March–April 2022

From the Editor

Random Access Memories

Portaging is one, not the only, way to improve connections to the wilder side of nature.

Chris Clayton

“Portaging marries suffering and bliss,” writes Tom Anderson in his ode to carrying a canoe from one waterway to the next. Those familiar with this hurt-so-good dynamic will find Anderson’s story especially evocative. It brought me back to the fabled Stairway Portage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a trail that links Duncan and Rose lakes and features two steep sets of wood stairs that pass a lively waterfall. Though I traveled this route more than a decade ago, I can recall in high-definition detail the mist of the falls on my face and the old Alumacraft straining my shoulders as I worked my way down the steps. When I arrived at Rose Lake, bones intact, I sighed with relief and enjoyed a celebratory cheese stick.

Anderson’s story reminded me of painful portages as well, including a mile-long slog from Poplar to Skipper lakes, also in the Boundary Waters. While attempting the trek in one trip, I biffed it over an exposed root, dropped my canoe, and fell backward, landing on my overstuffed pack like a turtle on its shell. All I could do was laugh as I struggled to roll over. You win again, Nature!

By contrast, some of my most memorable portages felt like cheating. I’ll never forget the journey to a remote west entry point of the BWCA, which required a long canoe shuttle in a modified fishing boat. Our water taxi left Crane Lake on a cool spring morning and soon arrived at the Loon Falls Portage at the U.S.-Canada border. I unloaded my canoe at the dock and placed it on a rope platform, which was then pulled out of the water by a mechanized rail system that carried the boat over a small, wooded hill and down to Loon Lake. Free of the hulking canoe, I strolled along the short path beside the rail, the happiest cheater in the north. (According to local lore, Loon Falls Portage was built by commercial fishermen in the early 1900s to improve access between Crane Lake and Lac la Croix to the east. The nearby Beatty Portage into Lac la Croix is the only other mechanical portage in the state.)

Of course, portages aren’t the only way to improve connections to the wilder side of nature. Elsewhere in this edition, MCV associate editor Julie Forster writes about specialized off-road wheelchairs that help people with disabilities explore natural spaces unreachable by standard chairs. To paraphrase one woman who tried the so-called track chair, it’s a game changer.

“Sun, rain, snow, wind. Every day is a good day to be present,” wrote Sue Leaf in her paddling memoir, Portage, which recounts significant paddles and canoe carries from her life. Regardless of how you access the outdoor world—whether far afield or blazing trails closer to home—Leaf’s words ring true.