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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

No Yoke!

The Secret of Almost Painless Portaging

By Tamia Nelson

March 15, 2005

My earliest canoe trips were made on Adirondack beaver ponds with a fishing rod in hand. The boat was a battered old Grumman that my Grandad kept chained to a tree right at the water's edge. Getting that "tin tank" from land to water and back again was as easy as dragging it a couple of canoe-lengths. I didn't have to lift the boat, let alone carry it. Before long, however, I was dreaming about Big Trips. Drawing on the familiar elements of alder, tamarack, black spruce, and quaking bog, my mind's eye conjured up vast subarctic landscapes, sweeping vistas that included wind-whipped lakes, raging rivers, snow-covered peaks, and endless forests. Then a friend loaned me R. M. Patterson's Dangerous River. That did it. I was determined to light out for the Territories at the earliest opportunity. And not long after I cashed my first tax-refund check, I became the proud owner of a brand-new fiberglass canoe.

But the Territories still looked mighty far away. I lived on a busy state highway in the middle of a county filled with hardscrabble farms and For Sale signs. Yet a small lake was only three-quarters of a mile from home, and a forest trail led right to it, snaking through a pine plantation that dated back to the days of the Civilian Conservation Corps. I wasn't sure I could hump the boat down the trail by myself, though, and it seemed silly to load it on my jeep just to go three-quarters of a mile. So whenever I felt the urge to put some water under my keel, I'd ask a friend to help me carry my canoe to the lake. I figured it had to be easier than going it alone. After all, didn't many hands make light work? But I was wrong. Every trip was a catalog of small miseries. Each one started out OK, to be sure. We turned my canoe right side up, stowed paddles and life jackets in the bilge, threw in a lunch and a change of clothes, and lifted it by the gunwales. Next, with one of us on each end, we headed down the trail. The boat didn't feel heavy at first. By the time we'd gone a hundred yards, however, our arms throbbed and our fingers felt like sticks of wood. And that wasn't all. My friend and I always seemed to be headed in different directions. Soon we were snapping at each other, desperate for a break. The result? We moved along by fits and starts, slowly and painfully.

I couldn't figure out where the trouble lay. We were both country girls, used to helping out with farm chores, and I thought nothing of carrying a 50-pound pack while hiking or snowshoeing. Even when piled high with our gear for the day, my canoe didn't weigh more than twice as much as that. In fact, it weighed a lot less, closer to 80 pounds than 100. I told myself that the trip down the trail was sure to get easier with practice. Once again, though, I was wrong. It got harder. In the end, my friend and I were barely on speaking terms, and I'd all but given up dreaming about the Territories. For a while, my new canoe gathered dust on a rack in the barn. This was long before the Internet, of course. When I grew tired of seeing my dusty dreamboat sitting idle, I talked to another friend who'd done some whitewater paddling, and I borrowed all the books on canoeing that the little local library had on its shelves. (You wrote your name on the card when you checked out a book. And some of the books I borrowed had "Farwell Forrest" written on them. I wondered who he was.) That's where I learned about solo portaging. It seemed easy enough on the pages of the books. I only had to set the boat on the ground, stand so that I was facing it, grab the near gunwale with both hands, and heave the canoe up on my thighs. Then I just needed to slide my right hand under the turn of the bilge while reaching across to the far gunwale with my left, pause for a second to catch my breath, and roll the canoe onto my shoulders. If I did it right, the center thwart would come to rest behind my neck-bone.

I tried it. The first time, the boat slipped out of my hands. The second time, I missed my shoulders and the canoe fell on my head. The third time, though, everything came together. The thwart ended up right where it should, and the boat balanced perfectly. I stepped out without a care in the world. I was on my way to the Territories at last.

Wrong again. I hadn't gone ten yards before I discovered that solo portaging was a pain in the neck. Literally. My cervical vertebrae didn't take kindly to having an ash thwart banging into them with every step. I tried padding the thwart with foam. It didn't help much. Neither did wearing a horse-collar-like life jacket, as one author suggested. I started to wonder if the Old Woodsmen who wrote the books I'd read had every portaged anything heavier than a pack canoe, or carried it farther than the bottom of their backyards. Nonetheless, I persevered. Portaging may have been hell, but paddling was as close to heaven as I was likely to get.

Then I saw a shaped fiberglass portage yoke in a store window. It looked like the yokes that local farmers used when they hauled filled sap buckets out of the sugar bush, and it replaced the center thwart. It was also priced like a piece of modern sculpture, but who cared? I was sure I'd found the answer to my problem. So I skipped lunch for two months to save up for it, and I was grinning from ear to ear as I screwed the elegant yoke in place. But when I lifted my canoe onto my shoulders, the pain in my neck was as bad as before. My grin became a scowl. I'd wasted my money.

Some time later I met the guy whose name I kept seeing on the cards in the books I borrowed from the library. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I found myself in the same boat with him on a river in northern Québec. There were a lot of portages ahead of us, and I wasn't looking forward to any of them. But my paddling partner — you've probably guessed his name by now — had a slick trick that almost took the pain out of portaging. He called it a "paddle yoke," and while it's nothing at all like the portage yokes in the catalogs, the name is apt. It does the job, and it's as simple as it is effective. Here's what it looks like:

No Yoke!

Every picture tells a story, and this one's no exception. The paddle yoke is easy to assemble, straightforward to use, and cheap. Best of all, there are no extras to haul along. All you need are three things you probably have in your boat on every trip: a pair of sturdy paddles and a good-sized painter. How long is "good-sized"? Twenty-five feet should be plenty.

Got all three? Then portaging ought to be a snap. At each trailhead just empty your boat of all your bags and baggage and uncoil the bow painter. Then place the paddles between the center and bow thwarts — between the center thwart and the bow seat in a boat with only one thwart, or between the seat and the thwart in a pack canoe (as shown in the illustration). The paddle shafts will point down the trail, and the blades should be placed shoulder-width apart. (Put them too close together and you can't get your ears between them. Too far apart, and you slip out of the yoke. Then the canoe falls on your head. This isn't any fun.) Now it's time for what I call "the rope trick." Let's do it by the numbers:

  1. Lead the bow painter back and tie a clove hitch around one paddle shaft and the bow thwart (or seat).

  2. Working aft and keeping the painter taut, take two or three turns around the center thwart (or a seat support in a pack canoe), right next to the outboard edge of the paddle blade. Next, pull the painter across the blade and "spot-weld" the line to the thwart with a clove hitch or a couple of round turns and a half hitch.

  3. You're halfway home. Stretch the bitter end of the painter over to the inboard edge of the other paddle blade and repeat the process in reverse: make a spot weld, lead the painter across the blade, pull taut, and take a couple of turns around the thwart.

  4. Lastly, bring the painter forward and lash the second paddle shaft to the bow thwart or seat. Coil any remaining line and tuck it out of harm's way.

Both paddles should now be lashed securely in place. (Tug on them to make sure!) If they're not, undo all your work and try again, taking care to keep the line taut and making certain you place the inboard spot welds right next to the paddle blades. Whatever you do, don't put off mastering this trick till you're at the head of a portage trail. Learn the ropes at home, instead. You'll probably have to adapt your plan of attack to your boat's particular layout, and this will take time — as much as half an hour for a first attempt. By the third try, however, you'll probably be down to five minutes or less. Practice does make perfect.

Everything in place? Then it's time to roll the boat up. Resist the temptation to use the paddle shafts as handles when you do this. Instead, grab the near gunwale, then cradle the boat in one arm as you lift the far gunwale up with the other. Have an experienced friend help you if it's your first attempt, or if your boat is very heavy. Now check the fit. The paddle blades should rest squarely on your shoulders, with a bit of daylight between your neck and the center thwart. WARNING! You must always have enough space between the blades to allow you to duck your head easily and throw the boat off in an instant if you slip. If you don't, you're risking life-threatening injury in a fall.

All set? Then reach forward, grab hold of the paddle shafts, and head out. A few tips: Balance is everything in portaging. If the bow hangs low, you won't see what lies ahead of you. (It could be a moose — or a mud hole.) If it rides too high, you'll have a Yurasis Dragon situation: bump, bump, bump, bumpity-bump, all the way down the trail. Need to raise the bow to climb a steep slope? No problem. You can fine-tune your boat's angle at any time, simply by shifting your grip on the paddle shafts. Serious imbalance is best corrected with a trimming weight, however. A life jacket wedged under the deck on the lighter end of the boat should do the job, but each canoe is different. Experiment in your backyard. And if your boat is a heavy freighter, make sure your paddles can take the strain. Good-quality ash beavertails and whitewater blades with aluminum shafts are fine, as are most 'glass shafts and laminated paddles, but spruce blades should probably be reserved for easier duty.

Do your shoulders lack natural padding? Then tuck a couple of squares of closed-cell foam under the lashings on the paddle blades. (You can use them as knee pads when you're back on the water.) And if you don't like the look of scratches on your paddles, fold the corners of the foam between the blades and the thwart, as well.

That's it. While nothing can take all the pain out of portaging a canoe, this little trick comes as close as anything I've tried. And that's no yoke!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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