In Praise of the Portage
Suffering meets bliss—and something approaching enlightenment?—on the canoe portage trail.
Paddling across the breeze-ruffled Boundary Waters lake, I train my eyes on the far shoreline, reading the undulation of the boreal rim. The map indicates a portage in the northwest corner. I tuck it away and ask myself, “Where would a moose walk to get to the next lake?”
After 10 minutes, my paddling partner and I can make out what looks like a dark cave in the wall of cedar that buttresses the shoreline. It is the portal to the portage.
In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota and adjoining Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, approximately 2 million acres of wilderness contains thousands of lakes. Nearly all of them are linked by portage trails like pearls on a string. People use these trails to move their watercraft and camping gear from one body of water to another. Of French origin, the word portage means “to carry.”
Portages have a way of culling paddlers. Some people plan their canoe trips to minimize the number or length of carries. Though I’m not a masochist, I embrace portages. Whether the portage is long or short, I am content that with each one, I am putting myself further from the trappings of civilization as I seek more remote destinations.
Soon we are unloading the canoe. It feels good to uncoil out of the seat, stretch, and loosen the legs for a walk and a change of scenery.
I heft a small pack onto my back and flip the lightweight canoe onto my shoulders. I’m glad I no longer have to portage an old favorite 84-pound canoe that now resides as a raised garden bed in my yard.
The map indicates that this portage is a 225-rod carry—just under three-quarters of a mile. Portages are measured in rods because of tradition. A rod is the length of the average canoe: 16½ feet.
Fifty paces into the portage I tug a pack strap and slightly shift the canoe to fine-tune it for a more comfortable carry. As the trail starts to climb I lean slightly forward, almost charging.
Often while portaging I think of earlier travelers. Indigenous people forged many of these paths thousands of years ago, probably following trails of moose and woodland caribou. Much later, natives showed these tracks to Europeans, and from roughly 1765 to 1850 these portages were busy routes of commerce for voyageurs of the fur trade.
Two historic Minnesota portages are famous in part because of their length. The Grand Portage bypasses nine miles of cataracts and waterfalls of the Pigeon River, linking Lake Superior with inland waters. The Savanna Portage, a six-mile carry, crosses the continental divide between the St. Louis River watershed and the Mississippi River watershed. Both of these important fur trade portages now have state parks named after them and are more often hiked than portaged these days.
Picking my way up the slope, I focus on planting each foot. My vision is restricted from beneath the canoe, but I spy a mat of lovely pink twinflowers spilling out onto the trail. I love the fact that of the thousands of plants and animals that Carl Linnaeus classified with a scientific name, this is the only plant that the famed Swedish botanist named after himself: Linnaea borealis. I offer thanks to Linnaeus for the distraction.
My heartbeat tells me I’m still ascending. I take my hand off the canoe gunwale momentarily to wipe both a mosquito and a spread of sweat from my forehead. I divert thoughts of discomfort, instead listening to the zwee-zwee-zwee of a black-throated blue warbler and mentally compiling a list of birds I hear.
When hunters and anglers reflect on past outings, fish or antlers tend to grow in stature and size. The same axiom holds true with portages. Over time the remembered portage trail grows steeper, muckier, buggier, longer.
Portaging marries suffering and bliss. The pains of a portage are caused by the weight of the load, blood-seeking insects, heat and humidity, quagmires, boulder-strewn climbs and descents, and wind-fallen trees. I remind myself that these pains prove that I am so very alive. Bliss arrives at the conclusion of the portage or can suddenly show up when the trail offers a breathtaking view or flanks a lively rapids or a pounding waterfall.
Portaging can be a sort of walking meditation. I relish the alone time to think and observe. On my walk, I am flooded with visual stimuli as well as a host of earthy smells.
I learn that a stand of cedars has a very different scent than higher and drier jack pines. I often think of ways to lessen the amount of gear one needs on a canoe trip. I focus on how distinct parts of my body are working—and in doing so I feel gratitude for strong joints and bones and adequate muscles.
Observations are much easier when carrying a pack than when wearing a canoe over your head. But then a canoe has its advantages during a rain or as an odd-looking sun hat.
Athletes often talk of going into a zone to perform at their best. I find such a zone while on a long portage. You need to push aside the harassing pains gathering in your shoulders and neck. You must will your burning thighs to keep going and accept the probing mosquitoes and chewing black flies as marvels of the natural world. The more I fight and struggle against any of these challenges, the more likely I will forget the privilege it is to be on the portage trail. These linkages into the silent places stitch the best of memories.
I remember an arduous day of paddling down a treeless, high arctic river in the Canadian archipelago, north of mainland North America. It was early evening when our group finally found some questionable ground that would serve as home for the night.
My paddling companion Carl groaned as he collapsed on the rubble, an overstuffed pack still on his back. Like an upended turtle, he spread his arms, staring skyward, and burst into a soliloquy.
“Here we are, grown men. Men of culture.” He paused to take a breath. “Rising at five in the morning, eating a meager breakfast, paddling into stout winds, sliding down dangerous rapids, nearly being swept over waterfalls, and struggling over portages, only to arrive here ... to sleep on rocks.” Carl always brought needed levity after a tough day.
Finally I wend along a flat section of trail that follows the curve of the unseen river off to my left. My heart rate slows and I find comfort in the distant ssshhhhhh of tumbling rapids. Like portages, rivers and streams connect many lakes. Their flow usually indicates the more gradual route. Wildlife like moose and bears often first made these trails adjacent to flows because of their need to conserve energy and choose the easiest path.
My shoulders and neck rebel against the load. I must be more than halfway across the portage. Ahead of me is another pitch through a stand of birches. While my body wouldn’t mind some relief, I resist the idea of a rest. I don’t like unloading and then minutes later hefting all the gear back onto my frame. In remote areas you can’t just quit on a portage.
I know I am at the end of the portage when I spy the shimmering lake through a filigree of limbs. I step out of the forest to the water’s edge. I wade in, lift the canoe over my head, and ease its hull down onto my thighs before setting it on the water. This is the point where I experience bliss, the unlikely partner of pain.
Splashing lake water on my face revitalizes me. My partner arrives and sets his pack down and we look out over the lake before us. Checking the map, we see that we have a couple of short portages before we arrive at the lake where we hope to camp.
Short portages, of which there are many in canoe country, are usually easy carries, but I find them pesky if there is a sequence of several in a row. Frequent portages mean more lifting and twisting of packs and the canoe and potentially a greater chance of injury.
I retrace my steps across the portage to fetch another pack. Unencumbered, I regain a freshness of body and spirit. I stop to look at the furrowed bark of a giant white pine and bend down to inspect tiny pink twinflowers. I almost bump into a ruffed grouse with her brood of scurrying chicks, which prompts memories of other wildlife encounters on portages. There have been ptarmigan, whimbrels, caribou, musk oxen, wolves, and even a polar bear on far north trips.
One early October on a canoe trip from Atikokan, Ontario, to Ely, Minnesota, I made a shortcut. Striding across a soggy open area, I glanced up from beneath the canoe to see a heavily antlered bull moose staring at me, from less than 200 feet away. Did the canoe look like antlers? Did my pack resemble the shoulder hump of a rutting bull?
The bull shook his head. A challenge? There were neither nearby trees to climb nor boulders to scramble behind. Calmly, I assured him that I was not trying to steal away his cow paramour. He didn’t leave, so I declared myself a threat by loudly howling and barking. Slowly he turned away. With ears turned back, he high-stepped out of the swamp, disappearing into a distant wall of black spruce.
I was made keenly aware of life’s fragility on one BWCA trip when I crossed paths on a portage with a solo paddler. The gray-haired man asked about campsites up ahead. He said he was from Colorado and that after making trips to Minnesota and Quetico for years, this would be his last. He had insisted to his concerned wife that he take the trip after learning he had terminal cancer. Looking out over the water, he quietly said, “I told her there can’t be a God so cruel as to not allow me one more trip.”
Some portages require problem solving. On one northern Canada trip, we encountered a large stretch of snow on a portage. We decided to sled the boats. We tied rope from the bow of the canoe to the middle of a canoe paddle. Then, like a brace of oxen, two us held the paddle across our chests and giddy-upped.
On another remote river in Ontario the portage seemingly ended at a precipice. We had to get the canoes and packs off the sheer drop by teaming long ropes with stout carabiners and zip lining all our gear in a controlled slide down the steep pitch.
Fortunately, problem solving is not required on today’s portage. The portage is more familiar on my second carry, and it seems to go faster. When our gear is across we stow packs in the canoe and share portage notes. There was the song of the black-throated blue warbler, the pink flush of twinflowers, the muscle burn of the second pitch, and amazement that past voyageurs carried 90-pound bales of fur over this carry.
Before pushing off, we double-check to make sure that nothing is left behind.
Settled into the loaded canoe, we paddle away with another portage behind us. I look ahead across the water and wonder, “Now where would a moose walk across to the next lake?”
Portages Mean and Mild
I asked a couple of well-traveled Minnesota canoeists about memorable BWCA portage experiences.
Cliff Jacobson, the author of Canoeing Wild Rivers, immediately brought up the 40-mile Frost River route off the Gunflint Trail. “There are much tougher portages, but the Frost River route has 55 of them!” he says, noting that this includes pulling canoes over beaver dams. “But it’s worth every minute of the work,” he adds.
Jacobson cautioned against measuring portages by distance alone. “Long and flat,” he said, “is a lot easier than short and mean.”
Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, has outfitted thousands of canoeists.
“Portaging can be just a stroll in the park, a welcome break from a long paddle, or it can be a grinding battle from beginning to end,” he told me. “I have favorite portages that lead to great fishing lakes where every turn of the trail is the image of canoe country immortalized.”
One he highlighted is the Curtain Falls portage along the Basswood River in the border-straddling Crooked Lake area.
On the other end of the spectrum, “The Angleworm portage off the Echo Trail comes to mind. It’s two and a half miles from the parking lot to the lake and is one I tend to avoid.”