The ax-blazed spruce that juts from the riverbank indicates we have arrived at the portage. A 2-mile carry will see us safely around the thundering cascades below. Dead-tired, we haul the canoes and gear up the steep muddy bank to the small clearing above. There is no argument where to camp. This is the only level place around and its near sundown.
Rain. We rig a hasty tarp, stack the packs beneath it, then all crowd in for a hit of schnapps and a hand in the decision making process. The consensus is to carry the boats and food packs over the portage and pitch camp when we return. Maybe by then the rain will have stopped.
I pick up the canoe and take off down the down the trail. My friends follow close behind with the other canoe and packs. It's easy going; we should be there in thirty minutes. The path merges into a logging road that 1/4 mile later ends in a tangled web of other roads. I drop one arm from the gunnel of my canoe and pull out my compass. The map says to head east, so I pick a road that runs roughly in that direction. Thirty minutes pass with no sign of water. We continue another fifteen minutes. Still nothing. At 8:30 pm. we stop and climb a small hill nearby for a better look. In the distance is the river, but it's beyond a mass of tangled alders and swamp.
What we say now is unprintable. We've come too far - way too far! Disgusted and weary, we shoulder our outfit and backtrack the entire 2 1/2 miles to camp. We set up the tents in total darkness and persistent rain. By mutual agreement we refuse to discuss the portage. It can wait until tomorrow
We find the trail easy enough the next day. It's just a matter of careful map reading and diligent searching, unencumbered by canoes, pack, or the threat of darkness.
In the near-wilderness of the BWCA and Quetico, it's common practice to carry the canoes and heavy packs over the portage first and return for the lighter packs second time around. On a wilderness river, where the trail is less sure, you'll want to reverse this procedure or, better, partially (or wholly) scout the way without a load.
If the trail looks good from the start, carry a light pack and a couple of paddles across. This will give you freedom to search out short cuts and alternate routes around obstacles like fallen trees, washouts, and mud.
Portages are not always easy to find in remote country, though the trend (unfortunately) is to mark them with brightly colored metal signs or garish paint. Either method is, in my opinion, an intrusion into the sanctity of the wilderness and my own sanity.
In places where there are no signs you'll find an ax blaze, jutting pole, wide clearing ... or garbage. I've seen ice cream buckets, paint cans, plastic ribbons, broken paddles and canoes, discarded boots, underwear, and, once, an old meter used to mark portages. Humans are very creative.
The location of river portages as given in government trip guides often calls for considerable interpretation. For example, at high water the head of a portage may be dangerously close to the rapids below, while at low water you may have to clamber hundreds of yards over a dry boulder bed to reach it. Written descriptions of the specific whereabouts of portages must be tempered by an understanding of this relationship.
Searching out portages on a complex lake requires careful map reading, good compass skills, and a bit of luck. Portages are frequently plotted incorrectly on maps, so you'll want to aim off generously when you shoot compass bearings to them.
If you get confused on a large lake, head toward the nearest dip in the horizon that's in line with the suspected direction of your portage. Dips indicate channels or ravines, hence connecting links (portages) between waterways.
Being on the correct side of a dangerous river in your approach to the portage may be a matter of survival. Mix a 1/4-mile-wide river with a 6- or 8 mile-an-hour current (quite common on tundra rivers during the summer runoff) and the ordinarily simple task of crossing from one bank to another takes on monumental proportions. You may be in real trouble if you've put ashore just above a major falls only to discover that the route around it is on the opposite bank. An error like this may mean an hour of upstream tracking (if the shoreline permits it) and a dangerous ferry across.
If your map shows a portage just ahead but gives no clue as to which side of the river it's on, select the shore with the lower relief (elevation) and/or lesser amount of vegetation. Rationale: Portages have been in use for centuries by Natives and explorers who, like you, had to get around obstacles in the river. Indians and voyageurs were no better at scrambling over canyon walls than you are. They took the path of least resistance, and so should you.
More often than not you'll find portages on the inside bends of rivers. This is merely a matter of energy economics: the shortest way to cut off a loop is from the inside. Only if the short route is very unforgiving do people purposely select the long way around.
Pack in odd units - that is, three or five packs per canoe, not two or four. This will equalize the number of trips you and your partner must make over the portage. Some canoeists can carry a pack and canoe at the same time, but it's a killer and a sure recipe for a sprain. The same applies to double-packing-carrying two packs, one on your back, the other over your chest. Double-packing works well enough on the groomed trails of the BWCA and Allagash but it's out of place in the rough entanglements of a river portage. Indeed, you're aching for an accident if you carry something on your chest that obscures your view of the immediate trail. My rule on canoe trips is that everyone must be able to see his or her feet!
Paddles should be hand-carried over the portage, not hauled inside the canoe as recommended by some experts.
The reasons include:
- Weight. At around one and a half pounds per paddle, you'll be shouldering an additional four and a half to six pounds (three or four paddles per canoe). Doesn't sound too significant, but over the long haul it is!
- It's hard on canoe paddles. Every time you jam a paddle between seat and thwarts, you scrape off some varnish. Minor, perhaps, but still not the best way to treat fine equipment.
- Brightly varnished or painted paddles become highly visible markers for your gear when you set it along the portage trail. Drabness is a major reason why things are left behind or lost on portages. There's not much color among the scrub vegetation on a northern river. Set an olive-drab Duluth pack just off the trail in a maze of olive-drab vegetation and you may have a real search on your hands to locate it later. But jam a paddle upright through the pack straps and you'll have an eye-catching flag to guide the way.
By the way, brightly colored equipment - packs, canoes, clothing - is important in the North Country. It provides an edge against loss and brightens up your photographs.
Each team should take responsibility for the gear in its canoe and inventory it at the end of every portage. To avoid confusion as to who has what, don't shift items from boat to boat after each carry. Instead, make equipment assignments on a daily basis
Except for camera bags, fishing rod cases, paddles, and gas cans,' there should be none! Shirts, rain gear, and the like should all be stuffed solidly into a pack sack or jammed under loops of shock cord strung through canoe thwarts. Unsecured gear is a sure recipe for loss on the portage trail or in a capsize.
Develop an unyielding system of packing and portaging equipment. If you always carry your two paddles and camera over the portage and always set your camera behind your seat, don't vary from this procedure. Clint Waddell reports that he and Verlen Kruger left the tail section of their canoe cover along a portage in northern Canada some 3,000 miles into their 7,000-mile trip. Two thousand miles later they forgot a folding saw when they broke camp. In both cases the men violated a habit. In the first instance it was dark and they were in a hurry - Verlen assumed Clint had packed the cover, while Clint, who ordinarily took responsibility for it, thought the opposite. In the second case Verlen changed his packing system slightly one morning, which left no place for the saw he carried. He assumed Clint would get it.
Assumptions have no place on a wilderness canoe trip. Each person must communicate his or her intentions and stick solidly by them. Good habits are essential to prevent loss of equipment and ensure that you can find specific items when you need them.
You'll discover you can ease the pain of portaging if you occasionally drop one arm to your side as you carry the canoe. This transfers some of the weight of the canoe to the shoulder of the outstretched arm and gives your other shoulder a rest.
Another trick is to keep your outstretched arm straight, with the hand reversed - fingers touching the inwale, thumbs against the outwale. This position puts more muscle tissue in the critical zone and makes for a less painful carry.
Granted, my techniques - dropping an arm, reversing the hand, straight elbow - are aimed at the small-frame person who needs every portage advantage possible. Big men with brawny shoulders may rightfully scoff at my suggestions, though even they will gain some extra comfort by occasionally practicing these procedures.
There are times when portaging is downright drudgery - all you can think about is getting over the trail quickly! But often as not, a portage is a welcome break from long hours of tedious paddling and the mental strain that accompanies running long stretches of difficult rapids. Portages are usually less numerous on the big rivers of the Far North than on the small waterways of the BWCA and Quetico. In fact, it's not uncommon to canoe for days on some northern routes without making a significant carry.
Even a really bad portage is seldom as ominous as trip guides and the testimonials of past voyageurs suggest. Canoeists have a long, proud history of exaggerating the difficulties (and dangers) of rivers. Perhaps it is the passage of time that clouds our view of reality when we report how things are. Or maybe we're just describing the river as we wish it was.
Excerpted from Expedition Canoeing: Guide to Canoeing Wild Rivers in North America by Cliff Jacobson with permission from Falcon Publishing. www.cliffcanoe.com