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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Carried Away!

Finding Your Bliss on the Portage Trail

By Tamia Nelson

February 7, 2006

Much of canoe country may be snow covered, and its lakes and rivers locked in ice, but that's certainly not true everywhere. From lowland swamps to mountain lakes, and down broad rivers to the sea, southern waters are ice-free and awaiting exploration. But as every experienced paddler knows, explorers have to portage as well as paddle. Even if a trip lies over open water or along a lazy river, there's still the launch and take-out to contend with. To be sure, most of us groan when we think about portaging. Boats are awkward burdens at best, and the lightest of them grows heavier with each step. Packs gain weight while you walk, too, pounding you down as you plod along. The trail itself — if it isn't crisscrossed with logging slash or windfalls left over from the last microburst — is all too often littered with loose cobbles. And sometimes it heads straight up, climbing over a ridge on a 100 percent grade. Or maybe two weeks of steady rain has turned it into a wallow, where millions of mosquitos wait patiently to bleed you dry.


Sound familiar? I'll be it does. Most of us have been on the Portage to Hell at least once. If not, we've seen the video. Still, such bad days are the exceptions, not the rule. And you can find bliss on the portage trail. It's easier than you might think. Sometimes all it takes is an…

Attitude Adjustment

I won't tell you that portaging is a walk in the park. It can be hard work. VERY hard work. But so can paddling into a strong headwind. Yet a swampy portage lingers in our memories far longer than a windy crossing. Why? Attitude and expectation, mainly. We think our boats should carry us, not the other way round. Portaging isn't just strenuous. It's unnatural — almost a violation of the rightful order of things. Of course it isn't, really. Canoes and kayaks are defined by their portability, at least in part. And walking along a forest path can be fun, even with a load. Backpackers do it for pleasure, after all. Moreover, rest stops on the trail are opportunities for exploration in their own right. Sure, we paddlers are out there for the waters, but that doesn't mean we have to ignore more pedestrian pleasures, does it? A portage trail is a great place to make the acquaintance of the local birds, for example — a field guide and a pair of binoculars will repay their small weight many times over. (But be sure to protect your binoculars from a dunking under way.) No go? Are all the birds too flighty or too shy? Then get to know the trees, wildflowers, fungi, or rocks, instead. They won't run out on you. And don't just look once and then walk on. Make use of your sketchbook, try your hand at painting, or bring your journal up-to-date.

Is yours a family trip? Then take the opportunity to open your kids' eyes to the ongoing serial drama of life in the wild. And give their natural curiosity free rein. Kids are full of questions and eager to learn. (Well, they are up until the age when TV and video games have made real life seem impossibly boring, anyway.) Have them pace out distances along the trail. Introduce them to the view of the landscape as seen on a topographic map. Give then a compass and guide them in understanding the magic of the north-pointing needle.


So much for mind games. What about our bodies? Most canoeists and kayakers enjoy using their muscles, obviously — otherwise we'd all be driving jet-skis — but a paddling workout is a little one-sided. On the water, the lower body mostly goes along for the ride. Portages are a chance to stretch our legs. Then again, if you're out-of-shape below the belt-line (and many otherwise fit paddlers are), a long portage may be more of a stretch than you want. This isn't a problem for everyone, though. If you regularly cycle to the put-in, your lower extremities will most likely be up to any challenge. The same is true for runners, climbers, and hill-walkers. But what if you're not a mountaineer, a jogger, or an "amphibious" paddler? Then you probably ought to prepare. In fact, all paddlers, whatever their state of training, need to exercise care to avoid…

Problems Down the Trail

A sprained ankle is nobody's idea of a good time, but it's never less welcome than on the portage trail. Good footwear is a must. And your shoes must fit well, too, since blisters are high on the list of nuisances-to-be-avoided. Wet trails demand special care and (often) special footwear, into the bargain. In the past, I've used the snug-fitting, knee-high rubber boots known as "wellies." They weren't pretty, but they worked. I found them comfortable throughout long days on the trail and rejoiced in having dry feet. But some paddlers think wellies are too hot in summer, and others need more support than rubber boots provide. In any case, inexpensive wellies are now hard to find. Alternatives include high-tech overshoes, waterproof trainers, and "amphibious" sport shoes. Many paddlers even use all-terrain sandals. Experiment on day trips near your home to see which of these suits you best.

Got you feet and legs ready for the long haul? Good. But there are other hazards waiting along the trail. Biting flies looking for the proverbial free lunch, for instance. However stoic you are, it's hard to bear their frenzied attacks when you're trapped beneath your boat. What can you do to protect yourself? Wear a head net, roll down your sleeves, and use an effective repellent. Or all three at once. A warning: The bloodsuckers have numbers on their side. Try as you might, you won't escape their unwelcome attentions altogether. But you can fight a successful holding action till you're back on the water. That's enough.

And speaking of long sleeves and head nets, don't expect them to be comfortable in mid-summer. In fact, on the hottest days, they're sometimes worse than the bugs — and they're not without hazards of their own. Heat illness is an ever present danger when it's 90 degrees in the shade and you're sweating up a steep trail. So be sure you stop often to rest in the shade, and drink before you're dry. Thirst is a dangerous thing. While you're at it, remember what happens to mad dogs and Englishmen who go out in the midday sun. A wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen will provide some welcome protection when you drop your boat at the end of the trail and jog back for the rest of your gear.


Ah, yes. Gear. On a portage, you've got a starring role in a new production of…

Burden and the Beast

A hint — you're the Beast, and even on well-planned trips, your boat and baggage are the burden. The cure? Organization. Consolidation. Intelligent weight-paring. And the ruthless elimination of nonessentials. A few specifics:

  • Don't Go Over the Top. It's tempting to emulate the voyageurs of old, and pile pack on top of pack to minimize the number of trips over the portage. But unless you've got a voyageur's stamina, resist this temptation. Remember, too, that a lot of voyageurs died after one too many killer portage. Strangulated hernias and heart attacks took an awful toll. No modern paddler wants to revisit this piece of history.

  • Divide and Conquer. Share the burden. Bigger, stronger paddlers can carry heavier loads and bulkier packs. Light, lithe padders can make more (and faster) trips over the trail. Even the kids can pitch in, but be careful: it's easy to overload little bodies. Make sure they rest often and drink frequently.

  • Balance Is All. It's hard to carry a boat that's badly out of balance. Take the time to trim yours so that it's slightly — but only slightly — down by the stern when you heft it up on your shoulders. A dragging stern is a pain in the tail on the trail. A hint: Achieving this good balance is easier with a well-designed yoke. Even better, paddlers with light kayaks or canoes can rig their boats so they can be carried atop a loaded packframe. Good packers on short trips can then single-carry every portage.

    Packs need to be balanced, too. Shuffling down the trail with your back parallel to the ground is bad news. Some folks manage to carry a large pack on their back and a smaller one in front, threading their arms through the shoulder straps of both packs. Not me, however. I prefer to carry all the load on my back, often with the help of a tumpline or packframe. If you opt for the tumpline, though, be sure your neck and shoulder muscles are up to the job, and get your doctor's OK first if you have any history of back or neck problems.

  • Don't Dangle About. Important odds and ends like break-down paddles, PFDs, bailers, and water bottles should be tucked under pack flaps, placed in pack pockets, or lashed inside your boat. Being up the creek without your paddle is no fun, and it's all too easy to snag loose gear on overhanging branches, or leave it behind at the trailhead.

  • Take a Break. Often. You've heard it before. Eat before you're hungry. Drink before you're thirsty. Rest before you're tired. If a portage starts to feel like the Bataan Death March, you've done something wrong. And don't do more work than you have to when you take a break. Many established trails have walk-under canoe rests at regular intervals (if vandals haven't destroyed them, that is). Use these to save your back. On wilderness portages, look for a low-lying limb or a well-placed crotch in a sturdy tree. A remote trail isn't the place to play the hard man (or Wonder Woman). Take it from someone who spent five months in a full leg cast, and the better part of a year convalescing: pushing yourself to exhaustion and beyond is inviting trouble. Bad trouble. You don't need it.


Of course there's more to portaging than preparation and planning. There's also…

The Trail Itself

You scout rapids, don't you? It pays to scout portage trails, too. You can get a head start at home, simply by using your head. Whether you're planning a Big Trip or a weekend adventure, find all the trails along your route on a topographic map before you leave for the put-in. Then look for trouble spots like steep grades and soggy lowlands. A good guidebook — if it's been revised recently — can add detail to the picture, as can fellow paddlers who've been there before you. Ask around at paddling clubs and Internet forums. But no map or guidebook can tell you everything you need to know, and no paddler, however observant, can tell you what a trail will be like in two weeks' time. Conditions change. Logging, storms, forest fires, and beaver dams can alter a familiar landscape overnight. Be prepared. Often it makes sense to leave your boat at the trailhead and take a load of gear over the portage first. If you think you might be walking into trouble, it's best not to have 80 pounds of canoe on your shoulders when the ordure hits the oscillating blades.


"Leave your boat at the trailhead." This brings up the twin issues of courtesy and security: On well-traveled routes, don't leave boats or gear where they'll impede another party's passage down the trail. That's simple courtesy. But what if the other party is bent on something other than passing through? What if they're up to mischief? It can happen. Unfortunately, a few canoeists and kayakers are thieves. And how can you…

Stop a Thief?

You have three alternatives: a good lock, a sharp eye, or skillful concealment. In other words, hide your gear, post a guard, or lock your boat (a bicycle cable lock works well). In most places, at most times, none of these will be necessary. But if word of mouth (or a still, small voice) warns you that you may have problems, it's wise to take precautions. 'Nuff said? Maybe not. After all, featherless bipeds aren't the only thieves you need to worry about. Wherever bears are on the prowl, it's a good idea to hang any unattended food packs. It also pays to keep a weather eye on the wind. I'm sure I'm not the only paddler who's watched helplessly while a canoe or kayak was snatched away by a stray gust. And in canyon country, an airborne boat can travel a very long way before it comes to rest. That really could be the start of the Portage to Hell!

"No one ever drowned on a portage." What paddler hasn't heard this at one time or another? And it's true, or mostly true. (I've walked portages where drowning seemed a real possibility, I admit. Mercifully, they're rare.) Still, that's not enough. Like the voyageurs before us, we continue to risk our boats — and our lives — to save a few hundred steps. After all, it can't happen to us, can it? Well, the only honest answer is Yes, it can. Nemesis is never idle. But there's some good news, too. Portaging doesn't have to be an ordeal. You can find bliss on the portage trail. And when you do, you'll be carried away.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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