A Wild and Scenic Love Story

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman August 30, 2015 14:25

For a list of local lakes, reservoirs and rivers, check out FAN’s Resource HQ page for popular Canoe or Kayak Paddles in the Mother Lode.

Entering 'The Fen,' Clyde River, near Island Pond, Vermont

Entering ‘The Fen,’ Clyde River, near Island Pond, Vermont

What Don Potter and Marilyn McEwen did last summer was more than an adventure. It was also a story of perseverance, survival and love.

Friends since they were nine and husband and wife since 2005, the Sonora residents in July 2014 set off on the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which meanders and cascades from upstate New York through Maine to the Canadian border on a series of beautiful but daunting lakes and rivers.

When they finished their two-month journey, the two 76-year-olds were certified to be the oldest paddlers ever to complete the canoe trail.

‘They hold the record,” confirms Karrie Thomas, executive director of Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 15-year-old nonprofit that promotes and cares for the route. “Nobody is within 10 years of Don and Marilyn. It’s a remarkable achievement.”

In fact, Thomas adds, NFCT only has records of 79 paddlers of any age completing the route.

Don and Marilyn at start of trip

Don and Marilyn at start of trip

“It was the trip of a lifetime, and I’d do it again in a minute,” says Marilyn, a breast cancer survivor who in 2005 endured a year of debilitating chemotherapy, radiation and surgery on her way to remission.

“There’s no one I’d rather paddle with,” adds Don, who a decade ago helped his new bride through the cancer battle. “This trip only brought us closer together.”

And they’re not done yet: The two lifelong athletes will later this summer embark on a two-week-long canoe trip through Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, deep in the forests of northwest Ontario.

“We’ll keep doing it until we can’t do it anymore,” says Marilyn, who reckons she’s good for another decade or so of canoe trips.

Don, now 77, ups the ante, predicting he and his wife could be paddling into their 90s.

How did their unique relationship begin? For the answer, turn back the clock 67 years. That’s when Don and Marilyn met in their native Southern California. Both were 9 and vacationing with their families at Virginia Lakes in the Eastern Sierra.

Marilyn, raised in the Santa Barbara area, and Don, from Los Angeles, met by chance while fishing.

“I wasn’t having any luck and I asked this boy, who happened to be Don, how he was getting them to bite,” remembers Marilyn. “He says, ‘Here’s how it’s done,’ and puts a bit of Velveeta cheese on my hook.

“I caught a fish right away and thought that Don was about the coolest guy I had ever met – and that he was someone I ought to stay in touch with.”

They did stay in touch, exchanging almost weekly letters and photos throughout childhood and adolescence. Then college, career and first marriages slowed their communication.

Don running shallow sections of the Allagash River in Maine

Don running shallows of Maine’s Allagash River

Don completed a 47-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, almost all of it as a silviculturist and plant ecologist on the Stanislaus National Forest. Marilyn moved east and took a job as an administrator with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.

Both married, had children – nine between them – and divorced, she in 1978 and he in 1982. Through it all, they exchanged Christmas cards. But in the 1990s, they grew closer.

“We started talking on the phone,” Marilyn laughs. “Here I’d be in this concrete jungle in East Lansing talking to idiot lawyers, and he’s out in the woods in a dream job.”

When the two did talk, it was often about sports. Marilyn was a tennis player, equestrian and long-distance cyclist. Don was a runner, rock climber, hang glider and cyclist.

Marilyn began recounting some of the bike trips she had taken around Ireland, Sardinia, Greece, Turkey and more. “You need to join me,” she urged. “It’s so much fun.”

They began to visit each other’s homes in Sonora and East Lansing, Michigan, growing closer each time. They were married in February 2005. The newlyweds, both by then retired, embarked on months of adventure, cycling through the Rockies and buying their first canoe.

“It was indescribable,” says Marilyn. “I was living a dream.”

That fall, the dream screeched to a halt when a routine mammogram showed that she had breast cancer.

Marilyn underwent a months-long regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, which beat back her cancer. But the chemo also attacked her bones, and surgeons replaced both her hips and inserted a carbon fiber cage to protect her lower spine. At times she worried that all the adventures they had planned would never come to pass.

“But Don pulled me through,” she says. “He got me out on those five-mile hikes, even in the snow. He got me thinking positively.”

canoe-P1030410-editedAnd in 2006, their canoe trips began.

“Half the year we live in Michigan, and the North Woods are right there,” says Don. “So paddling was a natural. In the Sierra, the terrain is vertical. In the upper Midwest it’s flat, but there are a billion waterways.”

In 2006 they paddled the French River from Lake Nipissing to Lake Huron, tracing the route of the Voyageurs, legendary fur traders who plied these waters with canoe loads of pelts in the 18th century. “That got us excited,” says Don.

Marilyn on Upper Richardson Lake near Rangeley, Maine

Marilyn on Upper Richardson Lake near Rangeley, Maine

The couple navigated the Green River in Utah, and in 2013 took on the Missinaibi between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay. When an outfitter dropped them off for that trip, remembers Marilyn, “there was absolute silence.”

“If something happens to us out here,” warned Don, “the cavalry ain’t comin’.”

Despite occasional torrential rains, the couple survived the Missinaibi to canoe another day – and take on the daunting, legendary Northern Forest Canoe Trail once traveled by Native Americans and early settlers.

Don began preparing for the epic journey a year in advance.

He researched the trail relentlessly, looking into every campsite, portage, village and shuttle on the route. He evaluated every ounce of equipment, balancing weight against utility.

Coffee, vodka and whiskey all made the cut, as did Marilyn’s iPad, on which she kept a daily journal. So did a satellite tracker that would each day advise friends that all was well, and which also included an SOS button that would notify the nearest search and rescue team if all was not well.

Don and Marilyn in June made their annual pilgrimage to Michigan, where preparations for a July 4 departure became feverish. And when they finally put in at Old Forge, N.Y. with 100 pounds of gear, the couple forgot the coffee.

“Nobody was happy about that,” understates Marilyn in her online diary entry for the trip’s second day.

Curious chipmunk amid camp essentials

Curious chipmunk amid camp essentials

But on their first day, after receiving a balcony ovation from fellow motel guests who had learned of their trip, the couple paddled through the “absolutely gorgeous” Fulton Chain of Lakes. Finding a campsite was difficult, but the macaroni-and-cheese dinner tasted good, the vodka and whiskey hit the spot and Don and Marilyn enjoyed a deep, uninterrupted sleep.

Crying loons, beaver dams, fields of water lilies, brisk rapids and charming New England towns were all part of the journey. So were beautiful campsites with NFCT lean-tos and fire pits, gorgeous sunsets, grazing moose, riverside beaches, cool water and deep-green forests.

As spectacular as the scenery, say Don and Marilyn, were an ever-changing but always friendly and helpful cast of rangers, fellow paddlers, innkeepers, campground hosts and anglers. Through the two-month trip they were offered shelter, food, directions, help portaging and companionship.

“We made lifelong friends,” says Marilyn.

But before you buy a canoe and head for the North Woods, listen to the rest of the story: mud, mosquitoes, humidity, heat, ferocious thunderstorms, canoe-scraping gravel bars, sore muscles, sore joints and at times, sheer exhaustion.

Then there were those grueling portages – 115 miles in all.

For the uninitiated, portaging is carrying your canoe and gear between rivers and lakes. Sometimes the portages are smooth trails on which a canoe can be pulled on a set of wheels. But often they are brushy, muddy, steep tracks requiring that the canoe be dragged or carried overhead.

Bottom line: The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is physically taxing.

“I have in-laws in their 70s, and by any definition they’re in good physical shape,” says the NFCT’s Karrie Thomas, “but I just can’t picture them doing what Don and Marilyn did.”

How hard is it emotionally on a couple sharing a canoe for two months?

“It takes some patience,” admits Marilyn. “I remember yelling at Don, ‘This was your idea, not mine! We should NOT be out here!’ But five minutes later I’d be having the time of my life.”

Helpers Dylan, Eric and Destiny near Missiquoi River, Sheldon, Vermont

Helpers Dylan, Eric and Destiny near Missiquoi River, Sheldon, Vermont

“A couple of times I said, ‘Why don’t we just bag it?’ ” adds Don. “But Marilyn would have none of it. So we kept going, one day at a time. After a while, you know you can do it.”

“Yes, you’re pushing your limits,” ventures Marilyn. “But it’s peaceful out there – almost like therapy.”

She reflects on their relationship in a diary entry midway through the journey. “I know a trip like this can be a deal breaker,” she wrote. “You really have to be a team to succeed, and I think we have it all. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

But three children the couple met near Sheldon Springs, Maine, did have a change in mind.

Destiny, Eric and Dylan were fascinated by the epic journey and insisted on helping pull the canoe along the portage trail.

“Take us to Maine with you!” one of them finally beseeched, explaining that their parents wouldn’t really miss them that much.

Don and Marilyn politely declined. But really, who could blame those kids for wanting to be part of the trip of a lifetime?

Wheeling toward Upper Saranac Lake in New York's Adirondacks

Wheeling toward Upper Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondacks

Excerpts from Marilyn McEwen’s daily journal

DAY 2 Raquette Lake, N.Y.

The paddle to Raquette was breathtaking.  There were literally fields of water lilies.  We maneuvered through a number of beaver dams, but it was well worth it.  Stopped at the General Store at Raquette Lake for coffee, then crossed the lake in gale-force winds.  We lucked out, finding a lean-to site right away.  We aren’t even putting up our tent.  Both of us are bone-tired…7:45 and we are ready for bed.

DAY 10 Near Cadyville, N.Y.

We paddled down a very boney, cobbled route…lots of submerged boulders, scraping and bumping.  The portage that followed was hot and buggy.  We camped next to a road in the pouring rain, once again hot, tired, dirty and hungry.  We are somewhat bruised and battered.

DAY 20 Entering Canada from Vermont

We passed through customs in a raging storm.  Lightning and thunder crashed around us…terrifying!  There was no time between flash and sound.  We dodged into an open barn to ride out the storm.  It was so cold we took off our wet clothes and wrapped up in our sleeping bags to get warm on the barn floor.

DAY 36 Rapid River, Maine

We packed up the wet gear and started out in the five-mile portage from hell.  It was muddy, steep, and full of roots ready to grab you and throw you to the ground with giant, sucking mud puddles.  We sweated and grunted along, on and off with the wheels, until we decided just to carry the canoe.

DAY 37 Griffin Island, Maine

Just when things looked a little grim, an empty campsite came into view.  The beach was beautiful…We were entertained well into the night by nine loons who cavorted right in front of our site, calling and diving.  Then the moon came up and blazed a path to our beach.

DAY 47 Brassua Lake, Maine

After a long, hot portage, we arrived at the lake hoping to find a campsite.  There was none!  By now it was getting dark.  Tempers flared and tears flowed.

DAY 59 Upriver from Fort Kent, Maine

Our last night on the river.  It was pouring rain, so we enjoyed a glass of wine and sat under the shelter reminiscing…the friendships we made, all the acts of kindness along the way, the challenges and adventures we met each day and the unequalled beauty of the North Country.

DAY 60 Fort Kent

I am 76.  I am a cancer survivor.  I have two artificial hips and a carbon fiber cage in my spine.  I mention this because I hope people realize it’s not over until it’s over.  We landed at the park in Fort Kent and realized it was really over.  We broke out the champagne and toasted the trip of a lifetime.  It’s time to unwind, regroup and decide how to rejoin the “real world.”

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman August 30, 2015 14:25
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