North Shore of Lake Superior, MN – August 10, 2012
“So what’s the hardest portage?” someone asked a man decked out in voyageur gear, red cap and all.
For one weekend each year, Grand Portage turns into a full-scale reenactment of the Northwest Company’s rendezvous, an annual meeting of all the company’s partners and voyageurs to discuss business for the next season, bring in news from distant lands, and transfer furs and trade goods. If you ignore the tourist’s cameras and the slightly better fed voyageurs, it almost feels like the 1800s.
“That’s hard to say,” the man playing a voyageur said. “The Grand Portage is 8.5 miles long, but they didn’t carry boats over it, only packs of goods. They left the big Montreal canoes down here on Lake Superior and the north canoes up at Fort Charlotte. They’d carry two ninety pound packs up and down in a single day. Did any of you walk the portage trail?”
No one raised their hand and I just smiled thinking about the three days I spent moving the Looksha down from Fort Charlotte to Lake Superior.
“Even the voyageurs didn’t move boats,” I thought to myself.
I remember sitting at the end of the trail and pulling tape off a blister. The skin ripped, blood poured out, and I didn’t care because the portage was over and I was filled with joy. Lake Superior has never been as beautiful as it was that day.
“And there’s New Long Portage in the Boundary Waters,” another reenactor said. “It’s about two miles long and they carried their canoes over it.”
“Yep, I know that one,” I thought to myself.
The crowd shuddered at the thought of moving a boat two miles and I felt giddy at having done it.
I remembered the way New Long Portage felt under my feet, the way it twisted and turned, how carrying the boat down it left me feeling two inches shorter. I remembered barely moving the next day and just laying on the ground waiting to feel right again.
I’d walked by a trail crew as I started the portage. I had a paddle in each hand and one of the crew looked at me and the paddles and asked if I was really bringing a kayak through there. They were gone by the time I came back with the boat, but I know he only half believed me when I said “yes.”
Now that they’re over and the pain is gone, I love the portages. I think about them, laugh, wonder what I was thinking, and swear I will never do them again.
“I must have been crazy,” I say to myself.
“But there is one other portage they talk about being really terrible,” the first reenactor said.
My mind cleared and the world felt still as he spoke. I wanted him to say Height of Land or Basswood or one of the portages along the Pigeon, I wanted him to say there was some legendary path out west or up north to Hudson Bay, but somehow I already knew what he would say before he said it.
“The Savanna Portage,” he said. “Down near Floodwood. The six miles of mud and bogs took days.”
His words just spilled out, meaningless and quick. It was nothing to him, just a name, some historical footnote, an answer to a trivia question. He didn’t feel the weight of those words, he didn’t know what they meant.
“It got so bad sometimes that they abandoned canoes and packs,” the man said.
I remember finding the Savanna Portage on a map, staring at it, and knowing that it would make this whole trip possible. It’s the link between Lake Superior and the Mississippi, the last piece I needed to connect the water of the Northwest Angle to Key West.
“One group spent a month trying to get through,” he said.
“Great,” I thought. “I’m going to need some more crazy.”