Practical Portaging Maximizes Paddle Time
I’ve been reading and enjoying paddling.com for about 2 years now after I discovered it while studying paddle sports via the internet one evening. Last summer my wife caught the paddle bug and now we’re both regular paddlers. We recently enjoyed our first extended kayak trip to Isle Royale National Park, Michigan located in the northern part of Lake Superior about 17 miles south of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.
An inescapable truth about paddling Isle Royale is the need to portage; especially if you want to discover the serenity and untouched terrain of the many inland lakes, countless bays, channels and islets that pepper the island. Since we wanted to maximize our paddle time by minimizing the time on portage, we knew we had to develop a plan. After all, going into the back country for 8 days should be spent enjoying the sights and sounds of nature, not laboring back and forth over portages carrying heavy gear.
A pre-trip mock-up of our fully loaded kayaks revealed that each craft weighed in at roughly 85 pounds. The 85 pounds included our tent, sleeping bags/pads, food, cooking implements, water, extra clothing, first aid, PFDs, skirts, paddles and the kayaks. Carrying 170 pounds between two people was going to be difficult. With the longest portage at 2.4 miles, making two trips would require us to dedicate an entire day just to manage one portage. My wife and I are both mechanical engineers and typically practical problem solvers. With a problem to be solved we found ourselves in familiar territory.
We first decided that during portage we would relocate our gear from the boat to a more reasonable location. We decide that the small additional weight of our old external frame packs was worth taking along so we use them to carry the heaviest gear. With the heavy gear securely loaded in the frame packs the boats were much lighter. We tried carrying the boats by each holding a handle on the bow/stern of each boat. That is, we walked single-file with my wife holding the two bow handles and me holding the two stern handles. This worked well enough, but after only a short time with the weight bearing down our hands were cramped and the boats felt heavy. Meanwhile I noticed that the pack on my back was far less of a strain since the weight was concentrated at my hips and secured by a comfortable suspension system.
That’s when the light came on. Why not devise a way to transmit the load of the kayaks to the backpack fames, thereby carrying the load on our hips and shoulders? With a length of ½” deck roping I fashioned a rope with a secured loop on each end. Then I tied two fixed loops equidistant from the center that could loop over the frame bars at the tops of our packs. To adjust the length of the ropes we wrapped the rope around the middle cross support bar of the pack frame. The outcome was that we could kneel between the two kayaks and loop the carry handles through the rope loops. Upon standing up, the weight of the kayaks was suspended by the rope and transmitted to the frame pack relieving our hands and arms of the burden.
So it worked great out in our yard, but would it hold up to the rigors of backcountry portage? Yes, the plan was a success! We were able to cover all but the very steepest of portages just once, and keep a decent hiking pace (1.5 to 2 mph) over land. When faced with a short paddle across a tiny lake, we used the bungee cords on the rear bulk head of our crafts to secure the entire frame packs. On longer paddle opportunities, we broke everything down and stored the gear below deck for a better balanced and less encumbered paddle.
With beautiful Isle Royale paddling on the each side of each portage, who wouldn’t want to maximize their paddle time!