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Follow the dots back, and the first one has Walter Opuszynski as a youngster in Beacon Falls, Conn., viewing wildlife and partaking in typical childhood adventures and hijinks along the oak-shaded trails that connected his home with those of two sets of grandparents and other relatives.
Earliest trail memory? Holding hands with an uncle “as I jumped over a black snake” that was coiled on the dirt path. From the beginning, for Opuszynski, trails connected family and friends, while offering opportunity for excitement.
Next dot has him in the office of his high school adviser, who dusts off a college brochure with the moose image on the cover, and suggests he go to tiny Unity College in Maine because it has a “green” reputation and would offer Opuszynski the background he desired in environmental science, education and outdoor recreation.
He figured that course of study would help save him from a job behind a desk – and it certainly has. More dots on life’s path: a job designing and maintaining trails for the Maine Conservation Corps, and a job as a trail coordinator for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation, working on projects in Groton, Brighton and Lake Elmore.
Trails seem a part of his DNA. “I’ve got the fever for it,” Opuszynski shrugs. “Just one of those niche skill sets.”
For the past six years, Opuszynski has turned to the water, as the trail director for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, taking a lead on how best to use, and respect, that lengthy, amazing aquatic pathway that runs from Old Forge, N.Y., in the Adirondacks to Fort Kent in northern Maine. It runs a total of 740 miles through four states, among them, of course, Vermont, as well as a tiny piece of Quebec.
From the west the “trail” enters Vermont at the mouth of the Missisquoi River at the shore of Lake Champlain, then connects to Lake Memphremagog, then to the Clyde River, then to various ponds and the Nulhegan River, before finally joining the Connecticut River and continuing on east and north.
As trail director, Opuszynski oversees a route that joins a total of 79 rivers, ponds and lakes and runs across five watersheds. Touted as historic because of its use over centuries by Native Americans, it now offers canoeing and kayaking options from lazy day-long paddles on quiet waters to thrilling, tumbling white-water trips over rapids.
In his job, Opuszynski has helped find and design places to put in and take out watercraft, portage around (usually dams), picnic and camp. Spring is his busy season, for him and the volunteers who repair winter’s impact on lean-tos, fire rings, picnic tables, and the kiosks and signposts marking the trail. Further ahead, there are outing events for kids, water-safety programs, and sessions on dealing with invasive plant species.
Though Opuszynski may have hoped to avoid sitting behind a desk, there are always website matters to attend to -– he proudly points to the interactive map that allows visitors to zoom to every segment of NFCT waterways — and traditional paperwork involving a host of federal, state and local permits relating to land use.
“We (also) do a lot of site visits, we talk with landowners, we are on the lookout for erosion, that type of thing … ” explains Opuszynski, who is NFCT’s ambassador to farmers, municipal officials, paper company representatives, anyone who has agreed to let paddlers stop on their shoreline in exchange for the tacit understanding that the landscape not be abused.
“Lots of people are flabbergasted that NFCT doesn’t own any land,” Opuszynski explains. So, the trail’s success depends on property owners along the way.
Opuszynski works in Waitsfield with four other full-time NFCT employees, including its new executive director, who began work last month, in an office adorned with canoeing posters, paddling gear, carpentry tools, shovels, NFCT guidebooks ($25), computers, a few worn sofas and chairs, even a dog dish – Opuszynski’s occasional paddling companion is Chloe, a small black and white rescue animal.
The office is in Waitsfield because that’s where NFCT got its start back around 2000 thanks to the efforts of Kay Henry, former owner of the Waitsfield-based Mad River Canoe Co., and her husband Rob Center, who was an executive with the firm. The two had time on their hands after the sale of the canoe company and began lobbying; fund-raising from private, corporate and government sources; marketing and planning and organizing in every other way necessary to open the trail six years later.
With a budget of $650,000, the result of grants, fund-raising events, corporate sponsorships and $35 membership fees from some 1,200 members, interest in the nonprofit NFCT is growing, says Opuszynski, though he can’t say exactly how many people paddle on it. The reality is many thousands of people use sections of the trail each season without even knowing they’re on it.
He does have some numbers: At least 72 people have canoed the full length of the trail over the last eight years, a trip that takes six to eight weeks. One section of the trail in Maine, the Allagash River, records 20,000 camper nights a season.
He says in Vermont, the upper Missisquoi is becoming increasingly popular in part because of rumors it may someday be designated a federal “wild and scenic” river.
Like anyone who spends time on a trail, Opuszynski has tales to tell, and his go-to story is about the time he and three companions exited their canoes at a campsite on the Allagash on a day in late fall. And wouldn’t you know, a bull moose, in rut, spotted them from across the river, and began splashing toward them in what looked like a charge, forcing them “instinctively” to flee into an outhouse to escape what they worried were the animal’s designs.
“It was like three clowns (stuffed) in a clown car,” he says.
He talks about a canoe destroyed by swift current on the Saranac in New York, as a result of “a miscommunication” and about the prodigious amounts of coffee he drinks traveling Route 3 in New York, Route 16 in New Hampshire and Route 2 in Maine as he travels to meet landowners along the canoe trail. He drives 10,000 miles a year, usually with canoes atop his Ford pickup truck, to points between Old Forge and Fort Kent.
Sometimes, especially in Maine, he’ll lift a canoe from the bed and do some fishing. It’s a sport he likes, and, in fact, NFCT has proposed that a special four-state fishing license be made available to trail paddlers – but so far no luck with the idea.
Opuszynski seems pleased enough with where the dots have led him. On a trail, whether land or river, “you are intimate with your surroundings; you are free; you have opportunities to explore … which I love to do,” he says.
Time permitting, “I would canoe the whole trail in one (long) trip in a heartbeat,” says Opuszynski, who figures he’s already paddled, piecemeal, 540 miles of the route.
Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais freelance reporter and editor.