"It isn’t boring one single mile because it changes so much. During 740 miles of paddling you can truly experience everything that paddling and the Northeast of the U.S. have to offer."
Photos copyright Zoe Agasi and Olivier Van Herck. Used by permission. Visit weleaf.nl to learn more about Zoe and Olivier's trip around the world.
1. When did you first decide and what made you interested in paddling the entire 740-mile length of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail?
In December, 2017, we arrived in Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world, in the south of Patagonia. It took us 12,000 kilometers of cycling and three months of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to reach this place. We started thinking about the next part of our trip and wanted to try other human powered ways of traveling. We thought about a long-distance hike, and a canoe trip, but this wasn’t a good option in South America. It wasn’t until November, one year later when we were in Colombia, that we started thinking about our plans the next year. After some searching on internet we found the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), a long-distance trail with a start and end in a different location. We don’t like making loops, so this trail became our next goal, although it took us until August 2019 to get to the start of the trail.
2. Had you had any previous paddling experiences before attempting the trail, and what made you believe this is something that you could accomplish?
Our canoe experience was limited to one afternoon on a small river in the Netherlands. We had never done an overnight trip in a canoe, had no idea how to deal with rapids, upstream paddling, poling, tracking or portages. Half of the words we had never heard off. But we knew that we are very experienced in living outdoors, living basic and making ourselves comfortable in difficult situations. Physically and mentally we knew we could do this, and the skills we would train by doing it.
3. Can you tell us about your experiences along the trail that make the trip most worthwhile for you?
The NFCT is a connection of 23 rivers, 59 ponds and 65 portages. There is 160 miles of upstream paddling, there are big lakes, small creeks, true wilderness areas, rapids, sections through towns and there is a lot of history along the trail. It isn’t boring one single mile because it changes so much. During 740 miles of paddling you can truly experience everything that paddling and the Northeast of the U.S. have to offer. That’s what makes the NFCT so worthwhile for us.
4. Where there any interesting people you met and places you discovered that made your trip more enjoyable?
On the water we didn’t meet many people, but once we got out of the water, people were always very interested, even more in the remote areas. Most of them never heard about the NFCT. One evening we couldn’t find a place to sleep and we had to continue portaging the canoe in hope we would find people; it was dark by then. Finally, we found a family and they allowed us to pitch the tent in the yard. We talked about our trip and learned about the culture in the Adirondacks. One moment we asked, ‘what are your plans tomorrow’. The man answered, ‘well, I’ll start the day with making breakfast for my new European friends.’
5. What was the most difficult part of your trip and how did you manage to get through it successfully.
Physically, canoeing is less difficult than cycling or hiking, but the portages are very tough. Just before the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, we hiked 650 miles on the Appalachian Trail. We learned to travel very light and only bring the necessary gear, although the space in the canoe invites to take more. Our goal was to do all the portages in one go because we believe that walking back is even more difficult. In our minds, we always said, ‘it is one time 100% suffering, instead of two times 70%’. It was very tough, especially the hand carries in Maine with a 10 day food supply in the bags, but we made it all the time.
6. Did you see any interesting wildlife along the trail?
In The Netherlands and Belgium there isn’t much wildlife and we never saw moose and bald eagle before the start of the canoe trail. Our guidebook told us ‘in Maine you will see moose, many moose’. We saw many bald eagles and stopped paddling every time to watch the king of the air flying by. We were looking for moose every day, asking people for popular moose spots, making detours, but we didn’t see any moose for 46 days. Until we arrived on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. It was moose hunting season in the Allagash the week before and we believed that all the moose were shot, so we gave up hope already. But in the end of the day we paddled around a corner and there was a cow and her calf standing in the water. What a surprise and what a view! It is one of the moments in life we will never forget. The next morning at 5:00 we came out of the tent because we heard a sound. There were three moose grazing on the other side the river. For 1.5 hours we were watching them on barefoot in our underwear in the rain. Our feet were frozen, but how often can you observe these beautiful animals?
On other parts of the trip we saw beavers, otters, loons, ospreys, herons and even a bear. We believe that the canoe is one of the best ways to see wildlife because you arrive silently on the water and the animals won’t hear you. It makes you realize that you are travelling in a unique way and that you see something that not many people will see.
7. You gave a number of presentations about your adventures over the last three years and the efforts you’re are trying to bring attention to along the way. How many and where did you present these and how were they attended and received.
We have given presentations in many countries and many different crowds. We gave presentations in Portuguese and Spanish for children in schools in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. During other presentations, our crowd was 50+. Our goal is to inspire people to follow their dreams and make their own life more interesting. We always try to do this with an interactive presentation with many videos and photos. In return we get a lot of energy doing this.
During the NFCT, we gave four presentations: in Old Forge, East Charleston, Rangeley and Fort Kent. We had a crowd of 7 people in East Charleston and more than 50 in Old Forge, but both of them where energetic. We found out that every presentation is different and there are always new questions coming up. It doesn’t matter the amount of people, if we can inspire one person, our mission is successful.
8. Obviously, you are now ambassadors for the NFCT and will be taking the message about the trail back with you to Europe at some point. Do you see this trip becoming a popular destination for future European adventure travelers?
The NFCT is still a young trail and few people know about it. The Appalachian Trail started the same way, but is extremely popular these days amongst Europeans. The current trend in Europe is to do more adventurous trips in the nature. The NFCT fits perfectly in this trend. Hiking is more accessible, so it won’t reach the level of the AT, but many Europeans will be attracted to the trail. And so far, only four European registered nationalities completed the trail, so there are a lot of first attempts and that attracts people as well.
9. ell us about the most exciting part of your adventure on the NFCT and what made it such a memorable experience.
The most memorable experience is often the most challenging one. After the Great Falls, on the Dead River, we had to go upstream on the Spencer stream. There was almost no water in the river and we had to drag the canoe 7 miles upstream. We had to carry our gear forward, going back for the canoe, float for 20 yards, and unload the gear again. It took us two hours to do one mile. Mentally it was one of the most challenging days we had, and just when we thought that we are the only crazy guys in the world doing this, another paddler turned around the corner. He had an ultra-light Kevlar canoe and he dragged behind him, scraping over all the rocks. Compared to us, he was flying over the Spencer Stream.
‘You must be Zoë and Olivier,’ Brad said. ‘My wife told me that there was a lovely young couple in front of me and I had to say hello when I would catch them up, so hello from my wife’.
We ended up paddling the rest of our trip together with Brad, enjoying many warm campfires in the cold October evenings.
10. What recommendations would you make for making the NFCT more attractive to potential paddlers and what would you recommend to the organizers to help paddlers have a better experience and want to do it themselves?
The trail itself with the beautiful campsites almost cannot be more attractive than it is right now. It is pure beauty and has everything that a canoe trip can have. The maps and the interactive map on the website are great tools to help people start the canoe trip, but the trail doesn’t have the status of a major achievement yet. About the Appalachian Trail, everybody knows that completing a thru-hike is a big thing. There are only 5-10 people every year that complete the NFCT, compared to more than a 1,000 on the AT. In a world where everybody wants to be unique, this could be a selling point.
11. Finally, how would you describe you overall experience with the trip and what would you say that would make others want to do it themselves?
There are only excuses that can take you away from the trail and many of them are not a real issue, just a mental barrier. We didn’t have any experience in canoeing and we just learned it by doing it. It only takes you 40 to 50 days to do it, which is less than two months. Your greatest expense will be a canoe, but for the rest of the trip you won’t spend much. Physically the portages are tough, but most of them are wheelable and not too hard. With a raincoat you will even enjoy the raindrops bouncing on the water surface. So stop saying ‘yes, but’, instead you will say to your friends ‘next year I’ll paddle the NFCT!’.
12. Can people read your experiences on the NFCT? where can people follow you?
We have a travel blog , www.weleaf.nl/en where we write about our trip. It is great to get a feeling about the trail and what we encountered. On Instagram, @weleaf.nl, we show all our photos and on YouTube, @weleaf, we present a documentary about the trail. A lot of content to read, see and get excited. We hope we can get people out there because it is an amazing experience!