Encountering trail angels

5 weeks & 740 miles by canoe


John DaSilva was blessed with trail angels.   

On June 24 he completed the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740 mile paddle through some of the most wilderness country between Old Forge in upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Canada before crossing Moosehead Lake and arriving at Fort Kent, Maine.   

During the five-week trek, DaSilva navigated 23 rivers and streams and 59 lakes. He went through 45 towns and completed 65 portages and swatted untold hundreds, if not more, black flies and mosquitoes. DaSilva, 62 and recently retired as a truck driver, and his wife, Lori, who still works on a per diem basis as a nurse at Rhode Island Hospital, read about the NFCT and knew what it would take. They have made many canoeing and camping trips together and they knew -- despite all the preparation -- there would be unforeseen obstacles on the way.

The dream of doing the NFCT was spawned during the pandemic. While on a Grand Canyon float trip in March 2020, the country shutdown because of Covid-19. As national parks were closed, they took their camper to federal lands that are not regulated and open. It gave John plenty of time to read up on the NFCT.

The NFCT is frequently compared to the Appalachian Trail – a 2,200-mile endurance walk from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katadin in Maine – that even an experienced hiker can take four months to complete. For hikers in this country completing the Appalachian Trail in a single outing, rather than in segments over an extended period, maybe taking years, is a personal challenge and significant achievement. Doing the NFCT is comparable for canoers.   

That’s why George “Jich” Estano called the Beacon two weeks ago. Fellow paddlers, Estano and John have known each other for years. The word went out in the paddle community that John was preparing to do the NFCT. Estano followed his progress on social media and -- when he learned John would complete the last leg of the outing -- he thought Rhode Island should know of the accomplishment. He called the Beacon with details and the request not to contact John until he’d cleared it with Lori.   

The call came in late June. Lori had greeted John with a cake and lots of ice cream – John loves ice cream -- at Fort Kent. It would be okay to call.   

John and Lori’s garage rivals a sports shop show room and the house a north woods lodge. Shelves line the back wall to the garage. They are sectioned off with sporting gear including sleeping bags, tents, backpacks of various sizes, cooking ware and waterproof apparel. A canoe sits in one bay of the garage. It’s the one used on the trip and until John makes repairs it won’t be joining the canoes and kayaks he has stored in a couple of lean-tos covered with tarps in his yard. Cross country skis and ski poles poke from between paddles.

John lifts the single-man canoe used for the trip to reveal gouges running the length of the boat from scraping submerged rocks. While durable, the Kevlar had cracked in a couple of places. He used this canoe because it is light although it is not indestructible.   

“If caught sideways, it could wrap around a rock,” he says. John jumped from the canoe twice while running rapids. They were unplanned swims to catch up to the boat and guide it from behind until he reached shore where he drained and repacked it. In the first dunking, he lost the paddle used for rapids meaning he was forced to use the double-bladed kayak paddle he uses for open water. It was a setback he hadn’t anticipated and although he bought another paddle on the way it wasn’t like the one claimed by the rapids.   

In preparation, John and Lori dehydrated meals and packed food cartons that were mailed to four post offices used as pickup points along the way. He found himself constantly hungry; craving sugar (crème-filled Oreos that he usually doesn’t care for were rapidly consumed). He estimates he burned about 8,000 calories a day, yet over the five weeks lost 10 pounds.   

John also carried a satellite phone that enabled him to at least give his position allowing Lori to keep track of his progress from their Warwick home. She was anxious and to keep her mind off what John was encountering, worked on their gardens that reflect the devoted attention she gives them.   

John, however, was hardly alone. There were the trail angels and the young couple – Ben and Phoebe – he paired with after the first week. As he puts it Craig, the Saranac River steward, was one of those “trail angels.”    

John pulls out a map to illustrate what he faced. The Saranac coils back and forth with a series of rapids. Avoiding them would mean a seven-mile portage, but running the first set of class 2 rapids would cut the portage by a couple of miles. They were followed by class 3 and class 4 rapids. 

Having run class 2 and 3 rapids, John figured he could reduce the portage. But how would he know where to get out of the river and begin the portage? John had read up on the trail and carried with him a book detailing the river and the terrain. A boulder pictured in the book marked the spot. 

Surprised by what was around the bend

“I did have some apprehension due to the fact that I would be running it with a loaded non whitewater Kevlar canoe. I couldn’t lower my center of gravity by kneeling in it (because of mobility issues due to double knee replacements) and I never ran this canoe in rapids,” he said.

Once in the rapids, there was no turning back. John hugged the right bank on the river. It was going well until he rounded a bend. 

In front of him and with little time to react, sticking out 10 feet from shore was a branch about two feet off the water’s surface. He managed that only to confront another limb just inches below the surface. It caught the bottom of the canoe. 

“This spun me around and had me going backwards down the rapids. I quickly started turning around but unfortunately I dropped into a hole sideways that filled my boat with water. At this point I knew I was in trouble and was going to go over.” 

John’s survival training kicked in. He jumped into the river to keep the boat upright without losing his gear. 

“I got behind the boat and was lucky to be able to get myself and the boat to the edge of the shore and woods pretty much intact.”

With no shore to speak of, John was standing in an eddy. He had lost his beloved paddle but everything was intact and the boat was full of water. He bailed out the canoe. 

As he recalls, he had one of two choices: abandon the canoe and find his way out of the woods or use the kayak paddle. He opted to continue only after paddling to the other side of the river. 

He kept an eye out for the paddle, but never found it. But, he found the boulder and the place to start the portage. He affixed a set of wheels to the back of the canoe. The going is tough, “like they were flat tires.”  

It was unbearably hot for May with temperatures in the 90s. John had lost his water bottle. He reached a road. It’s then that he met the first trail angel: a woman who gave him a bottle of Poland Springs.  She returned a half hour later with a gallon of Poland Springs.  

John was exhausted and -- to complicate matters -- the sky was darkening with an approaching storm and nightfall. He searched for a place to break camp but to his dismay found only private property signs. He came upon a DPW garage with a huge pile of sand. The building was locked. With thunder rumbling and using a light, he looked for a place to pitch a tent. Amazingly, he spotted a key on a piece of equipment. It fit the door to the garage. Inside he found a mess of parts and tools. He cleared an area and being able to recharge his electronics he bedded down for the night, rain pounding the roof.  

Concerned by the loss of the paddle, John reached out to Craig Von Bargen, NFCT, Saranac River steward and St. Regis outfitters in Saranac, NY.  Yet another trail angel, Craig, who manages the NFCT Saranac campsite, replied first thing the following morning. They arranged to meet at the confluence of the Saranac and N. Branch of the Saranac River Bridge. Craig loaded the canoe and John’s gear into his SUV and they drove 30 miles to the outfitters where John bought another paddle. He also brought him to the campsite where he met Ben and Phoebe.


Teaming up

Craig was concerned for the novice canoers. He suggested to John that they pair up. John hadn’t planned on teaming up to do the NFCT, this was more of an individual challenge but he was impressed by their enthusiasm and energy. Ben was a biker, Phoebe a tennis player. What they lacked in canoeing skills they make up for in determination.

John reflected on the friendships made on the trail.

Ben Jankowski is 25; Phoebe Gelbard, 24.

“Where most people would fail, they excelled. Not just physically but mentally, too. When things were dire and seemed hopeless, they didn’t complain or cry. Instead, there were smiles, laughter and joking,” he said.

John gave them space and let them make their own decisions.

“They would ask for my opinion at times and I would either agree with them or give them an alternative. All I can say is it worked and would travel with them anytime.”

John was impressed by their kindness and thoughtfulness to one another.

“It brought smiles to my face and gave me a renewed faith in this young generation. Some say this young generation is pampered and failing. I say hell no to that. They are just faced with different challenges and will rise up to face them just as we did,” John said.

They set off together, stayed in touch and watched out for each other. 

Wind could be a hazard, especially if it kicked up waves large enough to swamp a canoe.  John found himself with such conditions on more than one occasion. He hugged the lee shore of islands in larger lakes where he found himself thinking of how Native Americans, fur trappers and later colonists followed the same trail. 

Not all of the watery trail is rivers and streams flowing in one’s favor. John said most of Vermont was upstream requiring him in some places to walk in the river, pulling the canoe. He said the crossings into Canada and then back into this country were simple requiring just to check in with border authorities.

John talked of another trail angel encountered on the Clyde River.

“When I think of the Clyde, beauty and the beast come to mind. It’s a very pastoral river at times snaking its way through northern Vermont farms and countryside. There is also plenty of abundant wildlife to greet the quiet paddler. In between those pastoral sections are class 1 and 2 rapids that must be either paddled, portaged or lined. Then there are all the beaver dams that never seem to cease that must be climbed over or if you are lucky you can paddle at ramming speed and try to get over that way. And to add to the difficulty is the upriver paddling which never subsides in Vermont or New Hampshire except for the Nulhegan River and a short section of the Connecticut.”

Being thru paddlers, John, Ben and Phoebe had no choice but to keep going. It’s on the Clyde that they met Bill Manning whose farm abuts the river. The trio had thought of staying at the Clyde House, a guest house for thru-paddlers, but it was booked. Manning offered to let them camp on the edge of a field and they discovered he also had a self-serve farm stand where they bought some supplies,

They shared stories and soon Manning offered them to use his ATV to drive up to his house where they did their laundry and took showers.

Manning talked about the river and outlined what they could expect to encounter. 

“He’s an older gentleman,” says John, “who has led an accomplished and interesting life. We could have chatted all afternoon.”

Manning also maintained a NFCT camp on the Clyde just down from his farm that has a picnic table, fire pit and privy John noted.

John had more than stories from his trip. He wore a cap with a GoPro camera to record video and took hundreds of photos that he started downloading as soon as he got home. He’s planning to do segments to post on social media and share with his network of paddlers.

Axe with a story

He also returned with an axe that John makes a point of retrieving from inside the house.

There’s a story of another trail angel that goes with it, although it takes some time to get to it.

“What about the axe, are you going to get to that?” Lori prompted him.

The story unfolds slowly.

The party is in the wilderness of Maine on the final leg of the trail. John has calculated it’s going to take nine days to complete, but to be on the safe side has packed enough food for 12 days. Lousy weather, however, makes for slow going. His supply and that of Ben and Phoebe are running low. They start rationing and wondering if they can stretch it out.

John spells out the conditions they face after reaching Jackman, ME, that is pretty much their last chance to resupply before traversing 200 miles of big lakes and rivers to reach Fort Kent.

“We planned for a rest day in Jackman but squashed it when we saw that we would have only one weather day of opportunity to cross Moosehead Lake, Maine’s largest lake.”

“Maine’s big lakes were my biggest fear of the trip and it let us know it. I’ve traveled them many times, from placid mountain forest reflections off the water to a downright angry monster leaving you to think what did I do to piss you off.”

The weather didn’t cooperate. Temperatures dropped into the 40s. It was rainy and windy. They didn’t know whether it would be better to hunker down or push on even though it was slow going and the angry lakes were risky.

“The infamous mud carry, Chamberlain and Eagle lake crossings and the forecast was not good,” John said.

Lori is growing impatient. John says he’s getting to the axe. He continues to set the scene.

“Hyperthermia is the real deal in exposed elements such as these. I had real concerns with my leaky rain gear. We were shut down for one full day and others we made minimal progress. Food was becoming a main concern,” John relates.

They get back on the trail but are pinned down on Thoreau Island in Eagle Lake. They are making their way around the island when they come upon Stephen Leavitt and his dog Penny at a camp. John guesses Leavitt is in his 80s.

“We must have been a pitiful sight,” John says. Leavitt takes them into his camp, supplies them with hot coffee and regales them with stories. He tells them he’s been coming to Eagle Lake since he was a boy for week-long fishing trips.

“Lucky for us serendipity brought us together on this day. This would be his last day and night before heading back home on the coast of Maine. He offered us his left over food that he was going to take back home. We paused for a couple of seconds before we said sure and then a lot of thankyous followed,” said John.

Leavitt had given them a large steak, pancake mix, produce and a half stick of Houlton’s butter, which John had to agree is the best butter in the state. Throughout the day they cross between the two camps to swap stories. On one of the visits, Leavitt notices John breaking wood to feed his fire and asks if he has an axe.

John did have an axe but he gave it to one of his first trail angels, Craig. Leavitt gets his axe and when John finishes chopping firewood he returns it.

Leavitt tells him to keep it and seeing that they’re near the end of the trail with no more portages and the added weight is of little concern, John willingly accepts it.

But John won’t keep it. 

He runs his fingers over the weather beaten handle. He plans to sand that, restoring its luster and adding a preservative and then bring it to a friend who can burn in “Stephen Leavitt, 2022 NFCT Trail Angel.”

And then John will make another trip to Maine. This time it will be by car to visit Leavitt and bring him his axe.