It seemed a moot point to the accused, but I take the act of stealing red Life Savers out of my candy stash very seriously. I toss these sugary rings in my mouth at every 1,000-meter mark along a canoe portage, a personal act of rich reward—and the only thing that seemed to get me to the other side of the particularly grueling, blackfly-infested trails we trudged along on that trip.

My tripmate claimed I was being overly dramatic when I threatened to never travel with him again. He gave me an evil smirk and took my last Life Saver. I haven’t tripped with him since.

Self-motivation is key to your canoe portage

two people portage red canoes through the wilderness near Petawawa, Ontario
Ultimately, the portage is the only thing that protects the places we’re portaging to. | Photo: Magnetawan/Wikimedia Commons

What gets each canoeist to the other side of a portage varies. Some, like me, treat themselves to high-grading their candy bags. Others go into a dreamscape of good first dates, movies worth seeing a second time and dirty tricks to play on their bosses. Some paddlers simply think of things happening back at home—like traffic jams and the Greek economic crisis—to give them reasons why the pain of the portage isn’t so bad.

Many of us hum, or if we know the words, sing monotonous show tunes or the last song we heard on the radio driving to the put-in. The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) is a favorite. So are Dancing Queen by ABBA, Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle and John Denver’s Poems, Prayers and Promises.

I remember a 27-day solo trip when I couldn’t get Aqua’s Barbie Girl out of my head. Imagine “I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world / Life in plastic, it’s fantastic / You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere / Imagination, life is your creation” every step of every portage. It was a long month.

With suffering comes the sweetest reward

Where the portage is located on the trip changes the carrot I dangle from my deck plate. In the beginning, I daydream of monster walleye, picturesque campsites and the peaceful solitude I know I’ll find deeper into the interior. Near the end of the trip, it’s the thought of a cold beer and roadside junk food that makes me dance (albeit a slow waltz) my 60-pound canoe barrel across to the other side.

Ultimately, what gets most of us to the other side—no matter when and where—is the fact that the portage, nasty or not, is the only thing that protects the places we’re portaging to.

I almost guarantee that he or she who suffers the most, will be rewarded the most. A two-Life Saver portage with steep inclines and a squishy spruce bog will give you complete solace. There will be no crowds at the end.

If you do stumble across another canoeist—ideally not as you are belting out “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party, ah ah ah, yeah” from beneath your Rob Roy—be assured she’ll be just as in love with the pain and pleasure of portaging as you are.

Kevin Callan eats the red Life Savers last.

Canoeroots Fall 2010 issue coverThis article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Canoeroots. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine and get 25 years of digital magazine archives including our legacy titles: Rapid, Adventure Kayak and Canoeroots.

Self-motivation is the key to carrying your canoe farther, easier, on a portage. | Feature photo: David Lee




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