“To describe the difficulties of this portage would puzzle a Scott, or a Knickerbocker even…Neither language nor pencil can paint them…The rain Saturday evening and the Sabbath has rendered the portage almost impassable for man and beast. The mud, for the most part of the way, will average ankle deep and from that upwards. In spots it is difficult to find bottom – a perfect quagmire.”
-Reverend William T. Boutwell, July 2, 1832
“I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life!”
-unnamed voyaguer in his 70s.
Savanna Portage – September 9, 2012
It’s impossible. There are too many deadfalls. It’s too far. It’s too hard. There’s too much bog. The swamp’s too big. It’s too confusing. The water’s too low. The mud’s too deep. I’ll get hurt. I’ll get lost. I’ll never make it. I can’t.
This is going to be hell.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” the kid asked.
“The river,” I said.
“You sure are saying a lot of words for lookin’ at a river,” the kid said. “Those all yours?”
“Are what all mine?” I asked.
“Those words you keep sayin’,” the kid said. “They don’t sound like your words.”
“No one owns words,” I said.
The kid laughed at me.
“We all own words,” he said. “Say ‘em enough times and they’re yours.”
He jumped up next to me on the bridge and stared out.
“But those aren’t your words your sayin’,” he said. “Not yet. You just borrowed them. I bet you picked ‘em up along that road. Maybe you should give ‘em back.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Just leave ‘em here,” he said. “They’re heavy and they aren’t yours. Why carry ‘em with you?”
Then he nodded toward the river and the tangle of fallen trees crisscrossing from one side to the other.
“I’m gonna teach you a trick about words,” he said. “What do you see out there?”
“I don’t have time for games,” I said. “The river’s gonna be hell and I have to get to it.”
The kid smiled at me.
“So you see hell?” he said.
“I see deadfalls and muddy water,” I said. “I see an hour to go half a mile. Yea, it’s gonna be hell to get through there.”
The kid looked out, squinted, rubbed his hands in his eyes, and stared, then shook his head.
“Nope,” he said. “Don’t see it.”
“You’re kidding?” I said. “It’s right there for anyone to see. There’s a deadfall twenty feet away that I’m gonna to have to crawl over and another one right behind that. It just keeps going and going.”
The kid leaned over the railing and stretched his neck out to get a close look at the river.
“Nope,” he said. “Still don’t see it.”
“Well what do you see then?” I asked.
“A playground,” the kid said.
“Ok, kid, whatever you say,” I said. “It’s a playground.”
“You don’t get it do you?” he said. “All those people, they’re telling you it’s hell, they told you so many times you started saying it yourself, but I’m telling you it’s a playground.”
He grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me down to his level, his voice dropped to a whisper like he was about to reveal a great secret.
“If I were choosing,” he said. “I’d rather go through a playground than hell, but maybe that’s just me.”
“It’s not really a choice,” I said.
“Sure it is,” he said. “But you’re gonna have to believe it, cling to it, hold on to it with everything you have. You do that and nothing out there can touch you.”
He grinned at me and nodded toward the river.
“Go play,” he said.
Sunk to my throat in a pool of black water, I slid the boat over a muddy beaver dam and crawled on top.
“Just a playground,” I thought.
Hour after hour, I clung to those words. I held them up like a shield over my sanity as I plunged, slid, crawled, and dragged myself deeper and deeper into the swamps of the Savanna Portage.
As logs shifted and spun under my feet, as I sunk into bogs that clung to me like wet cement, as I lost myself in a maze of black water and grass, I breathed those words.
“Just a playground,” I said again and again, from one muddy pool to the next.
I slid off the boat and into knee-deep mud under a half-foot of water. Beyond the next deadfall, the small canal dried up and turned into a long pit of fallen trees as it cut through high ground. The portage trail had to be there. It was the only place for it.
I left the boat and climbed up a tangle of branches and into head-high grass. It felt like swimming forward as I crashed toward those trees and the portage that would take me to the Mississippi. As the ground rose and the grass fell away, I began to search for any sign of the trail.
A post caught my eye and I smiled.
“It really is here,” I thought.
A battered metal sign hung on a pair of rusty bolts. A falling tree had folded it in half and I had to pry it open just to read it, just to be sure.
“Portage Trail,” it said. “West Savanna River.”
An arrow pointed into the woods and I looked behind the sign. I searched the ground, the fallen trees, the rocks, everything. My smile faded, then disappeared. The sign, the map, they all swore there was a trail. Maybe there was once, but now there was nothing.
The savanna had swallowed it whole.
“What now, kid,” I said. “What now?”