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CANOEING

Trails of Native Americans

Where the traffic is low on America's original superhighways

"The weekend traffic is approaching bumper to bumper," says David Jenkins, director of conservation and public policy for the American Canoe Association. And no wonder. Canoe Magazine estimated in 1992 that some 14 million Americans participate in some form of paddling sport every year, be it canoeing, whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, or rafting. To make matters worse, more and more rivers are polluted or unsuited for paddling. For every mile of American river that's preserved, say experts, 85 miles are plugged with concrete.

Traffic jams on America's waterways are nothing new, however. America's history is full of the canoe exploits of adventurers such as René-Robert La Salle, who discovered and named Louisiana, and Jacques Marquette, the French explorer and Jesuit priest who first reported accurate data on the course of the Mississippi. And the Europeans, of course, were only taking their cue from early Native Americans, who perfected canoe travel and used rivers much more than overland routes.

The good news: Many of the routes originally mapped by Native Americans remain in, or have been restored to, pristine condition. Native Trails (PO Box 240, Waldoboro, ME 04572, 207-832-5255) works to preserve pre-mechanized travel routes. Below are its top eight picks for canoe routes you can still travel today that look much as they did centuries ago.

Boundary Waters
Grand Portage, Minn., to International Falls, Minn.
Length: 160 miles
10 days * The key highway for Native Americans and Canadian Voyageurs in the rich fur trade west of the Great Lakes. The route is still a wild chain of granite-reefed lakes and backwater rivers, little changed from the days of the bitter rivalry between the Northwest and Hudson Bay companies. Though little whitewater skill is needed, good judgment on wind-whipped lakes and stamina for portages are necessities.

Coosa Trail
Carters, Ga., to Coosa, Ga.
Length: 150 miles
Seven to 10 days * Next to Carters, Ga., is the archeological site of Little Egypt, where 16th-century Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto raided the temples that crowned the city of Coosa's earthen pyramids. The raid yielded no gold, so de Soto marched on, leaving behind only the plague of smallpox, inadvertently destroying the Coosa people. The pristine route allows for keen appreciation of this former center of the Native American kingdom.

Eastern Ohio Trail
Cleveland, Ohio, to Marietta, Ohio
Length: 270 miles
15 days * The Cuyahoga River was so polluted in 1967 that it caught fire. Today, it is a model of recovery. Its valley leads south to waterfalls and an old portage route to the Tuscarawas and Muskingum River system. French explorers, settlers, and the Ohio Canal all followed the water trail to the Ohio River. Though no longer wild, the scenery is still beautiful as the rivers wind through the western edge of the Appalachians.

Missouri Breaks
Fort Benton, Mont., to James Kipp Recreation Area, Mont.
Length: 160 miles
Seven days * Much of the upper Missouri has become a series of shallow, windswept lakes, hostile to canoes. This federally protected section escaped that fate. The painted cliffs of the Badlands hem the river from Virgelle to the end. Good current and few rapids make this an easy, scenic trip.

Northern Forest Canoe Trail
Old Forge, N.Y., to Ft. Kent, Maine
Length: 680 miles
1 to 2 months * Like the Appalachian Trail, it traverses the wildest regions remaining in the Northeast. Some sections are not marked, but the trail is usable throughout--beginning where the St. John and Fish rivers meet at Fort Kent and following more than 15 rivers across the Adirondacks, Vermont, New Hampshire, and ending in Maine. Some sections are easy, others are broken by difficult rapids. Intermediate (class III) whitewater skills are needed to do the entire route. There are at least 30 mandatory portages on the trail.

Potomac Heritage Trail
Old Town, Md., to Piscataway National Park, Md.
Length: 200 miles
Eight to 10 days * The Potomac was the Native American's major highway through the Appalachians. Most miles are easy, but rapids and falls break the river at Harpers Ferry and between Seneca and Georgetown. Many of the falls require portages for other than expert canoers. The last portion of the trip, just before Georgetown, is in tidewater, so paddlers need to plan their trip according to tidal charts.

Rogers Retreat
Newport, Vt., to Williams River Landing near Bellows Falls, Vt.
Length: 260 miles
Ten days * Charts one of the boldest initiatives of the French and Indian War: the attack on St. Francis, Quebec, by Robert Rogers and his rangers. Experience the agony of victory by climbing slowly up the Clyde River, racing and portaging down the Nulhegan and Connecticut rivers, then up the Johns River to portage the Ammo for a long downriver run to where the Rangers finally reached a safe retreat. The route is difficult but rewarding.

Wisconsin Trail
Menasha, Wis., to Prairie du Chien, Wis.
Length: 240 miles
14 days * Indian guides introduced this route to Europeans in the middle of the 16th century. The route has pretty, if not particularly wild, scenery starting with Lake Winnebago, ascending the slow-moving Fox River, and finally following the Wisconsin River past the Baraboo Range and into the hills of western Wisconsin. Some short portages at a few dams are required along the way.


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