June 24, 2018
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Woman sets mark with solo kayak odyssey

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

FORT KENT, Maine — When Cathy Mumford found herself at a crossroads in her life earlier this year, she decided it was time to do something for herself.

“My kids were grown and gone, I’d been laid off from a job that I loved and was sending out resumes but getting no response,” Mumford said. “So I said, ‘You know what? I’m going camping.’”

What Mumford ended up doing this summer was more of an odyssey than a camping trip.

On Monday afternoon, she paddled her 9-foot-long, bright-yellow kayak into Fort Kent, becoming the first woman to travel the entire 740-mile Northern Canoe Forest Trail from Old Forge, N.Y., solo.

Along the way she passed through 22 rivers and streams, 56 miles of lakes and ponds, 45 communities, three national wildlife refuges and more than 55 miles of portages in 62 carries.

“My sister had seen something about the canoe trail,” Mumford said. “She’s the one who told me about it.”

Once the notion was hatched, Mumford looked up fellow New Jersey native Mike Stavola for some advice and pointers. Stavola had set a speed record last summer when he completed the route in 32 days.

“He was really great in helping me get ready,” Mumford said. “Mike let me think I could really do it.”

Mumford, who turned 50 during the trip, is no stranger to water, having grown up on the shores of a reservoir in Colts Neck, N.J.

She was a teen lifesaver, a competitive diver and a lifelong canoeist.

When she was 45, Mumford said, her then-husband, Scott Mumford, bought her a kayak and she logged hours on the rivers and waterways in Tennessee, where they were living at the time.

Though no longer married, Scott and Cathy Mumford remain good friends, and Scott was on the banks of the St. John River to greet Cathy as she paddled the final strokes of her 58-day journey.

“She’s rocking it, man,” Scott Mumford said. “I’ve got to give her props for this one.”

Cathy Mumford readily admits her little plastic kayak, nicknamed “Sparky,” lacks the sleek, state-of-the-art looks of modern expedition crafts.

“Everyone told me I needed this kind of kayak or that kind of kayak,” she said. “But I like my little boat.”

Its small size — it weighs around 35 pounds — made it easier to carry, and it remained upright the entire trip.

“It’s not rated for rapids higher than Class 2,” Mumford said. “I’d promised my mother I would not attempt anything higher, so we portaged around [the higher-class rapids].

The small size also forced her to relearn how to pack.

“I’m used to car camping where you can throw whatever you want into the car,” Mumford said. “On this trip, all I had were three changes of clothes, some fleece, my tent and some food.”

The kayak’s small size almost put a halt to the trip when it was deemed 1 inch shy of width requirements for the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

In the end, waterway rangers gave her a break and let her continue in her trusty craft, Mumford said.

The trip was a daily series of ups and downs with no one memory overshadowing another, Mumford said.

“I did keep a journal every night,” she said. “Of course, it’s really just one long run-on sentence.”

She recalled one morning crawling out of her tent, which had been pitched about 20 feet from the river the night before.

“It’s a good thing I hadn’t overslept,” she said. “I was below a dam and they had released water overnight, plus there had been 6 inches of rain, so that river had really come up [and] I had to pack up and head out pretty quick.”

In another instance, Mumford said, her kayak became lodged between trees during a portage.

After walking several miles, she came across two men on ATVs who offered to help her extricate her craft and get it to the water.

It’s that kindness from strangers that will stick with her, Mumford said.

“In Canada, one of the portages took me right past someone’s house,” she said. “They must have thought I looked like I needed help because they offered to let me camp in their yard.”

Beyond that, the homeowners offered the use of a shower — while they went out for the evening — and invited Mumford in the next morning for a leisurely breakfast.

Mumford hopes her experience can serve as a catalyst for other women, and she said she would love the opportunity to speak to young girls about the empowering nature of challenging oneself.

“I would like to lead a trip for young women,” she said.

Given the recent changes in her life, Mumford said she had hoped to use the trip for some soul-searching and deep thinking.

“Instead my mind just kept wandering and I’d get these stupid snippets of songs running through my head,” she said. “Apparently I only know one verse of each of those songs.”

Mumford admits to being scared “about 80 percent of the time” the first two weeks of the trip.

“Things got better after that and I stopped worrying about bears and started worrying about more realistic things like lightning.”

While supportive, Mumford’s friends and family were a bit worried when she announced her plans.

“People who know me know I have no sense of direction,” she said. “But the books and maps for the canoe route are fantastic.”

On the river, Mumford said, you learn to live in the moment.

“Every day you are heading into the wind or the rain or down a rapid,” she said. “You just take it one thing at a time.”

Once her kayak and gear were stowed in Fort Kent, Mumford’s goals were equally short-term.

“All I want is a big meal, a shower, clean clothes and clean sheets.”

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