Paddle through Vermont’s Past & Present on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
(Full article printed in Vermont Vacation Guide: Summer 2015)
By Jennifer Williams. Feedback at @jen_butson

In some of the less traveled, most quiet corners of Vermont, beautiful adventures are bubbling along the shoreline. Step off the beaten path and into the unspoiled waterways of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT). Awaiting those with a penchant for paddling but also seeking stewardship, the multi-state and international Trail journeys across more than 140 miles of northern Vermont, from the northwest corner along Lake Champlain to the Northeast Kingdom’s waterways.

If the Appalachian and Long Trail hiking networks are considered the ultimate land-lovers’ pursuits in the eastern U.S., the paddlers’ end-to-end ideal is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. From scenes of rolling countryside and farms along the Missisquoi and Clyde Rivers, to the open waters of Lake Memphremagog and Island Pond, and the wilds of the Nulhegan River, canoeing or kayaking the Trail is an immersive Vermont experience.

“Unlike many hiking trails for instance, which skirt or are otherwise removed from towns and cities, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail give the paddler a chance to experience both the wilder side of Vermont life and also opportunities to visit places like Joey’s Junction in Highgate, the Grey Gables Mansion in Richford, and Simon the Tanner in Island Pond,” Kevin Mack, NFCT director of partnerships and marketing said.

While it could be easy to mistake visiting the Trail as purely a leisure pursuit, the NFCT is far from simply a pleasure-cruise. The Trail enables visitors to experience the rhythm of the region; taking in its rich history, people and landscape, at the slow and steady beat of the paddle.

The NFCT’s mission is to protect and steward the trail while also fostering community vitality to provide inspiring outdoor experiences that affirm the value of the region in which it flows. These ambitions and the trail’s length itself, are no small feat. While headquartered in Vermont, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) links 740 miles across the waterways of New York, Vermont, Québec, New Hampshire and Maine.

In addition to its corps of volunteers and breadth of educational events, the NFCT offers maps, books, and web-based tools to helps connect paddlers to a route that navigates through the region’s history from early Native Americans to early European settlers. The Trail also brings paddlers to today’s thriving communities: Towns and villages along the way offer locavore dining, lodging at inns, B&Bs or campgrounds, as well as artisan and cultural heritage opportunities.

While the Trail welcomes experienced “through-paddlers,” there are also introductory programs and easily navigable sections charted, making it perfect for beginners to “get their feet wet.” Annually, more than 120 youth participate in Northern Forest Explorers five-day programs, and adult offerings like Waterways Work Trips enable paddlers to contribute to trail work and sustainability programming, while also enjoying a guided trip.

“This 2015 summer season marks our second year of offering volunteer-led guided trips on sections of the Trail in Vermont and we are excited to get more people on the water,” Mack said. “Our several “Waterway Work Trips” allow small groups of volunteers to give back by helping us steward the Trail on working vacations.”

The Trail’s natural habitats in Vermont are incredibly diverse and include the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in the west and the Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge in in the Northeast Kingdom. Paddlers stand a good chance of seeing otters, loons, beaver and moose. The Nulhegan is also home to one of Vermont’s rarest animals, the Lynx. The Missiquoi and Nulhegan are both widely known destinations for bird-watching. Birding along the Nulhegan boasts the “Boreal Bird Grand Slam,” a roster of highly sought after birds that are rare in the lower 48 states, including the Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse, Gray Jay and Black-backed Woodpecker.  

Of course, the Trail is also about adventure.  A three hour paddle on the Clyde River with a rented boat from outfitters Clyde River Recreation or a day tour on the Missisquoi with Montgomery Adventures, connects paddlers to the possibility of canoeing or kayaking all the way to Maine. 

“We’ve had several individuals and couples from Europe come to the U.S. specifically to take on this adventure and to experience the natural beauty of the northern forest region and its people,” Mack said.

Of course, don’t forget your binoculars to try and spot Vermont’s beloved “sea monsters,” Champ, who resides in Lake Champlain and Memphre, in the waters of Lake Memphremagog.

Recommended trips include:

Missisquoi River
Loop in Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge (1 Day): A loop paddle through the refuge, offering ample wildlife viewing opportunities, including the Heron Rookeries on Shad and Metcalf Islands.

Mansonville to Glen Sutton (1/2 Day): A journey through the narrow pastoral valley of the Missisquoi River’s Quebec headwaters.

Richford-to East Berkshire (1/2 Day): Pleasant half-day paddle along the Missisquoi, with opportunities for bike-shuttling along the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail.

Richford-Enosburg Falls (1-2 Days): Short portages, good fishing, and pleasant camping at the Doe Campsite make this a prime weekend paddle.

Enosburg Falls to Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge (2-3 Days): Multi-day trip for experienced paddlers along the lower Missisquoi River.

Clyde River
Island Pond – Ten Mile Square Road (1 Day): For experienced paddlers, a rewarding paddle through Buck Flat’s, one of Vermont’s most diverse wetlands. 

School House Road to Pensioner Pond (1/2 Day): A great introduction to the Clyde River, with easy shuttling services provided by Clyde River Recreation.

Five Mile Square Road to Pensioner Pond (1.5 days): A unique opportunity to through paddle along the Clyde and sleep in the comfort of a rental cabin.

Lake Memphremagog’s South Bay (1/2 – 1 Day): Explore marshes of pickerel weed and cat tails on a paddle through a protected bay and the outlets of the Barton and Black rivers.

Nulhegan River
Nulhegan Pond to Wenlock Crossing (1/2 Day): A meandering paddle through boreal wetlands on Vermont’s wildest river.

Of Note: A fourth nearby NFCT option is the Connecticut River, which serves as the state border of Vermont and though geo-politically a part of New Hampshire, NFCT campsites are on the Vermont shore. 

Gear Up & Get Started:

Online tools and on-water experiences help both novice and seasoned paddlers get on the Trail. Events along the Trail take place in Vermont throughout the summer. One perennial favorite is Richford’s Riverfest, held on the Missisquoi in June.

The NFCT maps and guidebooks are designed to provide safe and easily accessible access to the lakes, ponds and rivers that make up the Trail in Vermont.

Take advantage of the many great outfitters, retailers and other service providers. Vermont Outdoor Guide Association has a comprehensive listing of outfitters and services. Meet with the knowledgeable staff at Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington or the team at Northwoods Stewardship Center in East Charleston. There is no shortage of resources and passionate guides to help newcomers learn more about paddling the northern Vermont landscape.

Visit or the Trail’s headquarters in Waitsfield to purchase maps, guidebooks and to learn more about getting involved.