Portage Etiquette

It might be my age - I'll be reaching the 50 year-old mark in a couple months - but I'm really growing tired of people that have no manners out on the portage. Have they never heard of portage etiquette?

Imagine this. In June, I found myself paddling around Algonquin Park - a 20-day route that's titled "The Meanest Link" due to it having 93 portages! It was a challenging but rewarding time spent in the wilderness, and the only truly frustrating point was meeting up with other paddlers. It was day 14 and my canoemate, Andy Baxter, and I hadn't seen many people so far. The last section of the loop, however, was tangibly close to a busy stretch of the park, which is exactly where we began having people problems.

Andy and I were portaging straight through a campground located along the highway corridor and came upon a group of campers heading down to the beach. It was a narrow trail, one that could only fit Andy and I single file, me carrying a colossal pack and Andy shouldering a sizable canoe. Of course, the group walking down to the beach, carrying only towels and flip-flops, decided they had the right of way and literally sent Andy and I crashing off trail to get around them.

I simply lost it with them, throwing my pack down and verbally abusing each member of the group. They stood there dumbfounded, wondering why on earth I was so upset that Andy and I didn't get the right of way. Their beach towels must have been heavy I guess.

At the end of the portage we meet up with another crowd. This time half-a-dozen camp kids were resting and having a snack at the put-in. They hadn't left room for Andy or I to get past and launch our canoe. I lost my temper again and sounded off the rules of the portage. They also looked puzzled at my reaction.

Is it just me that feels that bad manners - or at least common sense and good behavior - no longer exists out in the woods? It seems the world out there has become some type of self-interest society. It even seems less people are even saying hello to you on the portage. I find this absurd.

The problem with ignoring others and having bad manners while traveling remote wilderness areas, besides being characterized as brash and unmannerly, is that you never know if you'll need help. It was my father who taught me this. He always insisted I say hello, maybe even have a quick conversation with the people we met in the woods.

My dad's lesson echoed in my head as things turned dire for an ill-fated group of three paddlers I encountered last October. White-capped waves were forming and the air temperature hovered just above freezing. Midway across the lake, the paddlers capsized and yelled for help. Their canoe was overloaded with lawn chairs and a beer cooler, their clothes and sleeping bags weren't packed in waterproof bags. None of them wore lifejackets.

Earlier that day on a portage, the trio had encountered my canoemate and I but didn't return our friendly gesture of a simple hello and a quick question of how their trip was going. In return, they completely ignored us and continued on their way.

Not long after they had passed us we noticed they took a wrong turn on the portage. We had evil thoughts of misguiding them about the false trail they were taking, but my conscience took over. I yelled out directions to the correct path. Barely acknowledging us, one paddler motioned back with a halfhearted wave. Another responded bitterly that they already knew the location of the proper portage. The third continued to disregard our very existence as if we were intruding on their experience.

We left them behind and set up camp on the next lake. As we settled in, we were astounded to see the three paddlers crash through the bush into the lake, completely confused of their whereabouts. Dad would've said that justice had been served.

That's when the wind picked up and sent them for a swim. Despite our misgivings, my canoe mate and I did the right thing. We rescued the doomed group and brought them to shore to share our campfire and dry off.

All three of them said a thank you and a goodbye when they left. How ironic.

Kevin's Rules of the Portage:

  • When meeting someone coming the other way on the portage the person carrying the canoe should always be given the right of way.    
  • All packs and canoes should be stored to the sides of the put-in and take-out areas. This prevents a traffic jam for others wanting to use the trail.
  • If you're holding up others walking behind you, take a second to move off the trail and let them pass.
  • If you have to relieve yourself, do it well off the trail, at least 100 meters from the water source and any blueberry patch found at the put-in or take-out.
  • Always double check the put-in and take-out areas for any garbage or forgotten piece of gear.
  • Place any lost piece of gear found along the trail in plain view at either the take-out or put-in.
  • Remember to say "Hello" and give a smile to your fellow canoeists when passing them by!

Kevin Callan is the author of 15 books including "The New Trailside Cookbook" 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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