Kayak Angler web editor, Ben Duchesney works with famous anglers on many projects. But most meetings are conducted by phone or computer, rather than where he’d prefer—on the water with a fishing rod in hand. That all changed when Duchesney undertook an epic Adirondacks fishing trip with a trio of famed kayak anglers. The group ditched their double-blade paddles and their comfort zone too, setting off into the mountains in a pair of expedition canoes. The anglers persevered through wild weather, lengthy portages and rumbling rapids to come out the far side with a new appreciation for the backcountry and each other. But more importantly, did they catch any fish?
We were on a video chat two weeks before the trip when Robert Field asked, “So tell me about these portages, how heavy are the canoes?” I evaded the question, anxious about our planned fishing trip to New York’s Adirondack Mountains. “It’s nothing,” I assured Field, a first-time canoeist.
Fishing, Paddling and Portaging the Adirondacks
The trip was my idea. Six days over 85 miles through the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, famous for rolling mountains and crystalline water filled with bass and pike. Carrying the canoes and our gear a few miles was a small price to pay for a ticket to fishing heaven.
Four Fish Out of Water
Rex DeGuzman, another first-time single-blader, was more concerned about the weather. “How cold is it?” he asked for the third time. DeGuzman is a native Texan accustomed to heat and humidity. Through the computer screen, I could see him sitting in his house wearing a puffy jacket and wool hat. “It’s nothing,” I guaranteed him.
Mark Vlaskamp, the fourth member of our group, was on my side. “I don’t think carrying the canoe is going to be a problem,” he said, “canoes are really light.” Vlaskamp, a seasoned canoeist, knew as well as I did that portages around rapids and between lakes are no fun, but the other two would only learn after it was already too late.
Field suggested a long fishing trip to bring the group together and make a video for his Youtube channel. DeGuzman, owner of ActionHat and host of LiveLiveNow.com, is always up for an adventure. It’s just that most of his adventures take place in a kayak on warm water, in one day. Vlaskamp, formerly from YakGear, was leaving the paddle-fishing industry behind for an adventure-fishing sabbatical. For him the trip was a marathon kick-off to six months he planned to spend paddling and fishing around North America.
Sizing Up the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
The Adirondacks are almost more water than earth, crossed and dotted with streams, rivers, lakes and ponds.
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is a 740-mile chain of loosely-connected waterways running through four states and into Canada. The NFCT website lists 22 rivers, 58 lakes and 63 portages along the trail. The portages were the part that had me worried. We planned to paddle the first and second sections of the trail and the guidebook said to expect ten portages—the longest stretching 1.5 miles.
Portages, or carries, are sections of the route that can’t be paddled. Travelers have to beach their boat, and lug their stuff to the next watery spot. We were paddling 17-foot-long Old Town Penobscot canoes weighing 83 pounds each. With our food and gear packed in barrels and coolers I figured each loaded canoe would weigh 400 pounds.
“I don’t think the carries are going to be a big deal,” Vlaskamp repeated optimistically, “carrying a canoe isn’t that hard.”
The River’s Siren Song is Sweet
Our first day in the Adirondacks was sunny, blue-sky gorgeous, like the siren’s call luring a sailor deeper and deeper into the unknown. After a few miles, the cottages lining the river’s edge gave way to green forest and we disconnected from the human world. We would hardly see another person for the next week.
After pushing off in Old Forge, NY, Vlaskamp and I gave a quick paddling seminar to our fellow travellers. Field is most famous for a YouTube video of a shark flipping his kayak. Thousands of viewers followed his week-long fishing trip down the menacing Devil’s River in Texas. Fellow Lone Star native DeGuzman has logged thousands of hours with a double-blade paddle chasing redfish and bass in South Texas. You’ve seen him in the “Why I Fish” video. One thing you haven’t seen is either angler in a canoe.
The pair were having a hard time keeping their knuckles from slamming the gunnels and keeping the paddle blade pointed in the right direction. DeGuzman begged, “It’s a straight paddle, what does it matter?” The pair had two days to master the right strokes before we hit whitewater.
These guys may not know how to paddle a canoe, but they sure know how to fish. Shortly after rounding a pinch point that marked the start of Third Lake (the lakes are named in order going northeast on the trail) we pulled up behind an island to stretch our legs. Throwing out a cast into the deep water, DeGuzman hooked up with his first smallmouth bass. As he worked the fish in, he spotted two more smallies following it. The biggest swam right through his legs. “I think we should fish here for a bit,” he suggested.
“That just made the trip for me. Can we go home now?”
After landing a few more fat Adirondack smallmouth on jerkbaits, I noticed Vlaskamp didn’t have a fishing rod in his hand. I realized he’d hardly fished all day. “Hey Mark, in order to catch fish you have to actually make a cast,” I teased. He smiled.
Vlaskamp is an avid outdoorsman, but the least experienced angler of the bunch, so we were stoked when his rod slammed on the second cast. DeGuzman was the first to see the fish. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t horse it in,” he cautioned, “that’s a giant pike.”
After a quick lesson in how to hold a northern pike, Vlaskamp, looking a little scared, held up his giant trophy with a grin as big as the fish was long. “That just made the trip for me,” he said after watching the big fish swim away. “Can we go home now?” DeGuzman laughed.
We made a group decision that first afternoon to focus on fishing and not worry about pace. We could make up time when the fishing wasn’t as good. When we passed a good campsite only five miles into the trip we decided to call it a day. “We’ll be fine as long as we kick ass tomorrow,” I told the crew before we hit the sack. Field set an alarm to wake us up.
Paddling on Texas Time in the Adirondacks
We didn’t know that Field’s watch was still set on Texas time. We moseyed around camp making sausage and eggs and organizing gear. Our planned 11 a.m. launch was past noon. We were seriously behind, but we wouldn’t realize that for another day.
Nice weather had us slowing our pace to fish. We casually paddled the rest of Fourth Lake up to the end of Fifth Lake and the start of our first portage.
The portage was less than a half-mile up a hill and around a corner; it looked easy on the map. We strapped a cart under each canoe and started pulling the boats up the trail to the road. After 100 yards, we were keeled over and panting. We tried making a harness out of a cam strap and towing the boats like a mule. That sucked worse.
At the top of the hill we found a gas station. Refueling on tall boys, we didn’t talk about the magnitude of the portages ahead. An hour later we were back in the boats trying to make up time. Too late, we were screwed.
When I planned this Adirondacks trip, I was a little worried it would be too much for the famed kayak anglers, too much for all of us. That first portage was just a taste of the trials ahead of us. After that half-mile carry we came to another portage. This time it was a mile long, right at the end of the day. We charged on so we wouldn’t have to suffer first thing in the morning.
By the next portage on the second day, we came up with another solution. We loaded the boats with our gear and strapped the cart in the middle, allowing us to move all our gear at once down the paved trail. We finished day two at the start of Eighth Lake, only a half-mile long, with a mile-and-a-half carry at its end.
In the morning, as we were loading the boats onto the carts, someone noticed the canoes were buckling in the middle. So much for a good idea. The next portage will forever be remembered as “Marsh Carry.” Three hours of cursing, sweating and slapping had us at each other’s throats. Morale was low when we slipped into Browns Tract Inlet heading toward Raquette Lake. A heavy lunch with extra mayo cheered the troops. Then we noticed the wind tearing at the treetops.
“I think we turn right after that point up ahead,” I yelled over the wind and waves. Field was fighting a smallmouth while the rest of the crew took a break. After the Marsh Carry and battling the wind we needed to find camp and regroup. The last thing we wanted at dawn was another hurdle.
Time to Face the Cold, Wet Truth
Grey skies and pouring rain the fourth morning quickly turned to snow. We paddled a few more miles and carried another half-mile. After the initial excitement followed by the hard truth, we had resigned to get through everything. Soon we were trading fish stories and working together.
As the weather got worse, the rapids got worse. At one point, DeGuzman and I ended up with the canoe pinned to a rock in the middle of a mile-long maelstrom.
We hadn’t scouted the whole section. The plan was to eddy out before the bend and scout the rest. But there was a boulder in the middle of the path that would lead us to safety. “We’ll be fine,” I said as we were pushed past the eddy where Vlaskamp and Field were waiting.
I noticed that Vlaskamp had scrambled onto the bank at the
end of the rapid, throw bag in hand, ready to rescue us.
“I don’t think we have a choice.”
Two strokes later, I was proved wrong. Very wrong. The center of the canoe pinned firmly on the boulder.
“I think I have to get out of the boat, otherwise we’ll never make it,” I shouted.
DeGuzman turned around with a look of pure panic. “Why? No, don’t do that,” he begged.
I jumped onto the top of the rock, while DeGuzman tried to contain his panic, and the canoe swung free. Unfortunately, I was downstream of the boat, which was coming at me like a run-away freight train. I had no choice but to jump back into the boat, nearly flipping us in the process.
After knocking against a few more rocks we managed to run out the whitewater upright. I noticed that Vlaskamp had scrambled onto the bank at the end of the rapid, throw bag in hand, ready to rescue us.
“That’s what is missing from day-to-day life,
out here you don’t have a choice.”
Embrace the Struggle
By day five we had settled into a silent rhythm: at camp Vlaskamp and Field would set up tents, DeGuzman would get a roaring fire together and I’d make dinner. The days were cold and filled with suffering, but hot dinner, warm fire and deep pulls from the bottle of Fireball helped. Our hands had turned to stone, the blisters and deep cuts no longer stinging. Our muscles had become numb to the endless hours of paddling and breath-crushing carries. We could have paddled and portaged any distance at that point.
While the first few carries had us cursing, by the last 1.5-mile portage on day seven, we were cracking jokes. When the poor, overworked cart finally gave out on the last portage, no one said anything. We just picked up the gear and carried on.
The same celebrity anglers known around the world for catching big fish from a kayak, the same ones that I’d mildly doubted would be able to handle the long trip, were now real canoeists. The three guys that I’d barely known before the trip were now some of my closest friends. We even invited each other to our weddings, even though I am the only one with a wedding date. “So many times this trip I thought, ‘I can’t go any farther, I can’t do this’,” said Field as he sat by the campfire on the last night of the trip.
“The thing is, you have to,” mused DeGuzman. “That’s what is missing from day-to-day life, the fact that out here you don’t have a choice, you have to just keep going if you want to make it, if you want to get to camp to eat, if you want to survive.”
Happy Ending on the Eighth Day
The eighth day of our Adirondacks trip (we had planned on six) was easy, with no portages or rapids and just a few miles of paddling before hot showers and cell service.
That night, over beers at the crowded brewery, we couldn’t help but laugh thinking about the last week out in the woods battling the elements and pushing ourselves to the brink and beyond. “There were a few moments where I thought you guys were going to hate me after this trip,” I admitted.
Field finished his beer and slid the empty glass along the table. He spoke thoughtfully. “What do you guys think? I think we should make this an annual thing.”
Vlaskamp and I just laughed and had another bite of pizza. DeGuzman said, “Next time, though, we should do the Adirondacks in the summer.”