Fort Charlotte is nothing now, just a bend in the Pigeon River, a turn with a small wooden dock and a few scattered campsites. There is nothing but the smell of history and a thin trail disappearing into the forest.
At one point, every bale of tobacco and keg of gunpowder, every bead and woven blanket, every trinket and rifle that pumped into the fur trade passed through Fort Charlotte to be packed into birch-bark canoes and shipped to the interior.
Months or years later, the canoes came back, their goods replaced by stacks of beaver pelts, the birch-bark skin broken and repaired, the men inside worn from the long winter. Furs piled on the docks of the fort, ready to be counted, packaged, and moved east toward the profit of European markets.
But that is all gone, swallowed up by the forest when tastes shifted and the fur trade faded away. The fort, the canoes, the pelts tied in bales, they’re nothing more than imagination now, things you read about in history books. The only real thing left, the only thing that matters, is that thin path reaching to the shore of Lake Superior.
I stared at it for a long time, hours, long enough to watch shadows move with the sun.
I thought about my first portage at Loon Lake, the 55 rods that made my shoulder feel like it had been hacked in two. I thought about the 195 rods near Basswood Falls and listening to the scream of metal and plastic as I dragged the boat over rocks. I thought about the grace of the eight women I met on the portages to Knife Lake and how they kept me sane over 52, 22, 15, and 75 rods. I thought about Wally and feeling like I traded two inches of compressed spine for 579 rods on the New Long Portage.
Then I thought about Lake Superior, waiting down that thin path, 2,720 rods, eight and a half miles, away.
I lifted the boat onto my shoulders, steadied the weight, then stepped onto the Grand Portage, the last one, the one longer than all the rest combined.
Somehow, I had to find a way.