Water as Pedagogy: Six Weeks on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Allagash Wilderness Waterway (August 15, 2020) – A foggy morning on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (Photo credit: Sam Lindsay)


After canoeing over 600 miles this summer, I could tell you about the visceral feelings that accompany being outside for forty days and nights in a row, or the adrenaline rushes inherent in a dynamic long-distance canoe trip. I could tell you about the jaw-dropping beauty, the moments of extreme tranquility, and the intimate and kindred encounters with moose, snapping turtles, and eagles. I’ll leave those sweet morsels to your imagination, however, and instead share three stories that will take you along my paddle on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT).

The NFCT is a 740-mile trail that connects historical waterways across New York, Vermont, Québec, New Hampshire, and Maine, via 23 rivers and streams, 56 lakes and ponds, and 65 portages. Since hearing of the NFCT in 2016, I’ve had aspirations of completing this challenging journey and exploring New England by water. My paddling partner was Sam Lindsay, a freelance artist and fellow canoe enthusiast. Our trip preparations, which spanned nearly a year, included dehydrating food, sewing a canoe skirt, packing a robust first aid kit, purchasing a solar power system and GPS unit, and familiarizing ourselves with each trail segment and camping location.

As I journeyed along the NFCT this summer, I found myself reflecting on various themes related to marine and environmental affairs that the waterscapes would lay bare. For example, the NFCT weaves across the ancestral homelands of the Mohawk, St. Lawrence Iroquoians, Abenaki, Penobscot, and Maliseet Tribes. My journey was made possible by the forced displacement of Native peoples from the lands the NFCT traverses, and my mode of transport, canoeing, is a functional art form and technological advancement created by Indigenous people. As you read on, I’ll guide you down the canoe trail and reflect as we make a few stops along the way.

A depiction of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail as a borderless map, overlain with locations of the following stories. The western trail terminus is Old Forge, NY, and the eastern trail terminus is Fort Kent, ME. Can you spot the waterways that form modern day state and international borders? (Map credit: Katy Bland. Medium: watercolor paint and ink on paper.)


Day 10: The Saranac River at Plattsburgh, NY

The light faded quickly as we descended scratchy, continuous, Class I – II rapids near Plattsburgh. We didn’t intend on paddling into the evening, but a combination of a late start and misinformation left us brushing up on dusk. With four portages and many miles of rapids already behind us, we anticipated one more obstacle: a river closed for environmental remediation. Instead of gliding down the last half mile of the Saranac River, we emerged from the water donning pandemic-era masks to detour off the NFCT, and meandered our cherry red canoe, “Cher,” through downtown Plattsburgh on wheels. We said good-bye to the Saranac River from a bridge above, peering down to see it funneled to one side of its natural riverprint by corrugated metal and with its riverbed exposed. Across three days, the Saranac River had dramatically guided us out of the Adirondacks, dropping 1,400 feet and presenting new flora and fauna along the way; this dramatic industrial transition into Lake Champlain was the antithesis to the Saranac River’s natural majesty.

Between 2020 and 2023, New York State’s Superfund program will excavate and process sediment to cleanse the river of coal tar, a waste material from a former manufactured gas plant (MGP). From 1896 to 1960, the MGP disposed of gas production byproducts onsite, which eventually made their way into the Saranac riverbed and now pose serious concern for public health and the environment. This pattern of environmental degradation by industry, which impacts human and natural health, is echoed across the country. For example, in South Seattle, fellow SMEA students monitored a “floating wetlands” restoration project in the Lower Duwamish Superfund area and are now exploring the policy implications of such novel restoration techniques.

While the Saranac River environmental remediation closure is explicit, bounded to three years, and applicable to everyone, the concept of “closed” nature is often disguised, indefinite, and targeted. At this location, for hundreds of years, the Saranac River at Tsi ietsénhtha (Plattsburgh), “where one draws up water,” has been functionally closed to the Mohawk since white settlers forcibly removed them from their land. In a recent Currents piece, my colleague James Lee reflects on the privatization of the commons: “The premise that the outdoors, whether it’s in urban or undeveloped spaces, belongs to white people,” essentially closes nature to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.

Plattsburgh, NY (July 17, 2020) – The canoe take-out above the Saranac River remediation site. The sign reads, “Danger Ahead, Exit River Now.” (Photo credit: Katy Bland)


Day 33: Penobscot River,  ME

With the morning silhouette of Mount Katahdin in the distance, we landed on the northern shore of Moosehead Lake ready to portage into the Penobscot River watershed. This was a long-awaited treat; we were thrilled to be gliding down the Penobscot River in a “Penobscot” canoe. The river’s cameo on the NFCT is swift and undeveloped. As each tributary joined the main branch, the pulse of current coaxed our boat around the river and danced with the aquatic plants beneath. We were having a conversation with the river through our paddles, a dialogue white settlers had stolen from the Penobscot Nation.

Since time immemorial, the ancestors of the Wabanaki Confederacy (principally the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot) had reciprocal relationships1 with the land, waterways, and non-human beings within and beyond current-day Maine borders. When white settlers came to the Wabanaki (“People of the Dawn”) lands, interests and behaviors rooted in settler-colonial ideology forced them into reservations (look here for current Penobscot Nation tribal lands). Dr. Sherry Pictou, a Mi’kmaw scholar, writes: “Most often, decolonization is confused with historic notions of colonization. This has led to conceptions of decolonization that prescribe rectifying or reconciling past injustices in the context of the present, without addressing the contemporary forms or extensions of settler colonialism.”2

Despite cultural genocide and collective trauma across centuries (the legacy of which is documented in the film Dawnland), the Penobscot Nation has demanded and defended both their sovereignty and culture. While I was paddling through their ancestral waterways in a plastic canoe (a descendant of traditional, Indigenous birch-bark canoes), the Penobscot Nation was fighting a court case over rights to the reaches of the Penobscot River that surround their reservation. They are actively investing in tribal asset-building through economic initiatives, have co-led river restoration efforts, and are nourishing their river culture. As Butch Phillips, a Penobscot Nation tribal elder and co-chair of the ambassadors for the Penobscot River Restoration Project, reflects, “To the Penobscot Nation, nothing in the natural world is more important than the river. It defines us as a people.”

Greenville, ME (August 8, 2020) – The Penobscot River near the Lobster Stream confluence (Photo credit: Katy Bland)


Day 36: The Allagash River, ME

We had anticipated that paddling through Maine in mid-August would likely mean lower water levels, but we didn’t anticipate severe drought. Throughout our trip, however, we were racing receding water and had to paddle opportunistically when conditions were amenable. As a result, by the time we reached the Allagash River on day 36, we had only granted ourselves three days to rest, recharge, and not paddle. We called these “zero” days. Often, the main motivator to push ourselves to our limits was the omnipresent threat of dry riverbeds and drought. Our bodies were strong enough to keep moving, but we craved more moments of pause and reflection.

Soon after reaching a peaceful campsite on the Allagash River, we heard thunder threatening in the distance. We were simultaneously giddy with the prospect of rain (and therefore a “zero” day) and electrified by the rapidly approaching storm. We had weathered multiple storms, including the remnants of Tropical Storm Isaias, in our tent, so we went through our unspoken preparation procedure like clockwork.

The wind quickly rose, causing the trees to groan and exposing our rushed tarp configuration. A metal stake whipped through the air as we ducked into the tent to weigh it down and await the rain. The crescendo of raindrops and wind melted into the night within minutes, with distant thunder occasionally laughing at us. We clung to the image of the watershed’s swath, hoping that an abutting storm would pause somewhere upstream for a day and replenish the river’s water level.  When we awoke the following morning and checked our rudimentary water gauge (a rock), our plan for a “zero” day was once again foiled. Even with the rain’s pulse, the water line had dropped: a severe drought had seized our “zero” days and was intent on keeping them. Like hawks constantly eyeing a field for prey, we spent the day visually scouring the river for a navigable channel as we descended the Allagash River.

Graph created using the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Resources Information System. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW) superintendent notes: “The perfect water level for canoeing the Allagash [is] about 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). When the level drops below 500 cfs, sandbars will appear that need to be dragged over.” Our paddle through the AWW coincided with water levels of about 300 cfs.

As I reflect on this in November, the drought has worsened: 84% of Maine is in severe drought. September 2020 was the fifth driest September on record (from 1895 to 2020) in the state. A recent paper found that the past 19-year period was the second driest 19-year period across the past 1,200 years, and that because of human-induced warming, we may be entering a megadrought. Anthropogenic climate change is showing itself in a multitude of ways; on the NFCT we saw it through dry riverbeds. People along the West Coast feel it when fleeing their homes to escape increasingly frequent wildfires. And as we see worldwide, climate change is a threat amplifier that most impacts already marginalized groups, making it an environmental justice issue. 

The waterways and the canoe I paddled this summer were far more than a mode of transportation. They were teachers. They underscored the intention and care needed for creating and maintaining mutual social-ecological relationships. They highlighted the sense of urgency that we need to bring to bear in stopping industrial pollution, opening access to nature, decolonizing our institutions, and mitigating and adapting to climate change. I couldn’t have asked for better teachers in the summer between my two years as a graduate student.

Author’s notes:

All state and federal COVID-19 quarantine and testing procedures, and travel restrictions were abided by preceding, during, and following the trip.

Last week, my colleague Megan McKeown wrote about how the water has become a teacher to her as well after she began open water swimming this summer.

For information on the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s “moderate livelihood” lobster fishery and ways to support those who have been subjected to violent, racist attacks, check out this fact sheet and this list of ways to support Mi’kmaq fishers. The Sipekne’katik First Nation is the second largest Mi’kmaq band in Nova Scotia.

Contact Currents editor-in-chief James Lee at james00@uw.edu for access to:

  1. Brooks, L.T., and Brooks, C.M. (2010). The reciprocity principle and traditional ecological knowledge: Understanding the significance of Indigenous protest on the Presumpscot River. International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies, 3(2), 11–28. doi: 10.5204/ijcis.v3i2.49
  2. Pictou, S. (2020). Decolonizing decolonization: An Indigenous feminist perspective on the recognition and rights framework. South Atlantic Quarterly, 119(2), 371–391. doi: 10.1215/00382876-8177809