Green algae and lily pads swirl around my knees. I fumble for footing in the mud and slick logs then yank the boat down the bank. It lurches forward, heavy and loaded, settling into the water next to me.
A minute later I spill out again to drag it over a low beaver dam. Sticks crack underneath me as I scramble on top and sink into the mud on the far side. The boat groans as I pull it up and over.
“Not my favorite way to start a day,” I think.
I half hate it. This is a pointless portage. It should have been done with last night, a simple quarter mile around the Chats Falls Dam, but instead there’s fences and no trespassing signs and five miles through swampy pools and over beaver dams. What should take an hour, takes six.
But there’s the challenge too. The quiet regulation of rage. The forced patience. The familiarity with discomfort.
It reminds me of the beginning, of those first few portages into the Boundary Waters, of when I learned to endure, to take punch after punch.
I drag myself over another beaver dam, through a clump of trees, and across a road. I crash through brush, trip over loose rocks, and check my skin for leeches. I will the boat closer and closer to the river.
I forgot how hard real portages are, how disrupting, how they wear into you. Little cuts, bruises, strained muscles. I wonder if I’m ready for it again and remind myself that stubbornness has to be tempered, cultivated, built bit by bit. I need to remember. I need to learn again.
The Mississippi, the Gulf, the Atlantic, they weren’t easy, but it was a different kind of hardness. There aren’t barges slipping up behind me in a swampy pool. There are no eight-foot waves breaking over my bow. The tide doesn’t transform the landscape every six hours. Salt doesn’t dry and cut my skin. This is the north country, canoe country, the land of granite and pine, blue water and relentless portages, and my legs haven’t walked more than a few thousand feet a day over the last half year.
I slip hip deep in the water to pull the boat over a fallen trunk and into the river. It settles down next to me and I scramble aboard. I glance at my maps and know I’m past the dam with open water back to the Ottawa.
“Bit by bit,” I think to myself.
I half love it too.