Great Dog Portage, Between Lower and Upper Dog Lake – September 22, 2013
The land rises behind Little Dog Lake like a wall. You stare at it for miles as you work up the river, the whole time knowing you have to climb it.
The trees used to be gone and a giant dog effigy stood guard from the top. Dug into the earth near the crest of the hill, filled with white sand, it shone bright in the sunlight, glowing like an ancient billboard to ward off invading tribes and lending its name to the river and lake surrounding it. Now it’s barely a depression in the earth, almost swallowed up by the forest.
The old portage trail cuts nearby, climbing the hill up a long draw, Rising five hundred feet in a mile and a half. Easy walking without a boat on dragging behind you.
The path used to be a highway. Natives and voyageurs cleared it out, packed down the soil with their feet, cut down trees, and smoothed the contour. They made it into a road for freight moving up and down the the Kaministiquia. Every beaver fur from the west passed down it for decades.
Then the fur trade dried up. Silk became the fashion for European hats. North Canoes loaded with trade goods became scarce then disappeared. The trail became a memory, a walking path. The forest inched closer around it. Saplings grew along the edge. Small bushes stretched their branches toward the light in the open space. Trees fell across the packed earth.
No one came to cut them back. No one dragged them aside. No one walked the old path anymore. The forest had won.
Until Ruth showed up.
“I reclaimed it,” she told me with a smile.
I have this image of her walking through the forest with a bow saw strapped over her back, a bandolier filled with weed clippers across her chest, and a pair of handsaws slung off her hips like a western gunslinger ready to dispense justice. Deadfalls shiver at her approach. Weeds tremble. Brush ducks under the poker table in fear. They all know the law has come to any on her path.
She handed me a handsaw before I left her house.
“I’ve got two,” she said. “You should take one. You might need it.”
I held it out, ran my finger along the the teeth, feeling their sharp edges. I thought of the moment in the first Legend of Zelda video game. Inmust have played it a hundred times growing up. The hero, Link, is in a cave with an old wise man who hands him a sword.
“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this!” he says.
I strap the saw on my deck bag and give Ruth and Rose one last hug goodbye.
At the base of the mountain, I find the beginning of the portage right where Ruth told me it would be. I drag the boat out of the water, hang the saw off my hip, and set off into the forest.