Portage With Confidence in the BWCA

By on November 28, 2017

I remember my first trip to the Boundary Waters.  Truth is, I was both excited and nervous.  While I had confidence in my canoeing skills, I had never really portaged between lakes before.  I was not sure what to expect.

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A portage is defined as carrying a boat and its cargo between navigable waters.  The Boundary Waters Canoe Area consists of lakes connected, in most cases, by trails.  You have to portage, or carry, your canoe and gear between lakes using these trails.

Portaging Can be Tough

It is true that portages can be tough.  Carrying canoes and equipment uphill or for long distances is a challenge.  However, there are several ways to make this easier.

So Let's Make Portaging a Little Easier

First off, choose canoe trip routes that have portages that match your capabilities.  Evaluate portages in three key ways.

  1. Distance – portages are measured in terms of rods. Rods are 16.5 feet long, or about the length of a canoe.
  2. Topography – Pay attention to the topo lines on your map. A portage may appear to be short in distance, but may be straight up hill, or up and down several hills.
  3. Outfitter advice – Talk to people familiar with your proposed route to make sure that the portage trail is in good shape (i.e. no fallen trees or large expanses of mud or bogs.

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Once you have your route and portages chosen, focus on your equipment.

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  1. Obviously, lighter and less equipment is easier to portage than lots of heavy equipment.  ( Williams and Hall Outfitters has the finest in ultra-light-weight gear.)
  2. Make sure your packs are in good shape and have comfortable shoulder straps and a hip belt.
  3. Practice properly lifting and carrying a canoe before heading out on your journey. Learn the technique of being able to balance the canoe using one arm while the other arm dangles and rests.  This is helpful on longer portages.

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Finally, once you arrive at the portage, follow these tips.

  1. Assign each member of your group responsibility for specific items to portage. This ensures that everyone carries their fair share and can be held accountable if something is missing at the end of the day.
  2. Don’t overdo it. Single portages (i.e. making only 1 trip across the portage) are tempting, but can be physically challenging and even dangerous.  Carrying too much gear at one time can lead to falls and injury.  Plan on double portaging, and take rests on longer portages.

Be Positive About BWCA Portaging!

Portaging can be looked at either positively or negatively.  Try taking the positive approach and enjoy the walk in the woods.  Pay attention to the path, but occasionally look up at your surroundings.  The North Woods of Canoe Country are beautiful to behold.  Enjoy the fact that you are walking and stretching out.  Maybe even sing along the way. And remember that you are on vacation.  There is no need to hurry.

Paddle On. Be Free.