Some paddlers just don’t know the meaning of portage etiquette. I’ve witnessed a camper poop right in the middle of a portage trail. I’ve seen someone pee on a patch of blueberries at the take-out. Then there was the youth group who first blocked the put-in with their packs and boats, then left food wrappers, dirty socks and broken lawn chairs strewn in their wake.
An outdoorsy Miss Manners would be aghast.
I like to think of a busy portage as a Microcosm for the rest of life. Among all the nature lovers who want to leave the place a little better than they found it, there’s all the other people. You know the ones. They’re the litterers, the ones who wander past complaining, and those who come up fast from behind and tailgate. There are others still who are too hurried or self-important to even return a courteous hello.
My biggest peeve is when oncoming foot traffic doesn’t give a canoe-head the right of way. It feels like being cut-off on the highway or when someone cuts in line at the grocery store. “Excuse me,” is the politest thing I can think to say.
On the portage trail, just as in life, you’ll meet jackasses.
It was the guys with the flip-flops who really did me in. My canoe mate, Andy, and I were on a challenging 20-day route. The bugs were bad, water levels were low, and we had to complete a total of 93 portages. I had many opportunities and plenty of time to contemplate trail etiquette on this trip.
We were trudging up a portage near the highway corridor when a group of young guys approached on the single track trail. I was carrying a colossal pack and Andy shouldered our 70-pound canoe. This group was walking back for their second load, carrying nothing but flip-flops. They decided they had the right of way and literally sent Andy and I crashing off trail to get around them.
I lost it. When I sternly informed them of their wrong-doings, the group just stood dumbfounded. One guy even threw back a few nasty curse words, flipped me the bird, and brashly asked where the sign was with a list of all this portage etiquette stuff I was ranting on about.
I left the quarrel muttering about rude people, and how society is doomed if people take self-interested city attitudes into the wilderness. Andy had to listen to me all afternoon.
While many paddlers learn portage etiquette from summer camp, family members or courses, newbies are sometimes oblivious to the unwritten rules. The usual excuse for ignoring protocol? “No one told me,” they plead.
It reminds me of the old Steve Martin routine, where he says to the judge, “I didn’t know armed robbery was illegal. If you told me it was, I wouldn’t have done it.”
If you don’t know, fortunately, the rules are straight forward.
Make way for whomever is carefully carrying an awkward and heavy 17-foot-long burden. Don’t poop on the trail—ever. Bathrooms breaks should take place 100 meters from the trail and water sources. Finally, leave all your gear neatly off to the side of an the access point, and don’t leave anything behind when you paddle away.
The golden rule of kindergartners everywhere—to treat others as you want to be treated—also goes a long way. Some might call these rules common sense.
On the portage trail, just as in life, you may have to do your best to avoid or reeducate the complainers, the tailgaters, and the poopers. Accept some paddlers will rush past, others will carry too much, and others won’t even look up, let alone return your friendly hellos.
What I do know is those who tend to enjoy the portage the most are the ones who savor the scenery, don’t carry too many burdens, and know when to get the hell out of the way.
Butt End celebrates the lighter side of canoe culture. Kevin Callan is the author of 16 paddling related books, including The Happy Camper, and best-selling series of guidebooks.
The recipe for happy portaging and happy living isn’t so different | Featured Photo: Mike Last