September 1, 2013

90 miles to learn all sorts of lessons in a boat

By Elizabeth Lee

---- — Next week is the big “90-miler.” The Adirondack Canoe Classic is running again for what looks like the 30th year. 

Since 1983, the weekend after Labor Day hundreds of paddlers have convened to navigate their boats 90 miles from Old Forge to Saranac Lake via historic waterways that make up the first leg of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT).

This event is like the other fun, athletic events that epitomize the way North Country people play — it’s hard. 

But by tradition recreationists are welcome alongside serious competitors. The course takes three days and to accommodate the 250 to 275 boats the route is divided into three distinct legs. The Department of Environmental Conservation provides safety and logistical support and sets aside blocks of campsites. Participants receive a T-shirt, mileage pins, awards, camping, snacks, boat shuttles and a post race meal. Several different classes of boats compete, including canoes, kayaks and guide boats crewed by one to eight paddlers or rowers.

The sense of community that gathers as the race gets closer is impressive. Volunteers, race officials and local businesses all thrive on the challenge of running a fun and safe course as well as hosting the several thousand extras who come to town in support of a boat or a team.

This year one boat will be bringing a new dimension to the field. Folks raising money for the Northern Forest Explorers will paddle an eight-person voyageur canoe. This idea is just one of the positive spinoffs of the 90 Miler.

Northern Forest Explorers is a program that was started by the NFCT for kids ages 10 to 14 to participate in five day canoe trips. The trips run along various sections of the 740-mile route between Old Forge and Maine. Potential participants can sign up with a simple application on the NFCT website. The cost ranges from $100 to $500 depending on income but scholarships are also available.

Kate Williams, executive director of Northern Forest Canoe Trail, says the group is excited to participate in the 90 Miler and sees the upcoming fundraiser as a great way to connect paddlers to the protection and stewardship of the places they love to paddle.

“This is the classic flatwater race in the Northeast and we’ve always been proud to be associated with it. ... We are thrilled to be entered into the Voyageur class of boats. Our goal is to raise funds to get more kids outside paddling and help promote and maintain this classic canoe route for generations to come.”

As every paddler — and especially every racer — knows, there are all sorts of lessons to be learned in a boat. 

There is inspiration in nature, science in water chemistry, character development in every stroke and stillness in every scenic view. Not to mention amazing wildlife sightings and crazy adventures having to do with trail food, gear and weather.

Those of us who were lucky began learning these lessons at an early age, either with our families or on a trip with a group of kids who were also shipped off to see the outdoor world for a week in summer. In most of us there is a deeply held belief that all children should do a paddling trip early in life.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at

NORTHERN FOREST EXPLORERS To donate to the Northern Forest Explorers 90 Miler team visit The paddlers include Mike Lynch of Saranac Lake who has through-paddled the entire Northern Forest Canoe Trail. For an application to get a youngster on a trip next summer visit Families can also check out for photos and maps of recent trips.