Wandering Around Out There With A Canoe On My Head

5 Reasons Portaging Is Better Than Canoeing

by Preston
October 27, 2009

To Paddle or Portage? – That is the question

After showing some pictures of my latest trip, someone looked at me and said “I can understand going canoeing, but why would you get out of a perfectly good canoe and pack all that stuff on your back and go on some death march through the woods?”. I didn’t have an answer at the time. When you put it that way, it does sound a little crazy. Maybe that’s the fun. Seriously, portaging is much better than just simply paddling around. It turns a trip into an adventure.

#1 The Wilderness Factor:

The truth is that there are barriers out there that separate us from what’s truly wild and untouched – which helps keep it that way. Portages help us pass over those barriers for the small price of effort. It’s a great system, if you think about it. You really have to want to be out there to get there. And so the best stuff is out there. The biggest hills, the tallest trees, the greenest woods, the clearest waters, the prettiest skies and the greatest chance at seeing wildlife.

Untouched is probably the best way to describe it, because it’s just that. There haven’t been as many people to disturb those areas. Count the number of pop cans or beer bottles or plastic bags you see on your next trip. Chances are the number of those items decrease in great proportion with every haul of the canoe. You have to earn your way out there as the landscape itself gets tougher and tougher to pass. Let’s face it, most land would be developed if it wasn’t so difficult to get there and use that land. That very difficulty makes for the most ideal scenery. Waterfalls, rocks, cliffs, gorges, canyons, marshes, and even mountains. The best stuff is in the most obscure areas. And the best part is that it’s all left to those that appreciate it the most, those who put in the effort to get out there. That’s why you portage.

#2 The People Factor:

Similar to the Wilderness Factor, portaging is about getting over barriers, but this time not to but away from something: People. Now I like people as much as the next guy – in small doses mind you – but there’s a time and a place for everything. I don’t go into the woods to be crowded, bumped or shoved, nor do I go to hear shouting or beeping or revving. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing I like better than a finely tuned car stereo with a bass you can hear 3 blocks away, or the lyrical shouts into a cell phone about what the talker would do if she said that to her, or even the edge of your seat drama of whether the crying child will or will not be able to get those cookies before dinner. It’s all great. It’s why I live in the city, so I can appreciate all that and more. But when I’m in the outdoors, I expect to get away from all that. The funny thing is, people will follow you down river or even across huge lakes, but most people won’t follow you over a portage, and even less will follow you over another. There is a sharp and direct ratio to the number of people you’ll encounter to the number of portages you take. Also – and this cannot be understated – no one portages motorboats. You won’t have to watch out for seadoos or water-skiers or crazy dads trying to get their boats to a speed where his screaming kids will fall off their tubes. I have seen a couple of people portage a small motor to fit to a canoe, but as obnoxious as that sound might be, it rarely creates a wake strong enough to swamp anyone.

The other benefit is the decreasing reminders of “civilization” with every hill you drag your canoe over. When you do stay at campsites near the borders of a park, take note of some of the things left behind by people because you’ll see less and less of them the more portages you go over. Garbage is one thing. It can usually be burned or brought back out by another conscientious camper. But there’s also the vandalism, hacked up sites and general disarray that you see on these sites. It’s sad, and often downright disheartening when you get to a site and see nothing but the destroyed evidence of some conveniences may have been created on the site by rangers or other thoughtful campers. Ironically, the energy it took to do all that damage might have easily taken them over a portage for a much better experience. As happy as I may be for MS loving JT, there’s plenty of over-passes on the way home to spray paint keeping even more people up to date. Oh, and a little note for NH: I noticed how far you got, and compared to where I’ve been, it’s really nothing worthy of leaving your accomplishment carved in a tree. That’s why you portage.

#3 The Accomplishment Factor:

I sleep very well when I get back from a portage trip. The best I ever have, in fact. Obviously part of it is the exercise, but also there’s something about getting to nature that does it. It centres you somehow. I always come back with a new sense of stress free tranquility. But you know what I think is the most influential part of it: the sense of having done something. The first thing I do when I get home is peer at the map of where I’ve been. Look at what I did. I went so many kilometres. I carried over so many portages. I went so far into the bush. I saw so much, and it was all worth it. How many other guys can say that they’ve done what I just did. When my friends and I sit around the campfire, we don’t talk about the girlfriends we had, the sports trophies we’ve won or even the work accomplishments we’ve pulled off. (Okay we do, we’re guys. But mostly…) we talk about the trips we’ve taken. The most worthy stories are about the effort it took to get to the places we’ve gone, the hardships we’ve overcome and how when we pulled it off it was always worth it. “That’s nothing,” the stories invariably begin.

Car camping is great. There’s some pretty fun stories that come from there. It took us four hours to get there. We saw some raccoons. It rained. We ran out of hot dogs. But ultimately, it’s just sitting around under some trees. When I tell stories of my portage trips, I get respectful feedback. Is there such a thing as nature cred?

But ultimately, life is about memories. You don’t really remember the effort it took, and you wind up laughing at the hardships, but you do remember where you went. When you look at that map and see all those pins of the places you were able to get to, it all floods back. I’ve heard of people marking their paddles with the rivers they’ve run, patches on backpacks from the parks they’ve been and even about guys who take a marker and identify each scratch on their boat with the river that did it. That’s why you portage.

#4 The Fitness Factor:

Every time I’m part of a trip planning session, there’s always one guy who chooses a path with the least amount of portages, thinking they’re too much effort. They are tough sometimes, and can really be an unwanted sight at the end of a hard day’s travel. Sometimes, they come up way too often and you’re cursing having to pull your packs out of the boat one more time. Other times, they’re so long that insult is added to exhaustion because you’re carrying a canoe on your head without any realistic sign of water anywhere. But what people forget is that paddling all day can be pretty tough too. Try paddling for four straight hours into the wind and you’ll be pleading for that little little yellow sign. I know it sounds weird, but portaging can be a much needed break from paddling. Seriously. You use completely different muscles carrying a pack up and down a trail than you do paddling a canoe. It gives your arms and shoulders a break while you work your legs, and unlike just taking a break, you’re still moving towards your goal. Once you’re done you’ll be back in your canoe resting those muscles again.

Of course, there is the pure fitness of it all. I’m no health expert, but I can tell you it’s a fantastic workout. You may not be working the show off muscles that are the envy at the gym, but you sure are working what we call “real muscles”. You’re also working the heart, adding endurance, and as long as you remember that you are on vacation and not to go crazy, it’s all good for you. Have you ever seen those guys who aren’t really big or muscle-bound but you just know they’re strong? Those are the type of guys who carry their boats. That’s why you portage.

#5 The Historic Factor:

You can argue any of my last points on why to portage (for some I’m sure “Fitness” jumps to mind right away), but there is nothing you can argue against the connection you’ll feel with the historic context in which portaging lies. Imagine yourself a young French Canadian paddling from the St Lawrence to the end of Lake Superior and back. Or how about some grizzled veteran who after wintering in the bush, spent the rest of the year following the rivers to all points in the heart of the continent. Each of which had to sleep under the stars (or the canoe for the lucky), travel from before dawn to after dusk, and carry 90kg over the roughest portages. The aptly named “Grand Portage” was 24 kilometres, and like the others, didn’t have the luxury of park staff maintenance. All of this was to serve the fur industry which forged the development and exploration of this continent. That’s what you’re recreating when you portage. (Except with tents and sleeping pads and fancy stoves and ergonomic backpacks. Portaging certainly doesn’t seem so tough now does it?) The history is there, and if I didn’t know any better I’d swear you can feel it out there. In fact, you can travel many of these same routes that were the highways of the continent for more years than not. When travelling the Mattawa river for example, they have plaques at each portage with their historic names and the distance listed in paces.

It is that very history that keeps you moving along the tougher portages. You are one of those voyageurs on that day. That’s why you portage.

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  • Interesting insight. Breaking it down to factors made it more relatable to me. It really is a great way to escape city life and get in touch with nature. And the satisfaction of getting over those challenges, couldn’t agree more.

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