I was walking down a dirt road on the morning of July 18 just outside of the small industrial town of Groveton, N.H., when a white pickup truck with two men inside pulled over next to me.
"We saw you taking pictures down by the mill," an elderly man driving the vehicle yelled accusingly at me. "If you go on my land again, I'll have you arrested for trespassing."
Indeed in the past hour, I had been taking photographs of a mill that had been shut down in recent years. I had also been taking photos of downtown and just about anything that caught my eye, just like I had been doing all trip. In fact, the only gear I had with me at this time was a large yellow pelican case (shaped like a large briefcase) that was holding my camera gear. Jacob was about a quarter mile ahead with the canoe and all the paddling and camping equipment.
This paper mill shut down in Groveton, N.H. in recent years, costing the small town hundreds of jobs.
(Enterprise photo – Mike Lynch)
Apparently, these men took exception to the fact that I was taking photos. The elderly man who was driving was especially mad and did most of the talking while a middle-aged man sat next to him.
The driver told me he didn't want my kind here and that he knew what I was up to. My people were going to take his land and cut a 200-foot wide swath of trees through his property along the nearby Upper Ammonoosuc River.
I explained that I was just paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and looking for a place to enter the river. Some locals in Groveton recommended that I walk up this road and put in above the dam. He didn't seem to hear me though, and he continued to say he was going to have me arrested if I went near the river on his property.
At this point, I was completely baffled. I couldn't imagine what this guy was talking about. I couldn't imagine why I was striking such fear into this man. I wondered what this swath was that he was talking about. Did he mean a portage? It didn't make sense and when I tried to talk to him he didn't seem to hear anything I had to say. He was enraged. He was fighting for something I didn't understand. Somehow I had stepped into a property rights battle and I really didn't want any part of it.
After about 10 minutes, the conversation cooled off enough that I could walk away. I continued walking down the road. As I walked away the elderly man questioned where I was going. I told him I had to meet my friend who had walked up the road with my canoe. The man didn't seem to hear me.
As I walked up the road, I soon saw the canoe sitting alone in a turnoff and Jacob coming out of the woods. Great, I thought, Jacob is on this guy's property.
Immediately, the man started yelling at Jacob and the same nonsensical argument continued for another five minutes. The man told us we were going to have to walk back down the road to Groveton, then get on the highway and walk to Stark, where we could put in the water.
Finally, I got an idea. I'll show this guy the Northern Forest Canoe Trail map we were using. So I pulled out the map and handed it to the man sitting shotgun.
"Wait a minute," he said, looking at the map. "I think we've got the wrong guys."
Finally, they started to listen and then they got it. We were just a couple of guys on a canoe trip and not two guys looking to steal their land.
"Oh, you're sportsmen," the old man said. "We love sportsmen."
He then proceeded to tell us how he let just about anyone on his land for snowmobiling or fishing or other recreational uses. He then pointed to a nearby path and told us how it was the best way to get down to the water.
Suddenly, we were buddies.
The men then went on to explain that they had thought I was a surveyor working on the Northern Pass, a project that would create a transmission line to bring power from a Hydro-Quebec plant in Canada down through northern New Hampshire. The project proposed to use eminent domain and run through the elderly man's property, something he was adamantly opposed to. The 200-foot wide path is proposed for the transmission lines.
The elderly man warned us that we should have some way to make it clear that we weren't with Northern Pass. Otherwise, we might wind up getting shot. He then went on to tell us a humorous story about how his father once threw dynamite at some paddlers who said that this father's section of the river "stunk." I think he was trying to get his point across that the locals could be ornery and shouldn't be taken for granted. We got the point.
Eventually, with the situation resolved, we walked down this man's property to the river, where we put in above the dam. But our luck didn't change much that day. Within a few minutes of paddling, we found that the river level was too low to paddle. So we actually did pull the canoe out of the water and got on the highway in order to walk to Stark, a tiny but picturesque New England town with a covered bridge and a library the size of a toolshed.
The experience in Groveton with the two men was pretty atypical on the trip. In fact, it was the only encounter that was close to negative. And in the end, it simply turned out to be a misunderstanding and pretty humorous to look back upon.
But in one way it was typical of the 110-mile stretch from Newport, Vermont to Errol, New Hampshire on the Maine border. Very little came easy in this section of the trip. I would say it is probably the hardest continuous stretch of the entire Northern Forest Canoe Trail for through paddlers.
The only straightforward river paddling we found on this stretch was 20 miles of wide open downriver on the Connecticut River from North Stratford to just outside Groveton. The Connecticut and Nullhegan rivers are the only downriver stretches in this part and the Nulhegan was a battle to navigate, for the most part. At its headwaters, it was an extremely narrow and windy stream crowded by alders and often blocked by beaver dams. Later on, the water levels were extremely low and we were dragging the boat in stretches.
The other rivers in this section - Clyde, Upper Ammonoosuc, Androscoggin - were all running against us. Of the three, the wide-open Androscoggin was probably the most pleasurable. It had long stretches of slow-moving water and plenty of wildlife in the form of bald eagles and other birds. One good part of being New Hampshire is that I felt like we were entering wilder terrain. We started to see moose tracks, more birds of prey and more remote terrain, in general.
Despite the struggles in this section, we continued on with few complaints. Prior to the trip, I knew this section would be difficult and on many days I just focused on enduring it. I knew that better days were ahead in Maine, where most of the paddling was on lakes or downstream.