Paddling the Unfamiliar

If you place me in the most grueling, bug infested portage in northern Ontario I'm mostly at peace with my surroundings. That's because I'm used to it; I've endured it all before and know full well that through trial and error I'll eventually make it to the end.

Now, place me in a totally different environment - like the barren lands of northern Scotland - and ask me to portage, I'm as anxious as I was starting the first day of high school.

Thankfully our outfitter, Russell of Kushi Adventures, had equipped my wife, Alana, six-year-old daughter, Kyla and I with a familiar canoe - a Nova Craft Prospector made ironically in London, Ontario. That's about all I had going for me though. The landscape was drastically different. This is a place where rain storms and cold winds are the norm. Front and rear air-bags are installed in the canoe to help keep it afloat on the exposed lakes (or lochs as they are called in Scotland). The shoreline is made of peat bogs, heather moorland, low lying pockets of birch - and in the backdrop are towering mountain tops.

The portages are always between the mountain tops and come complete with boot-sucking muck along their entire length. The portage between Loch Sionasgaig and Loch Veyatie was no exception. It was brutal! And the Scottish way to portage a canoe is to drag it across bog and heather with a harness, not lift it and carry it over your head. However, I ended up lifting and carrying the canoe most of the way. I'm not sure whether it was due to me being completely out of shape (normal for me during the first trip of the season) or that the pain of hauling the heavy weighted canoe was new to me and the suffering of carrying it over my head was not. Whatever the reason, I was completely exhausted when we reached the other side - where it happened to pour down rain on us, forcing us to make an emergency bush camp to get us warm and dry.

On a positive note, that day on the portage will be forged in my memory forever. My six year old daughter, Kyla, was absolutely amazing during the exhausting event. Alana and I had to return to the take-out for a second load when we had reached the half way point and Kyla was in no mood for a return trip. So I gave her the option of sitting on top of the overturned canoe, wearing her bug jacket to protect her from the nasty midges, and wait for our return. She agreed. This may sound like an absurd thing for a parent to do - leave your child alone along a remote wilderness mountain path. But there's nothing in Scotland that could actually harm her. Seriously. Bears are an important issue in northern Ontario; but except for the rare chance of a golden eagle flying off with her, there's no main predators in the Scotland Highlands. The most dangerous animal here is the feral goat or the free-range cattle.

Alana and I still felt uncomfortable leaving Kyla, however. So we rushed our return trip somewhat. And as we approached we heard what sounded like Kyla crying. Alana and I immediately dropped our packs and ran to her aid, only to find that she wasn't crying - she was singing and dancing a Scottish Highland jig in the heather, having the time of her life. What an amazing child. The emergency camp also ended up being an incredible place as well. We were seriously chilled from having sweated on the portage and then soaked to the bone with a heavy, cold rain. Kyla was shivering, so we crawled into the tarp section of the tent and all of us changed into dry cloths and snuggled into our sleeping bags to enjoy an hour's nap. When we awoke and crawled back out of the tent, the mist and rain had lifted and we could then take notice of the landscape surrounding the camp. What an astonishing backdrop of mountains and majestic waterfalls tumbling down from the peaks. A total of three golden eagles soared high above and on a nearby cliff face a rare gyre-falcon nested.

It didn't take long for the pain of the portage to fade. And that night we sipped on hot chocolate and cooked smores over the flames of the Kelly Kettle, enjoying our wild surroundings in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

Kevin Callan is the author of 11 books including "Wilderness Pleasures" and "The Happy Camper." A regular keynote speaker at major North American canoeing and camping expos for over 20 years, he has received three National Magazine Awards and four film awards, including top award at the prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. Callan lives in Peterborough, Ontario, birthplace of the modern-day canoe.

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