FORT KENT, Maine — Some things just seem like good ideas at the time.
Just ask Gil Whitney. On Saturday the 67-year-old retired truck driver became the first person to solo kayak the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
Completing the 740-mile water odyssey from Old Forge, N.Y., to Fort Kent also made the Lakeville resident the oldest person to date to complete the trip.
“I did the Allagash [River] last summer with my grandson and we met a guy who had done the canoe trail,” Whitney said Monday from Riverside Park in Fort Kent as he packed up the last of his gear for the return drive home. “He’d done it with a canoe, and I thought it would be a good thing to try with a kayak.”
Whitney paddled 12 hours a day throughout the trip, covering about 30 miles each day in his quest to become the first solo kayaker on the Northeast’s longest inland water trail.
About 20 paddlers have completed the entire trail end-to-end.
Along the way there were plenty of adventures.
“I had some good days and some bad days,” Whitney said.
Like the day he capsized his kayak in New York’s Saranac River and lost his paddle.
“He’s the first person I can say I know who was honestly up the river without a paddle,” his wife, Kathy Whitney, said Monday.
Luckily, Whitney was able to hike inland, where a friendly resident offered to drive him into Plattsburgh, N.Y., to re-outfit himself.
“I met a lot of really nice people along the way,” Whitney said. “I’d be paddling along near the shore and someone would see me with all the gear and right off invite me in for coffee.”
Other times he was invited to set up his tent in people’s yards, and once a minister gave him permission to bed down in his church yard.
When he arrived in Fort Kent, a chance meeting with resident Ronald Jandreau turned into a warm, dry place to sleep for two nights.
Not all meetings were as congenial, however.
“I was paddling one day on Flagstaff Lake and saw something dark in the water,” Whitney said. “At first I thought it was a moose and then I thought it was a log.”
As he neared the dark object, Whitney saw it was, in fact, a black bear coming right at his kayak.
“I hollered at it and it started swimming away,” he said. “Boy, those bears can swim fast.”
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail passes through New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Quebec and most of Maine. Along the way there are 53 portages totaling 55 miles of walking.
To prepare for the trip, Whitney said, he spent last winter walking five hours a day.
“Every other day I put a 30-pound pack on,” he said.
After dropping her husband off in New York with a 30-day supply of food, Kathy Whitney initially thought she’d enjoy some alone time.
“I thought it would be great, but I missed him so much and wanted him home,” she said. “I worried all the time and days would go by when I would not hear from him.”
Adding to the concern was Whitney’s diagnosed heart condition, for which he takes medication. He had to make landfall once each in New York and Maine for scheduled blood work.
Results were sent to his regular doctor in Brewer who declared him fit for travel, despite an inner ear infection he suffered late in the trip.
“At first the doctor told me I was crazy to try this,” Whitney said. “But right before I left he said he wished he could come with me.”
By the time Whitney paddled into southwestern Maine he had lost 27 pounds and was more than happy to receive the 600-calorie energy bars Kathy Whitney made from her special recipe.
For now, Whitney’s sights are set on getting home to a good steak.
“I tell people if you want to do something, just do it,” Whitney said. “Don’t ever let people tell you you’re too old to do something.”