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The Art of Portaging

Posted by Brian Cooke on 10/28/2013 to Camping Skills & Tips
My first portage nearly broke me. The canoe paddles, tied from the center thwart to the bow seat, were pressing down into the flesh covering my shoulder blades. With each gangly step forward I could feel my body collapsing from the strain. The canoe’s tump-line, a device rarely seen on canoes since the advent of lighter, more forgiving boat hulls, only added to my torture. Designed to help support the boat by transferring weight to the carrier’s forehead, it instead slipped forward and tightened itself around my neck, which restricted my breathing every time the canoe’s bow dropped.

This spectacle, witnessed by my fellow trippers, resembled more a funeral procession than a joyful expression of youth. When I returned to camp some days later I felt like I’d been beaten. I felt this way because the counselor-in-training who accompanied me on this trip carried his canoe with a stoic determination that defied his age and experience, or so I thought.

Later that summer, when my canoe continued to get the better of me, this 16 year old shared with me the prophetic words that I have since shared with all struggling trippers. “Portaging,” he said, “is only 10% physical and 90% mental.” Strength is all good and fine but you need to have the will and the heart to ignore the weight, the bugs and the fallen trees. To a young man, unsure of his own ability, these words put my entire ordeal in perspective. No trip was going to be the same after that. Now, I love the portage.

I love the portage because of where it takes me. A portage, much like life itself, is never easy. It can have long, steep uphill slopes. It can be slow and muddy. When the clouds explode and the rains come down, you must be prepared for it. If you’re not, the experience will leave you shaken. Many canoeists in their formative tripping years have been beaten down by a seemingly endless bushwhack. I’ve come to the conclusion that trippers have particularly strong feelings about the portage. They either love it or they hate it.

Why? Like many challenges in our lives, I think the portage is misunderstood because we prepare so poorly for it. In order to tackle the portage you must prepare for it before the trip starts. As with the trip on a whole, the success is in the planning.

Don’t Wing It

To trip successfully, every tripper needs a system. Your equipment needs to be carried in durable, properly sealed and waterproofed packs. Every piece of gear except the map and compass, your life jacket and the paddles needs to be packed away in these packs. If anything is left outside of the packs, you risk the chance of losing it or having to carry it by hand. To avoid having to carry the paddles, I tie them to the inside of the canoe for a portage. For comfort, wear your life jacket to pad your shoulders for the long road ahead.

When you reach the end of the portage, load the canoe just as you did that morning. Leave the packs lying face down so the carrying straps will be easy to grab at the next portage. When you are ready to launch, enter the canoe slowly and try to avoid bringing too much water into the canoe with you. Once you find a system that works for you, it will become routine. With any luck, this matter-of-fact manner of portaging will allow you to shake off the dread many trippers feel when they approach a portage. Instead, see the portage entrance for what it is, a path that leads you to a new lake, one you’ve never seen before.

Pack Your Gear As If You Were Going Backpacking

Canoe tripping is not car camping, so only bring what you can carry. Yes, the canoe can easily carry 1000 pounds of gear before sinking, but you can’t. Two people traveling in one canoe should be able to concentrate all of their personal and group equipment into two comfortable portage packs or backpacks. This includes all the food, pots, clothes, tent and sleeping bags. If that lawn chair cannot be carried in the pack or strapped securely to it, leave it behind.

Keep It Simple

To make a portage successful, you need to be able to tackle it with the least amount of trouble. The most common problem trippers encounter on their first portage is what’s called “the organization thing.” People are used to having everything they need at their fingertips. You want your extra sweater, your camera and some munchies close at hand. Before you know it, your canoe is littered with stuff, stuff that needs to be re-packed at every portage. I admit it is important to have a few pieces of gear within reach, but resist the urge to turn your canoe into a yard sale. Experienced trippers bring along a pack known in canoe-speak as “the personal.” My personal carries everything I will need for the tripping day. This includes the first aid kit, trail snacks, lunch, my small one-burner stove, matches, my maps and compass, the canoe repair kit and my raincoat. This should save me from having to go into the larger packs while we are on the go. Trust me, rifling through a large canoe pack while bobbing up and down on a lake in a rain shower is as hard as it sounds.

Get Your Feet Wet

I don’t change my footwear at the portage. At boys camp I learned the value of “wet shoes” and “dry shoes.” Wet shoes are old running shoes, not those thin neoprene slippers. I put these on in the morning and don’t take them off until I get to the next campsite. Wearing wet shoes allows you to speed through the portage without any regard for wet obstacles. Discourage your fellow trippers from changing into dry hiking boots or a pair of dry shoes for the portage. It’s not necessary. They will only end up with a new pair of wet shoes. So hunker down and get used to the feeling of having soggy feet for the better part of the day. Then, when your canoe approaches the portage you can jump out into the water, grab the canoe, roll it onto your shoulders and not worry about dropping it onto the hard ground. At the end of the portage you’ll be able to walk right out into the water and safely roll the canoe down off your shoulders. After a long hot portage, this can be pretty refreshing.

Don’t Let Anyone Shoulder More Than They Can Carry

Do the portage in two trips if you have to. Larger groups seem to have an easier time tackling a portage in one go. That’s because they have more bodies to carry the collective gear. When it’s just you and a friend, it’s a little harder. I once brought my mother close to tears by suggesting she try carrying one canoe pack on her back and another on her front. I think she only made it a few steps before her body rebelled. After that experience we decided to carry the gear in two trips. We started off down the trail carrying a large canoe pack each and returned for the canoe and the personal. With only one pack burdening her frame, its severe weight seemed almost manageable. Remember though, as you consume the food you brought, the packs will get lighter, allowing you to blitz a portage in one trip.

Take a Break

You should always allow for break time when you have many portages to do in one day. An experienced tripper can paddle about 30 kilometers a day, but this becomes unrealistic when numerous portages slow you down. Reduce the day’s trip distance by a third if you are going to encounter more than three moderate to long portages (750 meters to one kilometers or more). This will help reduce the pressure all canoe trippers feel when they realize that the trip they planned was too ambitious.

Keep a Positive Attitude

On long portages, keep your group close together so everyone has someone to talk to. Sing, tell jokes, take a break, have a snack, or take turns with the canoe; do anything to make the time pass more pleasantly. Remember that one negative attitude can have a disruptive effect on the whole group’s moral. To ensure that no one tripper is having to carry more than he or she can handle, each morning call everyone together and compare the weight of each pack relative to the carrying abilities of each tripper. This will build a sense of fair play amongst the group, particularly on unusually long portages.

Keep a Compass and a Machete Near By

Some canoe routes see more traffic than others. Its quite common during the spring to find portages blocked by fallen trees. Check with park officials to see how popular the trip you are planning is. If it has been a few years since it was last traveled, expect the portages to be overgrown, blocked, or at worst, unrecognizable. When faced with this, you are left with two choices, head back – or bushwhack. If your choice is to bushwhack, make sure that your group’s point man has the map, compass and the machete.

A Canoe’s Weight Is a Relative Thing

On a portage, I always carry the canoe. I feel an uncontrollable urge to get that canoe over to the next lake myself. I don’t have a bizarre fascination with pain. Far from it. I have instead developed a grudging respect for my canoe. It has been my constant and unflappable companion through some of the most important experiences of my life. Its canvas skin shows evidence of lessons I’ve learned at its expense. Its ribs and planks have held together through miles of dry creek beds and the odd Class II rapid. Its sounds, mournful groans and playful squeaks, are as familiar to me as my father’s voice. I understand it. I would sooner let a stranger drive my car than let a friend introduce my canoe to a new lake. I long ago accepted the burden of my canoe’s weight.

Weight can be a reasonable trade off for strength. At 75 pounds (34 kilograms), my canoe is considered unattractively heavy. But to tell you the truth, I cannot tell the difference between 75 and 65 pounds when it is resting on my shoulders. Kevlar composite or carbon fiber hulls are feather-light compared to a cedar canvas or an inexpensive hand-laid fiberglass, and make longer portages more manageable for people new to canoe tripping. If you are unsure of your ability to carry a 65-pound canoe along a 2.5 km Algonquin Park portage, then rent a lighter Kevlar canoe. Remember, it’s important that your first canoe tripping experience is a positive one.

My canoe has always had a traditional center thwart at its balance point. By lashing two paddles between the thwart and the bow seat I can build a comfortable horseshoe-shaped opening in which to place my head. This system also lends itself well to an accompanying tump-line. The paddles allow you to slide the canoe backwards or forwards, altering the canoe’s balance as you walk up or down hill. I’m a little biased against contoured deep-dish yokes, as they seem to slide off my shoulders if I happen to slip or lose my footing on the portage. Sometimes the ways of old are better.

Bring Along Some Padding for Your Shoulders

There are two pieces of equipment you’ll bring with you that can do double duty by helping you on the portage. Your personal floatation device (PFD) can provide some welcome padding for your shoulders. Your towel can also be of help. On long, hot and dusty portages, I take out my bath towel, dip its ends in the water and wrap it around my neck. The towel supplies another source of padding between the canoe and my shoulders and the wet ends can be used to wipe my face when my head gets hot.

Organize, Organize, Organize

Always make it your goal to see a portage through in one trip, but don’t carve this rule in stone. If the packs are too heavy early in the trip don’t force your trip-mate to carry more then he or she can handle.

Keep the Group Together

The trees cannot provide you with encouragement, only your trip-mates can. I find that a long, deeply philosophical and intellectually challenging conversation (or some juicy gossip) can make time and distance disappear.

Brian Cooke lives In Ottawa, Canada and is the former Director of Canoe Tripping at Camp Nominingue in Nominingue Quebec. Camp Nominingue manufactures and trips in its own cedar canvas canoes.

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