Trips: 10 Worst Portages

 No canoe-tripper can deny the feeling of satisfaction that comes at the end of a portage, when the watery destination sparkles through the trees and the trail tends downhill. Immediately the canoe or pack become light on your shoulders and struggles are forgotten—sort of. In assembling this list, we came to the conclusion that Bill Mason’s favourite saying, “Anyone who ever tells you that portaging is fun has got to be a liar or crazy,” was only half right.  There’s a healthy dose of pride, humour and even happiness in all these tales, which goes to show that sometimes you have to go through a bit of hell to get to heaven.


Wet and Wild Wabakimi

Phil Cotton speaks with authority when he says, “the worst portage is not the longest one.” For the mastermind of the Wabakimi Project’s six years of documenting canoe routes in the wilderness of northwestern Ontario—and portaging 137,000 metres in the process—one carry stands out. In 2007, Cotton portaged from the Pikitigushi River to Cliff Lake, along Wabakimi’s eastern boundary, in a torrential downpour. “The final portion of this portage is straight down,” says Cotton. “We had a torrent of water cascading over our feet while we picked our precarious footing.” Th e team survived the billy goat path by floating the canoes down the trail, only to discover that the end of the portage “simply plunged into the water.”


Mountain Goat Mackenzie

Northwest Company explorer Alexander Mackenzie became the first European to cross the North American continent in 1793 by surviving a back-breaking route across the Coast Mountains to British Columbia’s Pacific coast at Bella Coola. When his native guides warned of hostile tribes further south, Mackenzie elected for a more northerly route, in which he climbed a 6,000-foot mountain pass, skirted a series of peaks and a wild river valley, and eventually descended to Bella Coola. In his grossly understated journal, Mackenzie described his feeling of accomplishment at the end of the portage: “I could perceive the termination of the river and its discharge into a narrow arm of the sea.”


The Case of the Stolen Canoe

Midway through the longest portage of his career—a 107-kilometre grunt across the parched foothills of Wyoming—the late long-distance paddler Verlen Kruger’s canoe was stolen from the side of the highway. Kruger, who was 60 at the time, was in the midst of his 45,000-kilometre Ultimate Canoe Challenge. A day later, Kruger and his occasional paddling partner and future wife spotted the stolen boat atop a pickup truck. A high-speed chase ensued for nearly 100 kilometres, in which Kruger dropped notes out the window asking for help, hoping that someone would notice the paper trail. Th e strategy worked. Police eventually apprehended the thief, Kruger’s canoe was returned and he was promptly ushered back to where he left the portage.


Short Man Complex

Participants in the 1967 Centennial Canoe Pageant from Rocky Mountain House to Montreal faced many challenges—not the least of which was the back-breaking toil of hauling 26-foot, 400-pound north canoes on the portages. Th e biggest problem, remembers Norm Crerar, a long-time marathon racer whose Manitoba team won the Centennial race, was the fact that not all his teammates were the same height. “Th ere was a four-mile portage from Cedar Lake to Lake Winnipegosis that was a killer,” says Crerar. “It was very hilly, and going downhill the guys in the front had all the weight and going uphill the guys in the middle could’ve done chin-ups from the thwarts.”


Discover six more of the roughest and toughest portages in Canoeroots and Family Camping’s Summer/Fall 2010 issue. For more expert tips, download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it here.

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Conor Mihell is a kayak instructor and guide who is living in Wawa until his Finnish citizenship comes through. Conor Mihell is a freelance writer and long-time Paddling Magazine contributor based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Conor favors sea kayaking on Lake Superior and paddling wild rivers in wood-canvas canoes on his own expeditions. His award-winning environmental and adventure travel writing has been published in magazines across North America.


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