It took Russ and Jeremy Collett 35 days to paddle the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail. But that’s not what’s most impressive about the father-son team’s effort. They carried their canoe and gear for 100 miles of it.

From June 24 to July 30, the two Gorham residents tackled the water trail that stretches from New York to Maine and was first mapped out for the public in 2006.

Since the guidebook — which was only put out last year — estimates 60 miles of portage in areas where the water is too low, the extra hoofing was unexpected. But it didn’t diminish their adventure.

Jeremy, a sophomore at Gorham High School, and Russ Collett, an oral surgeon in Portland, had experience paddling from their camp on Kineo Island, near Moosehead Lake, down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and along the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

But the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which runs from New York through Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire and into Maine, presented something different: six weeks of camping and paddling.

The numbers of paddlers attempting to complete the entire route, or through-paddle, has grown, but just 40 have done so, said Walter Opuszynski, the trail organization’s trail director in Waitsfield, Vt.


But the trail is still new.

“We’re still getting the infrastructure in place. Right now people have the ability to connect the dots with campsites and do the entire trail,” Opuszynski said.

How through-paddlers decide to complete the trail and roughly 60 to 100 miles of portage is a personal choice, Opuszynski said. Some happily accept a lift from locals who offer to help them connect with the next navigable section of water. Others chose to carry their own gear.

More than 20 percent of the trail is upstream, which can require poling or pushing during low water.

At the start of what turned into 100 miles of portaging, the Colletts dumped gear and mailed it home.

“We had a small cooler. When we got to Saranac Lake in New York we said, ‘Forget the cooler and backpacking dry food.’ We skinnied things down,” Russ Collett said.


When they started, it was more laborious than expected, with unforeseen hardships.

“There wasn’t any real dangers. One pit bull tried to chase us in Vermont. That was kind of scary. Magically the farmer got out of his tractor and yelled. We grabbed our paddles and fortunately it was without incident,” Russ Collett said.

For the Colletts, the worst part of the journey was when a four-mile stretch from the Dead River to Flagstaff Lake turned into an 18-mile portage.

“He knew what we got into. It was kind of cool, he didn’t blink. And it took us the whole day,” Russ Collett said of his son.

But like the river current and moon, they fell into a rhythm. They got up early, paddled all day, found a campsite at dark, cooked dinner and went to bed, day after day. They saw surprisingly few wild animals and not many people who knew what they were doing.

But the trail had pleasant surprises around most turns, like the woman in Quebec who lived along the Missiquoi River and came out with lemonade, having seen their blog —


And on a canoe trip, Russ Collett said, happiness is relative — the bugs are as much a part of it as the shooting stars.

“We were really surprised we saw tons of wild mink on the water. And one of the things my son got a kick out of was looking at the moon and its continuous cycle over months,” Russ Collett said.

Their longest portage ended at Grand Falls on the Dead River, one of the best photo ops on the 35-day trip.

“We paddled right under the falls. It was spectacular,” Russ Collett said.

In the next 10 to 15 years, the trail may become more congested as more paddlers discover it. But Jeremy Collett said that with more use will come more infrastructure, campsites, better portages and an easier trail. He hopes more people discover it.

“I think in a couple of years it’s going to be a lot better. They can do things to shorten up the portage, and I’m sure they will,” he said.


As for them, the lessons on the trail from New York to Maine will not be forgotten.

“It made me appreciate the smaller things, like modern day things, like motorboats, definitely,” Jeremy said. “I felt like I had more patience when I was done. I did miss the trail. I missed that lifestyle.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

Twitter: Flemingpph


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