CLOSING THE CIRCLE


I had never triple carried a portage before: 5 trips across, 3 carrying gear and 2 backtracking to the start to collect another piece.  Fall-Newton, the portage named for the lakes where it started and ended, was only about 90 rods or a quarter mile, but that was still a lot of walking. There was some time pressure this first day out, because of a possibility of significant rain later in the day or evening.  Still, I got an early enough start and a late day would occur only if I were choosy about campsites. 

I was operating with one good hand, and I didn’t want to push matters on the first carry.  I got the canoe up on my head with a sharp pain in my left wrist and carried it across the portage, getting the same pain removing the canoe from my head.  The large pack was carried across without incident. On my fourth trip across the portage, to get the last pack, I encountered a group of young men, three to a canoe, a guy at each end, the third presumably spelling one as they walked across.

I’ve never portaged that way, preferring to flip the canoe up on my head and shoulders and carry it that way, pack at the same time or separately.  For a brief moment, I wondered if I should tell them how canoes ought to be carried across.  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut, after I saw what was in the canoe.  They had all their gear, unsorted, in the vessel, plus each guy was wearing a small backpack with more gear.  Given their strength, it certainly appeared easier to walk the canoe across than to be “pure” and do it my way, especially since they were going to make one trip across, and I was making five.  With all that loose gear, they would have taken five trips, too.

I looked into the last canoe and saw my food pack.  The last group noted it at the end of the portage and put it in the canoe.  How nice of them!  That saved me a bunch of time.

I’ve certainly done a similar thing for other people when I have been on a portage and a group was coming the other way.  I picked up loose stuff and carried it across.  It’s something you do for others in the woods, if you have the ability.  You help someone; some day someone helps you.  It’s a circle.

It was on this same trail, seven weeks shy of ten thousand days prior, that this particular circle began, the summer of ’92.  I was working with the Forest Service as a volunteer wilderness ranger, and we were camped at the end of the portage, on the Fall Lake side.  While we had lunch there, we heard a crash in the woods.  I got up and went to look, finding a canoe in the middle of the trail, almost exactly where I was standing in 2019.  There was nobody around.  

Figuring the person was headed our way from Newton Lake, I picked up the canoe, put it on my head, and took it the rest of the way across the portage.  It was a 75 pound Grumman “AlumaPig,” as we called them, and that summer I had no problem carrying 75 pound canoes.

Ten minutes later, after I was back finishing my lunch, the presumed owner appeared.  

“Oh my God, thank you thank you thank you!” He called.  I waved. 

“Need any help?”

He did, so my partner and I walked the portage back to Newton Lake and we decided what gear to take. On the walk, we learned the man was from Florida, and this was his first—and last-trip to the Boundary Waters.  He had had enough.  The conversation went something like this:

“This place is awful.”

“Really?” I responded, “I’m a volunteer.  What went wrong?”

“The lakes are huge, and it was windy the whole time.”

“Yes, that can be an issue.”  Builds character, I thought, but decided not to say it. 

“And the fishing sucked.”

“It has been a tough summer for fishing,  It has been very rainy, but we did get some walleye in Basswood the other night.”

“And it’s so rocky on these PORT uh ges or por TAJES, whatever you call them.”

“Builds character.”  I couldn’t resist.  Shame on me, but hey, I was carrying his stuff.  

The man stared at me.  “And the bugs!!”  He paused, staring at me.  “Or are you into them, too?”

I’m truly sorry he had a bad trip.  I have had less than ideal trips, too. Still, I helped the man from Florida, and it was fitting that on the same portage, years later, I was helped.  That’s closing the circle.

Even the difficult days in the canoe country—especially the difficult ones—are memorable.  I remember fighting two foot waves in the rain on large Agnes Lake on the Canadian side.  We camped on Silence Lake that night, and I told my partner to get into his sleeping bag and warm up, while I got wood and made a fire—one match even.  I have few other recollections of that trip.

The same partner and I made it through a swamp to Silence Lake from a different side a couple of years later.  It poured that night, and neither of us had dinner.  We were beat, mostly dry and weren’t about to get wetter again trying to make it.

Or the 20 mile day down Basswood River on a late September day in 1992, standing up at times because I was so sore sitting.  I got hissed at by an otter in Wednesday Bay on Crooked Lake, and reaching the main body of the lake, my arms about ready to fall off, the Sun was a large red ball appearing to bounce of the white pines somewhere over Friday Bay.  I put up the tent, ate dinner and went to bed.  That was the night I heard the wolves.

Or the day my wife and I went down the Frost River and fifteen portages later, reached Cherokee Lake, We had been a bit behind schedule, but we were smart to leave the river for the beginning of the day.  I’ve never before or since put a canoe on my head that many times in a day.  As we paddled out to look for a campsite, some people hailed us and asked what the weather was going to be.  I said, “Rain.”

“How come?”

“New south wind, and up here that means low pressure is coming.”

It rained the whole next day.  It was fortunately a day of rest for us.

There are also the days like the one on Museum Bay in Lake Insula, a decade ago, when after dinner, we heard “clop, clop, SPLASH,” and spotted a moose, half mile away, walking along the shore.  That’s the reward for all the hard work; indeed, the hard work IS the reward, as every outdoors person worth his or her salt would say.  Wilderness writer Sig Olson wrote that eighty years ago.  

Thanks, guys, for bringing my pack and making my day easier.  I appreciated it.  You closed a circle for me, and some day someone will close it for you. For the one guy who noted I was solo and said he wanted to go solo, may you do it and enjoy it thoroughly. Thank you for showing me that the way you portaged, gear in the canoe, can work quite well.  I was wrong all the time I thought that was silly.

It’s just not for me.

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