need a good hybrid, able to handle an occasional icy climb, packed wet snow and dusty new powder. These shoes can handle all that and more, if you want to pack them and take on more challenging terrain in the Adirondacks.

The other trick to enjoying winter is staying warm while working and sweating up a hillside. I’ve found many WNYers think a big coat and t-shirt will see them through, and wonder why they get chilled too soon into a hike. A good mid-layer can be expensive, but once you switch, you’ll never go back. Added bonus: you can ditch the water absorbing fleece forever, and wear the midlayer as a solo pullover on chilly fall and spring days. I wear an OR Specter, but try EMS’s Techwick Thermo for a less expensive option.

Winter is also the time for dreaming and preparing for the next season. If biting wind and driving snow on a cliffside doesn’t entice you, spend the next couple months making plans for the soon-to-come spring. To brainstorm and get yourself in a summer mood, curl up in front of the fire with Take a Paddle: Western New York, a guide to our local rivers and streams, familiar and obscure. Rochester-based Footprint Press also has hiking and paddling guides to the Finger Lakes, Central New York, and the 1000 Islands Region.

If your summer plans include a marathon or triathlon, you are probably already forecasting out your training schedule. I am looking at both, and have a couple upgrades in mind. I have a fat tire Gary Fisher Capitola hybrid bike – it goes everywhere . . . poorly. To increase my efficiency, and bring a little road comfort, I’m asking for Profile Design Aero Bars, sometimes called tri-bars. These accessory bars clip on the standard straight handle bars of your bike, and allow you to lean into a more aerodynamic stance, easing the strain on your back, and reducing a bit of your workload. Like many bike accessories, you can spend a pittance or a fortune, and a number of companies sell similar products. If you don’t like Profile, try Vision Tech’s offering.

My second summer initiative is to make the big switch to barefoot running. The scientific, evolutionary, and physiological case for running barefoot – letting the balls of your feet absorb the shock of your footfall, as opposed to your well-padded but woefully inadequate heel – is gaining traction, and I see more and more runners taking the plunge to minimalist footwear. I’m asking for a pair of Vibram FiveFinger KSO’s, the slightly more encapsulated version of the popular footglove. Remember, before you ask for a set under the tree, go to the store and get measured – FiveFingers don’t come in traditional sizes. Also, be prepared for a long break in period, as your foot muscles get used to the new body mechanics. I can’t guarantee your run times will go down, but the science says you should get fewer injuries, and your running life may be significantly extended.

No matter which Holiday you are celebrating, make it merry, and Escape the Urban will see you next year.

Escape the Urban: A Winter’s Paddle

5 Dec

Such are the whims of lake effect snow that one day after a major road-shutting blizzard in Buffalo, I could take my kayak out for a paddle in the sunshine just a few miles to the north. If you only break out the canoe and life vests from May to September, you are missing some of the most rewarding, and solitary, times to be on the water.

Friday morning I loaded up my feathered-blades and vest, swapped the roof mounted bike rack for the kayak saddle, and made one more flatwater excursion for 2010. I paddled a route I know well – enter Wood’s Creek in Buckhorn Island State Park, through the still swamp and trees, up to the Niagara River, along the shore. I broke no records and made no major discoveries, but the sense of calm imbued was welcome nonetheless.

If your own treks into the natural world are confined to warm green summer days, I urge you to visit a familiar landscape in an off-season to see it in a new light. Buckhorn empties of lush canopy and new growth, but fills with the furtive movements of winter preparations and migratory layovers. Beavers have been busy forming new dams, clearing young marsh saplings along the bank and building a new elaborate compound. Deer scampered as I swung my kayak into a side channel – the paper-thin frozen skein gave a satisfying snap and crunch as I played poor man’s ice-breaker.

The color change in imminent winter is especially stark. The swamp is painted in a confined yet infinite array of browns, greys and blues during this shoulder season: tan straw horsetails and marsh grass, dark and silent naked ash and oaks. The grey blue sky becomes grey brown water at the horizon line.  Even the Great Blue Herons and Canada Geese obey the limited pallet. The fat Red Tailed Hawk I scared up gave me an inquisitive look before moving on, confused that a human was in his swamp at this time of year.

Getting the kayak wet in December, even on a relatively warm and sunny day, requires some gear and planning. But don’t let that discourage you from making the attempt – with a couple changes to your repertoire, you can greatly extend your expedition season.

The most basic rule of the outdoors – to stay clean and dry – is especially important when the temperatures dip. Unfortunately, it is impossible to stay completely dry in a canoe or kayak, as your hands and legs will wet with dripping paddle water if nothing else. So follow these basic tips to stay safe and as warm as possible:

– Limit your route or plan for the worst. Unless you have a wet or dry suit, winter is not the time to make a major crossing of a Great Lake or spend a lot of time in the center of the Niagara River. I make the choice to stay in shallow creeks or along the shoreline, away from waves and potential flipping hazards, where I can stand up to escape if I capsize, miserable but alive if I dry and warm quickly. If you must venture further out, or plan on getting wet (I white water rafted the Peshtigo River in northern Wisconsin in late November in college in a wet suit – maybe not again!), then only do so with a Farmer John wetsuit (October – November) or, even better, a dry suit (December and colder).

– If you are paddling sans wet suit, obey the basic rule of winter clothing – Wick, Warm, Weather. Cotton is Kryptonite, sucking the heat and energy from your limbs, and must be avoided. Start with a wicking layer at the base, cover with several warming layers, and then finish with a layer for the weather. In this case, your outer layer must be waterproof to keep off the drips and splashes from your paddles. I wore a long sleeved Under Armor base, a poly-pro Patagonia long underwear shirt, an Outdoor Research soft mid-layer (can’t say enough good things about it), and a 5.11 water resistant covering on top. Same rules for your legs.

– Don’t skimp on the extremities. Your upper body and arms may tire and sweat, but the rest of you in just sitting in the cold on the water. Make sure you have a warm hat, and it can’t be cotton either (especially if you have  wet suit on and plan on getting soaked). Having a face covered with thick whiskers helps too. If you are not so blessed, balaclava’s are a godsend. Warm water resistant boots (they will probably get a little damp when entering or exiting the canoe or kayak) and gloves are key. I wear OR Pro Mod‘s, but any good gauntlet is worth its weight in gold for lots of outdoor activities in the cold and snow.

Our creeks and waterways will be open for a little while longer yet, before ice finally clogs them until April. Be safe, but get one more paddle before the year is through, and please tell me all about your favorite local places.