Blissful solitude by boat

Jen Rose Smith

THE WASHINGTON POST – Feisty in springtime, the Missisquoi River, which flows from Quebec to the foothills of northern Vermont, was slow and summer-lazy in mid-August, when I launched a kayak a few miles south of the Canadian border. Green summits rose up behind me, past the closed border, but the river led westward, descending through dairy land and patchwork forest toward Lake Champlain.

For three days after leaving Richford, Vermont, I had paddled the Missisquoi alone, camping each night by the edge of the river, lullabied by crickets and the resonant hoots of a barred owl. As I steered my small boat along, I didn’t see a soul on the water.

Which was fine by me. Sharing a small house with three adults has made my pandemic blessedly convivial; it has also meant six straight months when I was rarely by myself. A camping trip by kayak was a quest for solitude in the waning summer.

In choosing a boat trip, though, I was far from alone. Since spring, my Instagram had filled with images of my friends’ shiny new canoes and kayaks. There’s a logic to it: A watercraft is a way to get outside while staying away from others. Boats offer natural social distancing, often with a stiff breeze to boot. To see if the trend extended beyond my own circle, I called Steve Brownlee, the owner of Umiak Outdoor Outfitters, a Stowe, Vermont, shop that caters to paddlers.

“We sold a year’s worth of boats in a single week,” he told me, sounding incredulous. Interest outpaced anything he had seen in 45 years in the business. “It’s the biggest canoe resurgence since the movie Deliverance came out,” he said. (While film buffs recall the 1972 white-water thriller for violence and a duelling banjo, paddle-sports lore enshrines it as the inspiration for a generation of river enthusiasts.)

A warm morning and glassy conditions on the Missisquoi River. By afternoon, a bank of dark clouds hung low over the water. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Sunset at Lussier Campsite on the Missisquoi River. Low water exposes rocky shoals along the water’s edge; and Doe Campsite commands a sweeping view across the water towards the Green Mountains’ northernmost peaks

It’s not just Vermont. US sales of all paddle-sports equipment, including kayaks, canoes, rafts and paddleboards, were up 56 per cent in June from the same time in 2019, according to the NPD Group, a market research company. The number of people getting out in canoes and kayaks increased more than 30 per cent in April to June over the previous year. The Outdoor Industry Association, which tracks those participation rates, noted first-time participants account for two-thirds of the surge.

Demand is so high that many buyers face weeks-long back orders. “It’s nothing we’ve ever experienced before,” said Bill Kueper, the Vice President of Wenonah Canoe, a Minnesota manufacturer known for its ultralight boats. “Consumer demand for paddle sports went off the charts, and as an industry we’re falling short. We don’t have the capacity.” The company is hiring, and Kueper is taking regular shifts on the factory floor.

The objects of this boat-buying frenzy range from molded plastic versions at big-box stores to Wenonah’s high-end craft, with a price spectrum to match. Kueper told me scarcity is spurring consumers to try nearly anything. For my own trip, I packed a tent and sleeping bag into the 13-foot wooden sea kayak I built years ago in my parents’ garage, reasoning that in a pandemic, the best boat for the job is one you already have.

And amid travel restrictions and quarantines, the best river is a local river. Venturing just over an hour from my house in Richmond, Vermont, I chose a 35-mile section of the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the longest freshwater paddling route in the Northeast.

Splicing together rivers, streams, lakes and ponds across a dozen watersheds, the trail links Old Forge, NY, and Fort Kent, Maine. “Through-paddling” the route beginning to end might take anywhere from four to seven weeks, a feat of endurance only 119 paddlers have accomplished, according to the Northern Forest Canoe Trail’s official roster.

My goals were less ambitious, happily, because weeks of dry weather had reduced the current to a mere suggestion. Rapids dwindled to rippling cowlicks. The first day, a belted kingfisher slowed to pace me, flashing a bold white collar each time he swooped, impatient, between trees.

Kingfishers and gray herons offered constant company along the Missisquoi, which is a haven for birds of all kinds. As I lunched on crackers and Vermont cheddar, bald eagles scouted clear eddies for trout. Calling out in chirping whistles, osprey fussed over treetop nests. Despite the wild feel, though, I often saw feathery tips of ripening corn waving over the riverbank, a reminder that people were rarely far away.

Their lives, though, had turned away from the water. Like other communities in the Northeast, many Vermont river towns grew around textile and lumber mills, which eked livelihoods from rushing currents. One by one, the mills shut down. Left out of the working landscape, waterways became a back door to small towns, and a boat traveller may glide, unnoticed, through village centres built for another era.

“The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) runs through some pretty remote parts of the world,” said Karrie Thomas, the trail’s executive director. An expedition kayaker who has led trips in Nepal and Peru, Thomas said the NFCT stands out not for the remoteness it offers, but for the juxtaposition of wild and settled places. “The trail also links together communities, instead of just taking you deep and far,” she said.

While my local river section is more bucolic than backwoods, town felt distant as night fell over the campsites where I slept. Each of the two free, no-reservation sites I stayed in – named Doe and Lussier for families that opened their land to the NFCT – had a rustic privy and a fire ring arched over by trees. At sunrise in Lussier campsite, I sipped coffee and watched a pair of red foxes emerge from a tangle of green on the opposite bank.

From Lussier, I had 12 river miles to the Highgate Center dam, where I had left a car; I paddled hard to outpace a slate-bellied bank of rain clouds at my back. Another seven miles would have taken me to Swanton, a town near the historical location of a Western Abenaki village called Mazipskoik, a word later corrupted to Missisquoi.

The people who lived there were paddlers: Many visitors to the Northern Forest Canoe Trail pilot craft that might have seemed familiar to the inhabitants of Mazipskoik. Archaeologists have found the remains of white pine dugouts by fishing ponds in Western Abenaki lands, while lightweight birchbark canoes served for long-distance river travel. Centuries ago, the canoe was already ancient.

Radiocarbon dating of the oldest North American canoe remains suggests that they’re 5,000 to 10,000 years old, said Mark Neuzil, a co-author of Canoes: A Natural History in North America. A time traveller from that period could probably pick up a paddle, climb into a modern-day canoe and stroke away. “Someone from 5,000 years ago . . . would know exactly what it was,” Neuzil said. “What other technology can you say that about?”

But it wasn’t until after the Civil War, Neuzil said, that the canoe became primarily a tool for recreation. At that time, Americans were travelling to lakes and rivers – including many in Vermont – to escape from increasingly crowded and industrial cities. As the pandemic summer of 2020 turns to autumn, I can relate.

My takeout point had just come into sight when the rain caught up with me, a light sprinkle followed by a drenching rush. Dripping wet, I dragged the boat up an embankment and lifted it onto my car.

I had used a boat to slip away from life in town, and now I would slip back in. Before driving away, I pulled a clean cloth mask from the bow of my kayak, where it had been safe in the bottom of a waterproof bag since the day I left.