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Boundary Waters

Portages: The Dreaded ''P'' Word by Bert Heep

One of the adventures of canoe tripping is finding and negotiating the portages. In fact, ''portage stories'' are a big part of any recounting of the time we spend paddling. It is almost like wearing a badge of honor when we tell about the grueling mile and a half portage that was littered with rocks and boulders, full of mud holes, laced with tree roots, inhabited by killer mosquitoes, and mostly uphill. Then we end the description with a straight face and say, ''It really wasn't too bad!''

[PHOTO: A man with two large packs on his back, and more packs on the ground at his feet.Some paddlers hate portages and will avoid them at all costs. Others don't mind them but would rather not have to deal with them. Then, there are some of us who actually enjoy them. Seriously, my wife, Diane, and I really do like portages. A long time ago we realized that portages are a big part of canoeing and so we had best get used to them and stop complaining. In the process, we found reasons to actually like them. So, here are a few things to think about that may help you look at portages in a different light. In fact, you might even start to look forward to them.

Single versus double style

When Diane and I started canoeing we somehow were under the impression that ''real paddlers'' only made one trip on a portage. I vividly recall our first trip down the Little Indian Sioux River. We came to the portage between Lower Pauness Lake and Shell Lake. This portage is 215 rods long. ''Let's see if we can single portage,'' I told Diane.

I helped Diane get our big gear pack on her back and the smaller clothing pack on in front. The fact that she could not see where she was putting her feet didn't matter; we were going to be ''real paddlers''. I strapped on my waist pack and struggled to hoist the kitchen pack. Then, with great confidence I proceeded to lift the canoe onto my shoulders.

Well, there I stood all prepared to tackle 215 rods. Those of you who know this portage, know that it really isn't that bad. It begins rather sharply uphill but then levels off to a well-worn path. I huffed up the hill and was grateful to see a canoe rest at the top (this was back when the longer portages still had them). I lowered the bow of the canoe on the rest but stayed underneath to catch my breath. I asked Diane how she was doing. She smiled and looked at me with that ''you're nuts'' look. I decided to get out from underneath the canoe and in the process my pack caught on the yoke pad and over I went with a loud crashing that I was sure could be heard back in Ely.

There I was, lying on the trail, pack on my back, and canoe on my head. Diane, who was sitting on a log, looked at me and smiled. Then she began to laugh. Then she began to really laugh. Then she fell over backwards. Then I began to laugh. I started to struggle to get upright and Diane said, ''Wait, let me take a picture''. ''Well, hurry up, someone may be coming,'' I urged. I still have the photo and we still laugh when we look at it.

As we negotiated the portage we encountered another couple with three kids. They had packs, life jackets, fishing tackle boxes, paddles and canoes spread out along the portage, as they were leap frogging along. The wife looked at us and said, ''Wow, look at these guys, they're making it in one trip!'' I puffed out my chest, picked up the pace and said, ''Have a nice day''. Yep, we were well on our way to becoming real paddlers''.

[PHOTO: A man with a dog and one large pack: A light load makes a happy paddler.Guess what? That was the last time we ever tried to single portage. Frankly, it's just not worth it. Since that day we have come to believe that portages are a part of journey, something to be enjoyed, not just endured. We have also come to realize that by double portaging we are able to bring along a few more amenities that make a canoe trip more pleasant; more fresh food, camp chairs, a sun shower, and a bigger tent.

Enjoy the walk

After a long period of paddling it's a nice change to get out and stretch and use some different muscles. On days when you're battling the wind and waves it is also good to be on terra firma. Especially enjoy the walk back after the first trip. It feels so good to be walking without carrying anything. Learn to stroll. Don't be in such a hurry. Stop and look around. Most portages require attention to where you put your feet, so stop often and just look around.

Discovery time. I am continually trying to be a more observant person. It is so easy to go through life without really seeing what is around us. The next time you are on a portage try to see it with new eyes. Really look around and try to see things you have never seen before. Stop and carefully inspect some flowers, plants, or mushrooms. Carry an identification book and keep a record of what you find. Stoop down and look carefully at some animal scat. Take a stick and break it apart and see if you can tell what the animal had eaten.

Look around at the trees that you see along a portage. How many different species can you count along the way? Stop and look up at some of the big white and red pines. Look deep into the woods; beyond the trail. Pause and listen to the sounds; birds, running water, and the wind in the trees. These pauses will often result in wildlife sightings, too. How many different animal tracks can you identify? You have to walk these portages anyway; so try and discover something along the way.

Time for a workout! Most of us don't get enough physical exercise so look at portaging as a way to work your heart and give your body a workout. It really is a good way to lose weight and get in shape. Would you rather be on a portage trail or sweating at the gym? I know where I would rather be. So when portages get tough, try to think about how good they are for your body. Grab that pack, and that canoe, and get that body in better shape!

Go back in history

Think about all of the paddlers who have walked the very same trail that you are on. Go way back. Dream. Fantasize about it. Many of our canoe routes are the same trails that the Voyageurs traveled. Ancient peoples long ago used the same trails and carried similar burdens. There is something special about that. We all need those links to the past, a connection with what has gone on before us. What a connection it is. There are not too many opportunities in this life to make that kind of intimate link. Think about it.


That's right, I said sing. We all sing in the shower from time to time, so why not try singing some of your favorite songs while you portage? Last summer Diane and I made it a point of memorizing some of our favorite hymns. As we paddled and portaged we would sing. It helps take your mind off the tedium. You're not constantly wondering if the sight of blue water will be around the next bend or over the next hill.

I have a habit of timing our portages. It helps me check distances and gauge where we are on a given portage. I specifically remember gauging one portage between McNiece and Kahshahpiwi by the number of times I could sing this one song. That portage will always be known as a ''10 song portage''. It is also a good time to memorize a favorite poem. Let's face it, there are just times when we need a distraction to get us through.

OK, we may never get to the point that we like portaging more than paddling. If we did, we might as well go backpacking right? But at least we can start look at portaging as a something to be enjoyed and not dreaded. So, the next time you are poring over maps and planning your next trip, you can look at those red lines, even the long ones, and smile.

--article courtesy of

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