One Woman's 53-day Journey on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

In the summer of 2015, at age 53, Laurie Apgar Chandler became the first woman to solo thru-paddle the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail. How inspiring is that?!

laurie chandler in her canoe

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) connects the lakes and rivers of New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire and Maine into a 740-mile water trail. Just under 100 paddlers have earned the title Thru-Paddler so far, by completing the Trail in a single season. Laurie joined that group when she completed her trip in 53 days.

Laurie tells her story in her newly-released memoir Upwards. We asked Laurie to share about some of her journey with us:

AB: What did you do to prepare yourself physically and mentally for your trip?

LAURIE: Living in Maine, where the lakes stay frozen for months, it takes work to be active year-round. For me, this means snowshoeing all winter. I create a network of trails in the forest behind our house and work continuously to keep them open.

In 2015, I also added upper body conditioning with hand weights. As the ice retreated in the spring, I was out on the water with the first flocks of migrating waterfowl.

And I read everything I could get my hands on about the trail—paddler blogs, the NFCT’s series of 13 maps, and Katina Daanen’s The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Through-Paddler’s Companion.

AB: Why was it important for you to do this as a solo paddler?

LAURIE: The solitude of quiet places, tucked away near civilization or in the distant northern forest, brings me peace and a chance to rediscover myself.

On Vermont’s tiny, twisting Nulhegan River, I wrote,

“The whisper of wind in the grass soothed my senses and I knew that a single spoken word would have made this a different place. To those who have never paddled solo, the experience may be hard to comprehend. You can travel for hours and hear only the sounds that are always part of the wild.

“Gradually, your mind quiets and all that is other fades away, you become truly present in the time and place where you find yourself. Suddenly, your alert senses notice things you otherwise might miss. Colors, textures, or the exquisite detail of a single flower petal.

“And if you’re lucky, you reach that moment when you understand that you, too, belong. You touch the water, the paddle slices in and out, a tiny whirlpool drifts behind and you simply are a part of the flowing river.”

AB: If you were to do it again, what would you do differently?

LAURIE: I wouldn’t change much. I’d order the same weather—enough rain, mostly at night, and days of ever-changing sun and cloud. I’d still paddle slowly enough to enjoy the journey. I’d still go west to east, as all thru-paddlers have so far.

My 13-foot Wenonah Fusion Kevlar canoe weighs 32 pounds. It’s light enough for the tougher carries and practical for maneuvering through tight turns or up and down impossibly steep banks. My Wheeleez Tuff-Tires kayak cart and Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Hybrid and Carbon kayak paddles also served me well.

On my next expedition, and there definitely will be one change, though— I’ll prepare more varied and healthier homemade trail meals.

AB: You switched paddles after the first week—why? Why is a lighter paddle so important?

LAURIE: My father was with me in his own solo boat for the first seven days. When he went home, he left me his longer, lighter paddle—a welcome trade. That Sting Ray Carbon paddle was my companion for the length of the NFCT, battling large waves, threading churning whitewater, and maneuvering tiny, winding streams. Every ounce counted, on the water and when carrying all that gear across a muddy, rocky portage.

Laurie Chandler's Aqua-Bound paddle

AB: Are you involved at all in “passing the baton” of paddling to younger paddlers and those new to the sport?

LAURIE: Since its release in October (2017), Upwards has brought me many opportunities to be an NFCT ambassador. This gem of the northeast deserves to be better known among paddlers of all levels. Even in popular regions, like the Adirondacks or Maine’s Rangeley lakes, NFCT’s resources can add depth to any trip.

It’s always fun to listen to stories of amazing expeditions or talk with people just buying their first boat.

I also volunteer with the Pemaquid Watershed Association, which stewards the natural resources of our peninsula.

AB: Can you give us a peek into the book?

LAURIE: Similar in length and content to many thru-hiking tales, Upwards includes a detailed map, daily trip summary, and lots of color photos.

There’s a lot of me in the story, perhaps even more than I anticipated. Unquestionably, the scariest times on the trail had a human factor. From escaped convicts to ridiculous accidents of my own making, some of the hardest moments were unforeseen.

The best memories, like precious snapshots, will always be with me; like the wind-swept farm at the high crest of Quebec’s Grand Portage or the cascade of water as a mighty bull moose fed at dusk.

On a deeper level, the book speaks to and encourages the dreams that we all have. Dreams that deserve a chance to shine.

Laurie Chandler National Forest Canoe Trail thru-paddler
Laurie Chandler—an official thru-paddler of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Laurie’s book, Upwards, is published in cooperation with Maine Authors Publishing, Thomaston, Maine. You can buy it on Amazon and, also home to Laurie’s blog and calendar of upcoming events.
(All photos courtesy of Laurie Apgar Chandler)

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