worst portages

What’s the worst portage you have had the bad luck to have to cross, why, and any extenuating circumstances(like rain, etc)?

The worst one I have encountered was in Quetico heading from Bell Lake to Other Man Lake. We went through two lakes with no names on our map and were crossing a little 39 rod portage into the NE end of Other Man Lake. Other than length it had it all. first, you go straight up vertically 20+ feet(at least it seemed like it), it took 3 to 4 guys to push/pull our canoes up that incline, then you had to cross a smooth rock ridge that was slick from the rain we just had, literally slide down the far side of the rock. Ahead just beyond the “slide” was a low spot that the first guy in group went up to his knee in muck, calling for help to get the canoe off his shoulders before he ripped something in his knee. Once you either tried to cross on some sticks that had been thrown down by people or just slid your canoe over that spot, it finally was ok. Take away the rain, the slick rock would be nothing and the low spot might not have been a bog.

What portage has been your nightmare?

The portage from hell . . .
At least that is what I call it. The bad memories have faded somewhat, leaving a sense of accomplishment. Cant remember if I posted this here before, some may have seen this on another board. May be kind of long.

The prop blast kicked up spray as the turbo roared up to full power. Pontoons slapping on the chop shook the entire plane, diminishing as we picked up speed. Suddenly the shaking stopped as we rose off the water and circled around to the north, gaining altitude in a slow climb. As the pilot eased back on the throttles I tried to make conversation and gain some information about the terrain and river we will be paddling. My stomach lurches at his reply to my question of how many times he has been in this area. After all, he has thirty two years experience flying in Labrador. With that delightful Newfoundland accent, and peering over the tops of his aviator glasses, all he says is “ain’t nobody come up here”.

We find our river and follow it northwest, looking at all the white water we will have to negotiate, then find the brook that will take us to the landing spot. A small pond, just barely large enough for the Otter, has been picked as our starting destination. It is only ten kilometres from the main river but we have a full day in our schedule to get our canoes and gear to the river. From two hundred feet, rocks are seen in the pond so we circle and look for an alternative. We keep circling, map out on my knee, covering ground quickly in just a few short minutes. Another is too shallow, the next too small. Finally, one is spotted that the pilot thinks he can put down in, and the decision is made - land here. As he stands the plane on its wing and circles in, I am surprised to see the Smallwood Reservoir only a couple K to the west. Where the hell are we?

We are standing on shore, gear piled haphazardly, hordes of blackflies swarming us, watching as the pilot makes his obligatory wing wave, sound slowly fading then disappearing altogether. We are very alone.

An hour spent assembling the nested canoe, packing the gear and we can start to paddle. The series of brooks, streams and ponds we saw from the air take on a different perspective when we are actually on them. They are shallow and full of boulders. The ponds are impossible to paddle so we drag the loaded canoes when we can or portage around, slipping on the wet caribou moss and stumbling over hidden rocks. A few minutes in the canoe is followed by hours portaging our packs.

Our packs are enormous and heavy. For three weeks previously we had been watching the Labrador weather on a daily basis. Daytime highs averaged eight to ten degrees with a constant rain, down to freezing with sleet at night. Our clothing reflected what we expected; long underwear, parkas, toques, gloves, heavy pants, paddling jackets, rain gear and wetsuits for the salt water portion of the trip. Each canoe had flotation bags and full spray deck. Our packs carried eighteen days of food for each person, safety supplies, PLB and all that gear needed for an isolated trip. In other words, we were loaded heavy.

The weather broke while we were in the air. For the next two weeks, we endured record breaking high temperatures, the like of which had not been seen in Labrador in over thirty years. For a solid week, my little thermometer showed over twenty eight degrees with a high of thirty four. With the high temperatures came the blackflies. Chokingly thick and constant, it never cooled off enough at night to drive them away.

Anyway, back to the portage. We struggle along for the rest of the afternoon and make camp on a small knoll above a bit of a lake. It will be a good starting spot for tomorrow. While supper is being made, someone comments about all those spices visible in the pasta. The cook just snickers as we all chow down, ravenous from the exertion. We were not carrying spices. The meal is pasta a la blackfliy.

Day two dawns hot and dry. I feel an itch on my forehead above my right eye, where my hatband rests. There are a dozen or more small bumps like mosquito bites, all clustered in a circle the size of a quarter. No time for concern, lets eat and go.

We have a rare paddle for ten minutes or so and we are in a small creek running downhill fast. Not liking the looks of the water or of the sound coming from ahead, we all jam the canoes to a stop. The creek is so narrow that at an angle, the bow and stern will touch both banks. We unload the gear, one pack at a time and make our way up the bank. It is about sixty feet and very steep. Standing upright is impossible. The ascent is made on all fours, clutching at twigs and rocky outcroppings, scrambling for purchase anywhere we can. The top of the bank is wide open and clear, baking in the oppressive heat. A short rest, drink, and down for another pack. Crawl back up; deposit the packs in a pile. Rest. Drink. Do it again. Sweat dripping in eyes, muskol stinging. Back soaked, then arms soaked, sweat running down our legs, into our boots, thirst beyond quenching. Now the canoe, all three of us sharing the load. Two pulling, one pushing, it seems to take forever. Finally the top. More rest, water. Two more times.

We are sprawled on the hard ground, taking shade from the canoes, trying to summon courage to start the two thousand meter walk to the next water. Plodding along the ridge above the now roaring creek, each footfall is marked by puffs of dust and the crunching sound of tinder dry moss. Blackflies swarm into our mouths, nose, ears and through our clothes. Blood seeps in a steady trickle down my neck. Those bumps on my forehead are starting to ooze. The taste of muskol is everywhere. The put in is steep so I pile the gear into the canoe and give it a shove. The old boat makes it almost to the water, crashing its way through brush, stopped by a few spindly black spruce.

We get to enjoy less than five minutes of paddling. Another creek, more ponds. Portage. Portage. Always thirsty. Sweat streaming down, all our clothes soaked. Minutes pass like hours. Unbearable heat. The sore on my head is now leaking a constant stream of puss. No conversation now, trying to conserve any way we can. Suddenly it is late afternoon and we have to camp. A postage stamp sized level area, the only one in this god forsaken area, is selected. We eat a desultory meal, too tired to hold any real conversation. A single portage is made by all of us with our canoes so we can be off to an early start in the morning. The tent is set up and we pass out, exhausted from the exertion and heat.

Day three. Hot before dawn, the temperature is only going up. My jaw is sore and someone sees those tell tale red signs of infection tracing the veins in my neck towards that oozing mess on my forehead. We complete the portage started the night before and get our boats into the water. Another five minute paddle. Another portage. Or a continuation of the last one. Always up a steep bank. Then up hills. As someone says “the real estate around here is mostly vertical”. Tangled alders. Burned and jumbled spruce. Heat. Biting and sucking insects. Thirst. Time drags for an eternity. We struggle on, wondering where our river is. Wondering how far we have come. Wondering where we landed.

A cooler wind starts to blow on our faces. Blue is seen through the trees ahead. Our river! Only three hundred meters to go. However, it is down a cliff face of fifteen meters. We wander this way and that, bulling our way through alder thickets so dense they can hold our weight off the ground, scouting out a likely route down. There isn’t any. The next three hours are spent lowering the canoes and packs down in two stages, beside a now raging falls. Ropes, carabineers, strategic tree branches and brute strength are indispensable; along with some poor sap down below clutching at slimy rock faces with one hand trying to guide the loads with the other.

The gear is thrown in the canoes and we can finally paddle the last hundred meters to the river and make camp on the far shore. There is no ceremony as we sprawl out on the rock beach, too tired to be uncomfortable. Slowly we regain movement and set up camp. A breeze is keeping the bugs at bay, it is idyllic. While supper is cooking I wash my poly pro in the river. During the rinse cycle, the water is stained red from all the blood washing out. Damn flies.

Taking stock of our depleted bodies we survey the damage as a group. Every muscle known to medical science is sore from abuse. Everyone has bruised legs and feet from stumbling over rocks. One skinned ankle is infected. One wrist is sore enough that a paddle cannot be gripped. Thirty fingers and thumbs are scraped and cut, only a couple of nails bent backwards. All ears are bent forward from the mass of bites behind them. And my head is badly infected. Other than that we feel fine.

The real concern is that we are now three days behind schedule. If we are late for the ferry in Hopedale it will mean chartering another plane to come and get us.


All our wounds heal in a matter of days.

Except my head. After taking penicillin for a week the infection clears up but the sores scab over and take a month to heal completely.

We have many more adventures and see spectacular sights on the river.

We complete the river in our scheduled time frame and connect with the ferry.

We do not know exactly where we landed.

Estimated length from pond to river 12K.

Estimated paddle distance 2K.

Weight loss (for me) 12 pounds.

After swearing off Labrador forever, I went back.

The land will draw me back yet again.


Not As Bad as Hooligan’s
But Canoe to Pine in the Gunflint area of the BWCAW is pretty bad. Seems like it starts out with a 90 degree slope and gets worse (LOL)! Also I recall a couple in the Tuscarora area that are pretty bad. WW

Two come to mind
There are two portages that stick out in my mind.

The first is from Angleworm to Trease in the west end of the B-dub. It is a 480 rod portage. Apparently when it is dry, the portage is fine, but we went shortly after rain. It is relatively rugged with some boulder fields. The worst part, though, was a stretch of maybe 30 rods of mud. I was gingerly making my way across the mud - and I was doing pretty well getting only my ankles muddy - when I stepped wrong and sank in halfway past my knee (I’m 6’4"). The canoe came crashing down on my head, and I was a little stuck. Being the guide in this situation, I got myself unstuck and across as quickly as I could. I put my canoe down, and went back to take 2 other canoes from my campers… they would have been swallowed whole in that mud. On top of it all, we were in the middle of the black fly craziness that happens after the peak tent caterpiller years. So you’d carry your canoe with one hand, and use the other hand to shew flies off your person. But even thought it was long and difficult, the feeling of accomplishment at the end was great - for me at least.

The other portage is from Jackfish Bay of Basswood to Sandpit Lake. The bottom of Jackfish had a small river winding through a marsh. The portage was only about 20 rods on the map, but it was VERY unclear once we got there exactly where to go. There was so much mud (DEEP mud) people had tried to find ways around it to get to the next lake. This resulted in trails all over the place… each as muddy as the last. This “20 rod” portage took my party probably an hour or more. It was unbelievable. I’d never seen more mud and more muddy people in one place. I will not go back that direction unless it’s been dry for a good spell. That sucked.

Tough portages
I hope to canoe trip for more years to come so I’m not sure I’ve seen my worst portage yet. But there are a few portages I’ve taken that have made lasting impressions on me.

Quetico: The infamous Yum Yum portage; Yum Yum Lake to Kahshahpiwi. Took it early in my canoeing career and have avoided it ever since for over 30 years. Of course my experience was way before regular portage crew service came into existance in Quetico. I was also carrying aluminum. With a kevlar canoe and most likely toe holds chisled in the rock faces and catwalks through the mud - should be a cake walk now. Right…

BWCA: Mudro to Kiskadinna

Not one, not two, but three steep climbs on a single half mile portage. Sucking air anyone?

It’s Muskeg to Kiskadinna.

heh heh, I was wondering. I looked at the maps on my wall and didn’t see any lake named K… anywhere near Mudro. I thought maybe there might have been a second Mudro somewhere or something.

Where are those lakes? I’ve not heard of them.

Find the middle of Brule Lake and go up about 7" on your Fisher map.

Bah! I don’t have any of the maps east of Basswood. Oh well.

I Was Gonna Say
You’re talking about out of Poplar, correct? Loooonnnnngggg! WW

my son and I did The Kiskidinna portage (Objibwa meaning, “there is a hill”) several years ago. We however came from Brule and portaged DOWN the cliff. Sometimes it helps to check the lake elevations!

We met a newlywed couple on their honeymoan at Muskeg. She was crying and evidently had been sick, “puking sick” was her words. They asked about the upcoming portage and we replied, “There is a hill and we called it Devils Backbone”. She wasn’t happy.

Moon River, Ontario
After realizing that we’d never make it to the takeout my friend and I decided to go back. We knew it was going to be the portage from hell but had to do it anyway. We got to the point where we had to haul the yaks onto the land then began our ascent to the top of the steep bank. We had run out of water and it was very steamy hot that day.Of course I was no use to hauling either yak up the steep bank due to my weak shoulder so my friend had to haul both kayaks to the top mainly unassisted by me. At one point my yak fell right to the bottom-man those plastic yaks are sturdy!HAHA!My friend was able to eventually get both yaks up to the top and I had some melting ice water at the ready!

heres soom doozies
Not done by me but stick out in my mind as being wicked.

The 13 mile Methy Portage in Manatoba Canada over hirght of land on Fur Trade Route.

The 30 day portage from over the Fraser to the Pacific watershed by Alexander Mackenzie in 1793.

The 15 day portage by Lewis and Clark around the Great Falls of the Missouri in 1805.

Verlen Krugers 67 mile portage over the continental divide when he was in his 60’s back in the 1980’s.


Thank God for Ultra-light Gear
Those guys were tough as rocks. But if it takes doing multi-day portages to get tough as rocks, I’ll just stay wimpy and hug my ultra-light gear.

i like to say.
I remember Verlen saying once during a discussion about light weight gear/ canoes etc during portages. People were arguing over 10-20 pound difference in their boat weights and Verlen made the comment about " why dont you just get in better shape to carry the extra 20 pounds". I agree totally.


I got my ultra-light obsession from backpacking. No, weight isn’t as much of an issue with canoing, but I figure if I’m going to carry a 60 pound equipment pack or a 40 pound equipment pack over a long portage I’d rather have the lighter one. I’ve done it. If you’ve got a heavy pack on a trip, you carry it. No sense in complaining about it then. But if you can save your shoulders some aching, I would do it.

I have hiked that same trail
Verlen took over the Continental Divide in Wyoming. I really don’t see how he did it. It was tough enough with a 45lb pack.

It was an easy portage as far as negotiating obstacles there were none. He carried his gear and boat along the highway for two weeks, carrying his load a few hundred yards dropping it and going and getting another load. He had some guy take his boat when he left it to retrieve it but saw the guy driving down the road with it thankfully.

Alice to Fishdance…
to see the pictographs is a pain in the rear when it is raining, and you have been fighting high winds from Lake Thomas to get there and see them. Bad rocky on one end and fairly steep on the other… rather narrow too.


My worst portage…
…was one I could not make. Last month, a group of 12 went to the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande for a 9-day trip. We arrived at Heath Canyon Ranch below Big Bend National Park, where the Rio Grande Village gauge was staging at about 2.3 feet (3-4 feet is considered optimal).

We started paddling in strong headwinds and very light mist and rain for two days, arriving at Hot Springs Rapid on day 3, where we ran the Class III rapid in low water, then camped with plans for a one-day layover before continuing. That night, the skies opened up, and it rained torrentially for nearly 18 hours, moving slowly upriver through all those side canyons that feed the Rio Grande.

On the day we were to depart the water was far too high (about 12-14 feet), so we waited at Hot Springs until the river crested, then had just two days left make it to Dryden Pass, where our vehicles were waiting. About 15 miles below Hot Springs sits the very formidible Upper Madison Falls, a true Class III at any level and a solid Class IV+ in high flow conditions like we had.

Upon approaching Upper Madison we found (1) no place to stop and scout, (2) a VERY swift current, (3) no place to line our boats and (4) no place to portage. Hell, we couldn’t even get out of the river! Our only choice was to run Upper Madison in fully loaded canoes.

I was running sweep, and upon arriving at the drop found every other canoe upside-down in the fast current and paddlers swimming for their lives as they washed downriver (my GPS clocked us at 9 mph without paddling). My Cascade is outfitted for whitewater, and I was already in my saddle, so I pulled my thigh straps up tight, picked my line, and heading into the first of 22 giant standing waves about 6-7 feet tall coming at me from all sides.

Everybody said the third wave flipped them. I made it through the third wave in relatively great shape, then was turned sideways by the fourth and flipped like a piece of paper by the fifth, all in about 3 nanoseconds, though it seemed like an eternity. I remember looking at the floor of my canoe and it was over my head.

Once in the water I immediately extricated myself from the boat (no roll was possible loaded with over 300 pounds of gear and supplies) and grabbed my painter, then let my boat drift out ahead of me while each of the subsequent huge waves took me under then spit me out. I traveled more than two miles downriver through Lower Madison Falls before being able to right my boat and get back inside, only to have to start bailing every inch of space not already occupied by outfitting and gear.

By the time I had bailed enough to get control of my boat I was nearly four miles beyond the “scene of the crime”. I finally managed to get to the Texas bank and into a deadwater eddy behind a huge boulder and slab that ended up being our campsite that night. The others were upriver more than two miles behind me.

One guy in our group had suffered a major heart attack and nearly died. His life was spared by the fact that a couple of people lost paddles and two small ice chests that were spotted many miles (nearly 40 miles, to be exact) downriver by some fishermen who had a jet drive jonboat. They came upriver to see if anybody was in trouble and ended up carrying the heart attack victim and another member of our group to Dryden, where he was air flighted to Fort Stockton, then driven by ambulance to Odessa because he needed emergency surgery that could not be performed in Fort Stockton and the weather was too bad to fly.

So, for me the meanest portage was the one we could not take. It would have been very difficult under any circumstances, but nothing like running a looooooooong Class IV+ rapid in very high water with an Indianapolis current. And, by god, I’m ready to go do it again! That which does not kill you makes you stronger.