The Dreaded ''P'' Word by
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
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
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
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
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
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