Exploring the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) of New Hampshire and Maine

Drifting in our canoes through the lower reaches of New England’s gentle Magalloway River, in the heart of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, we are not surprised to see bald eagles, a beaver, great blue herons and mergansers within a span of ten minutes.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

A small sign marks a public access point for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), our paddle route for a few days.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Day one kicks off with a half-day paddle down the lower Magalloway River along the New Hampshire/Maine border, which flows into Umbagog Lake.

The pulse of river gradually gives way to the calm of vast Umbagog Lake, and after a morning spent paddling within the confines of the river corridor, we are eager to hoist sail on some open water. Our first of two campsites on this three-day adventure awaits us just an hour’s paddle across the lake, at the outlet of the Rapid River. The lower Rapid is a fun Class 2-3 whitewater run, and a carry trail alongside the river makes it easy to lap. No doubt our crew of twelve will be hungry for dinner tonight.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Approaching the east side of Umbagog Lake and the mouth of the Rapid River, our camp for the night.

Before the earliest European explorers struck out into the interior of the Northeast U.S., the Algonquin, Iroquois and Wabanaki peoples traveled extensively among the countless lakes, rivers and streams that characterize a region now known today as the Northern Forest. In 2000, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) came to life as a water trail tracing the historic travel routes of the region’s earliest inhabitants. It spans 740 miles of waterways from northern New York to northern Maine, is managed by a non-profit of the same name, and was formally completed in 2006. The NFCT continues to establish itself as a recreational and economic force in the region, attracting paddlers of all kinds to weekend adventures and multi-week expeditions alike.

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Up close with the local Umbagog fauna.

Here on Umbagog, we are about halfway along the NFCT, on the New Hampshire and Maine border. We settled on this area due to the great variety of water environments it offers, and because we have yet to explore it. After a starry night spent beneath conifers by the rush of the Rapid River, we set back across Umbagog in search of the Floating Island Bog, a National Natural Landmark and the entrance to the mighty Androscoggin River. Throughout the 1800s, the river was used seasonally to transport countless cut logs from the forests surrounding Umbagog Lake to mills downstream.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Setting up camp before carrying the boats for a whitewater run on the Rapid River before dinner.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Day two has us embarking on a second crossing of Umbagog Lake, bound for the entrance to the mighty Androscoggin River.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Running the Errol Rapids along the upper Androscoggin in Errol, NH.

Below Errol Dam, we run a stretch of Class 2-3 rapids that leaves us itching for more before we settle into a relatively lazy afternoon on the peaceful upper Androscoggin. Approaching our camp for the night at Mollidgewock State Park, a member of our crew casts a line for trout. He lands a few small rainbows, but none are worthy of the frying pan. As the moon rises, we share a few stories around the fire before turning in amid the sounds of crickets, distant coyotes and hooting owls.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Lunch break and map check along the Androscoggin River as we approach our second camp at Mollidgework State Park.

Fueled by blueberry pancakes the next morning, we push off with a final half-day paddle ahead of us. Around lunchtime, we encounter a set of lively Class 3 rapids featuring a few friendly standing waves mid-stream. Unable to pass up a good surf session, we head for shore to lighten our loads by ditching our gear, and then take turns surfing our tandem canoes in the standing waves. We feel like Hawaiian royalty.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail

On our third and final day, we enjoy a midday surf session on the upper Androscoggin.

Drifting on downstream, and increasingly tuned into the nuances of the water, forests and skies around us, the simple reality of life on the river tempts us to keep this going for weeks. And while that isn’t in the cards this time around, we know it will be on another occasion. In the meantime, spending just a few beautiful days on a small section of the NFCT feels pretty satisfying.