Angle to Key West: The First Portage (6/29)

Lac La Croix, Boundary Waters Wilderness – June 29, 2012

Gravity holds for a moment, then gives way and the Looksha’s yellow hull rises toward the sky. The boat shifts above me, sliding side-to-side as I try to balance it on my right shoulder. She’s angry at being upside down.

Mosquitoes bite at my face, the holes in my shoes, and the tiny ring of skin left exposed between my gloves and the cuff of my rain jacket. With the boat hanging over me, I can only snort and vow revenge.

I take my first step. The weight bites into my shoulder. The boat wants to turn, spin, and shift. I steady it with my left hand as my right fights against gravity.

Sweat pools underneath my jacket. It soaks through my shirt and runs across my skin. I feel like I’m wrapped in plastic and my body is choking in stale air. I walk.

Portages aren’t measured in feet or meters, they are measured in rods. Each one about the length of a canoe, 16.5 feet. This one, my first with the boat on my back, is 55 rods, about three football fields of uneven trail.

There is an easier way. Twenty-five rods in, I stumble out next to the track of a railroad used to haul boats across. It has been there for almost a century, pulling boats one way or another. The machine whirls to life as a motor boat slides down in a huge cradle of rope and wood.

I reach the control booth, a shack at the top of the portage. The Looksha sways over my bent back. The operator squints out from his perch, barely acknowledging my existence. It’s like he sees nothing in me but $17.50 slipping through his fingers.

The motor boat’s passengers pass by with nothing on their backs but shirts. They stare at me, but never let their eyes catch mine. I am like a ghost. None of them say a word.

I feel my right arm going numb, I feel the boat cutting off the blood, but I don’t stop. I swallow it down, choking the pain with a smile.

“A little further,” I tell myself. “The water is close. You’re almost there.”

The boat saws my shoulder in half, every muscle across my back is on fire, my fingers start to slide across the plastic, but I can’t stop, not with them watching.

No, not the operator counting coins, not the motor boat passengers tripping down the trail, but them, the spirit of it all, the voyageurs that haunt this watery road, the only ones here that matter. They are watching.

I drop the boat at the shore. It glows in the sunlight and green grass. I feel powerful and alive.

“Levé, gents, levé,” the ghosts whisper. “Up, gents, up and look. One of them wants to understand.”

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5 thoughts on “Angle to Key West: The First Portage (6/29)

  1. This post brought back memories. I was canoeing on Lac La Croix a long time ago. Beautiful country. I felt your pain on the portage. I admire your courage to follow your heart for adventure. Bonne chance!

    1. Thanks Bob! There is no doubt that La Croix is a fantastic lake. I heard the voyageurs put crosses on one of the islands and that is how it got its name, but I have no idea. It’s all so pretty out there, but yes, the portages make you pay.

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