Three-Mile Portage

Editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin, PAUL BROOKSis a rugged canoeist whose holidays are spent exploring the remote areas of wilderness in North America. In earlier ATLANTIC articles he has described the Quetico-Superior canoe country, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Isle Royale. He here lakes us to Algonquin Park.

IT ALL depends on where you are. If someone asked me to carry a canoe on my shoulders from washington Square to Central Park, and then walk back to pick up a forty-pound knapsack and bring it over the same course, I should feel put upon. The equivalent distance on a forest portage trail — where the footing is somewhat more precarious than on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk — may be viewed, if not with equanimity, at least without despair. It is a matter of the context. For one thing, there arc fewer appropriate diversions on fifth Avenue. Even if I were John Kieran, I couldn’t hope to flush a ruffed grouse at the base of the Empire State Building (though I have picked up a live praying mantis there), or pause to eat blueberries in front of the Public Library, or find moose dung where the trail crossed Rockefeller Plaza. But I anticipate.

The portage I have in mind came near the end if an eight-day canoe trip that my wife and I took hrough the central part of Algonquin Park, an area of 2750 square miles in eastern Ontario lying between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River. Geologically speaking, the park lies on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, which extends from the Great Lakes to the Arctic; like the Quetico-Superior area farther to the west, it is a eanoeist’s dream of small and middle-sized lakes eonnected by rivers and relatively easy portages.

Its history is instructive. A hunting ground of the Algonquin Indians, and later ol the Iroquois, it was bypassed in the western explorations of Champlain, who makes only casual mention of the area. An early map identifies it merely as “Grande chasse de cerfs et de caribous.” It is naturally a forest region; the thin soil will support trees, but not agriculture. Before the lumbermen arrived in the 1870s, the eastern part of the park was covered with a splendid stand of white and red pine, of which a few patches still remain; the western part, by sugar maple and yellow birch. Despite the promises of the land-development companies, efforts to farm the cleared land were doomed to failure. A few farsighted individuals realized that the forest cover of this high country was a vital protection to the watershed of the rivers that flowed out of it. And so, happily, since there was no more quick cash to be made by private exploitation, in 1893 the area was preserved as a park “for the use and enjoyment of the people.” Nowadays, along the highway which cuts through the park’s southwest corner, it is used to the limit; there is scarcely room for the wash lines between the tents. Yet, twenty miles and a dozen portages away, we had managed to find complete solitude and a true sense of wilderness.

By the time we reached the three-mile portage, we had been in the woods for a week. After the first two portages, the outboard motors had been left behind. One outboard can shatter the peace of an entire region; it is as appropriate in a wilderness area as a motorcycle is in church. Wilderness is, of course, an elusive concept, yet no less real because it is difficult to define. The Wilderness Bill puts the idea quite eloquently for a legislative document: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a part of the natural community, a visitor who does not remain and whose travels leave only trails.”

By that definition, we had reached something like wilderness the third night out, with three lakes and a stretch of river between us and the populous campgrounds. Darkness had threatened to catch us in an area of mosquito-ridden flats and cattail marsh after an exhausting series of short portages around rapids of which we had long since lost count. We had been forced to camp on the only dry ground in sight, a steep hillside where no one in his right mind would have attempted to pitch a tent. The only “trammelings” in the vicinity — reminding one of faint cowpaths in a precipitous Vermont pasture — had apparently been made by moose, and the only creature to have altered the landscape was the beaver. Our own travels had been by canoe and trail, and as visitors all we asked was to remain on the hillside long enough to get some sleep.

Partway up the slope I had found a suggestion of level ground among the roots of an old white pine, and by digging and scraping had made room for our two air mattresses, terraced one above the other. It may not have been a room at the Ritz, but it served, and there was a certain pleasure in sleeping where surely no one had ever slept before. The only safe place for a fire was the narrow strip of shingle at the water’s edge. As we were eating our supper, half standing, half leaning against the bank at our back, we glanced up to see a five-point buck quietly watching us from the marshy flats to the eastward. His antlers were in velvet; in the low rays of the setting sun, that theatrical light which gives such depth and texture to a landscape, his coat was an incredibly warm, deep russet. Looking back on that evening, I can think of worse places to be benighted.

Now, four days and several long lakes later, we were encamped on an island, in a grove of great white and red pines, of hemlock and cedar and balsam fir and scattered paper birches — obviously one of those bits of virgin forest that had escaped the lumberman’s ax. Directly opposite us on the map a dotted line led away from the lake, marked “por. 242 c.” — which means a portage of 242 chains, or approximately three miles. It also meant that our trip was almost over; yet we still had ahead of us its longest and most memorable day. (Memorable days are those during which you keep asking yourself, “How did I ever get myself into this?”, and answer yourself, “Anyway, it will be fun to remember.”)

We were up at dawn, after a night in which the full moon had emerged from a silver sliver of cloud in a scene that not a thousand kitchen calendars could spoil and the loon calls had sounded eerier than ever by moonlight. No ray of sun penetrated to the forest floor; we should have to cook breakfast in the damp shade and strike the tent still heavy with dew. But before I had pulled up the first tent peg, the lake was already alight with a bright blanket of incandescent mist, on which floated, apparently some feet above the surface, a boat-shaped island with a single windblown pine for a mast.

Reminded inevitably of a Japanese painting, I realized how true it is that, as art historians have pointed out, we see landscape in terms of manmade pictures. A beautiful view is quite literally “picturesque.” Every grove of big trees is compared by somebody to a Gothic cathedral. Vice versa, however, how many tourists see the soaring columns of Notre Dame in terms of the forest that originally inspired them? Hundreds of paintings of English parks have given us a taste for tidy, manicured landscape, down to the postage stamp of lawn outside the picture window; but until very recently in the long history of Western culture, wild nature has been abhorrent. The Olympic rain forest has not yet had its Constable, and the sea of grass that once covered our prairies will never, alas, have its Turner. Now that outdoor photography, in the hands of men like Ansel Adams, has become one of the fine arts, the cultivation of our taste for wildness may henceforth depend more on the camera than on the brush.

Partir Pest monrir un peu applies to leaving a wilderness as well as to leaving a friend. When you are literally pulling up stakes and folding your tent, you are aware how swift is the transition between anticipation and memory. That earlier night on the hillside already seemed far in the past. Today was to be our last full day in the woods, and according to the map it would be full enough. A three-mile portage, when you have to go back for your knapsacks, means a nine-mile walk, and there would be at least one stretch of paddling and a shorter portage on top of that. And as yet we weren’t even at the beginning of the long portage trail. Hefting the three knapsacks to be sure that the weight was evenly distributed, we stowed them in the canoe and spread the tent to dry in the sun. The water now was glassy calm, in pleasant contrast to the first leg of the trip, when the lakes were covered with whitecaps and the north wind, funneled through the connecting river valley, almost ripped the paddles out of our hands if we failed to feather them.

EVEN under the best conditions, with a compass and adequate map, one cannot — or, at least, I cannot — always head straight for a portage. From a few feet above the surface, a canoeist can no more see all the convolutions of a lake than a newborn caterpillar can visualize the whole leaf on which he nibbles. This time, however, it was easy. Even though the mouth of the river by which we expected to find the spot was entirely hidden in underbrush, there was an obvious opening nearby, among the big trees, and when we landed we could hear the murmur of the invisible stream. Bits of the trail having been flooded by beavers and only recently made passable again, the portage was little traveled, and we had been warned against getting lost in a maze of abandoned lumber roads. However, it doesn’t take a Daniel Boone to tell when a trail has been walked on, even if there is no mud to show a heelprint. Not far from the landing we noticed the broken tip of a fern and a wildflowcr crushed to the ground — enough to show that someone had been through not long ago, since neither was wholly faded.

As usual, I carried the canoe the first trip across. Walking with a canoe on your shoulders has its pros and cons. The human frame best accommodates weight bearing straight down, as any Jamaican woman can tell you; I would much rather carry a sixty-pound canoe over my head than a fifty-pound knapsack on my back. And as you pick your way along a log or from stone to stone on a muddy stretch, the canoe almost seems to help you to keep your balance, like the long rod of the tightrope walker. But under a canoe you are a horse with blinders and a sunbonnet; the view is strictly straight ahead and down. In these circumstances, a narrow twisting trail is a nightmare, with trees dreamed up by Arthur Rackham reaching over to sideswipe your burden as you go by and knock you olT balance. After a while your collarbone begins to ache, though this is no great problem if you have a fixed yoke bolted to the gunwale; the pads slowly shape themselves to your shoulders as a shoe shapes itself to your foot. When you want to rest, you keep your eye out for a convenient limb or a narrow V between two trees, where you wedge the bow with the stern on the ground and so slip out from under your shell.

For a middle-aged desk worker with no Algonquin Indian blood, a pattern of fifteen minutes’ carrying and five minutes’ resting seemed about right. Like bicycling and mountain climbing, canoe toting unearths muscles you forgot you had. Here a little advance conditioning helps. A clergyman friend of mine who likes to take his vacations in the mountains makes a practice of carrying a packful of rocks up and down the stairs of the parish house for a fortnight before he sets out. Visitors who drop in on parish business while this is going on may be momentarily puzzled. So, perhaps, were my neighbors when they saw a canoe wandering around our pasture each morning before train time, like a snapping turtle looking for a place to lay its eggs.

But on the long portage, I blessed every minute of those dry runs. Our first rest, to be sure, came early; we were barely on our way before we reached the site of an old lumber camp and paused to sort out the grown-over roads from the proper trail. The grassy clearing was sweet with the smell of ripe raspberries in the sun. An abandoned lumber camp is like a frontier fort in a longforgotten war. A few earthworks remain to remind one of the former scene of carnage, but the fosses are mostly filled in, and the dusty parade ground is long since clothed with green. If one can forget the great trees that fell in the battle, an open area like this has a charm all its own.

As we rested, I recalled the particularly attractive spot where we had spent the second night of our trip. After a morning’s upwind paddling and a rather rough passage through the outlet of a lake, with the waves piling up in the shallows, we had come to a smooth stretch of water above an old dam of giant moss-covered logs. Rising through the lush grass of the nearby clearing, like half-sunken hulks in a harbor, were the ruins of bunkhouses and stables, surrounded now by sizable second-growth spruce and fir, some of them perfect specimen trees that managed to come up through the heavy turf apart from their fellows, in the manner of field pines on an abandoned New England farm.

Here were sun-loving butterflies and common field flowers strange to find in a wilderness: meadowsweet, yarrow, devil’s-paintbrush. Being an “edge” where environments meet — water, meadow, brush, forest — it was rich in birdlife, from the myrtle warblers that were feeding on a hatch of fly a few inches above the water to the swifts swooping far overhead. Every snag seemed to have its olive-sided flycatcher, and cedar waxwings darted about the clearing; but if there is one bird that I shall always associate with this spot — indeed, with this whole trip — it is the white-winged crossbill. We had heard the trilling song of the crossbills from the canoe, and now we watched them flocking amid the treetops as they fed on the cones, the males bright spots of rosy red in the evening sun. The trees themselves were in gentle motion, and I thought that with a little practice one could learn to identify an evergreen simply by its action in the wind: the white pine dances, the spruce bows stiffly from the waist, the cedar merely nods its head. These trees could never replace the noble forest that was cut down several generations ago, but they made one realize that the most ruthlessly exploited land, like the family fortune to which it perhaps gave rise, can become quite respectable with the passing years.

The five-minute rest period was up; time to stop speculating and get cracking. Soon after we left the clearing, the trail began to mount slowly, then leveled off on higher ground. When finally it began gradually to descend, we figured that we must be about halfway across. The trees here were larger, but like the lumber camp we had recently left, they reminded me of an earlier part of the trip when we had seen the same thing on a much grander scale. En route to one of the remoter lakes, we had entered a mature forest which was a world apart from the second growth of the lumbered area. The trees here had survived for the simple reason that it did not pay to cut them down. They were hemlock, a wood far less valuable commercially than white pine, or even than spruce and fir. The tail, branch-free trunks stood well apart, though the tops met to weave an almost sunproof canopy far overhead. Here and there a grove of paper birches made a white accent against the somber background, and we noticed one gnarled maple of huge diameter. But the hemlock allows few intruders, for this is one of the most shade-tolerant of the conifers, and the understory, above a carpet of checkerberries, consisted almost exclusively of its own seedlings, ready to fill the space whenever one of the parent trees crashed to the ground. In this noonday twilight, we met a raccoon who seemed more curious than perturbed at the encounter. Scampering up a tree beside the trail, he stopped to peer around at us through his black mask, with an enchanting expression that, as I think of it now, brings the whole scene suddenly into focus.

This country, however, belongs not to the coons but to the beavers. They have shaped its history: for the sake of beaver skins the Iroquois Indians had once seized the area of the present park from the Algonquins; an eighteenth-century map describes it as “Chasse de castor des Iroquois.” And the beavers are still shaping its local geography, as we were to discover today a mile or so further along the portage. They had recently dammed a nearby brook, and part of the old path was now underwater. Fortunately, a new trail had been hacked through the alders a few days before we got there, but it was a slippery and squishy business. Once my wife fell flat; by a delicate balancing act we got her upright again with knapsack still in place. Maneuvering the canoe was like driving a trailer truck through Threadneedle Street in a London fog.

Back at last on the old trail, we sensed that we must be getting near our goal. There is nothing quite like the sight of a new lake at the end of a portage. Make the portage three miles, and you are Balboa discovering the Pacific. Moreover, though it may have been prayerfully anticipated, that first glimpse of deep blue through the trees always comes as a happy surprise. My wife was walking ahead, since she had no canoe to cut off the view. “1 see it,” she said. No sweeter words were ever spoken.

We were, of course, only a third of the way. As we started back to fetch the other two knapsacks, we had that queer floating sensation that comes when you have just shed a heavy weight; walking was practically a rest. Landmark by landmark the reel unwound, a good deal faster this time; the beaver pond, the deep woods, the lumber camp, and finally the lake we had already left so reluctantly, to which we were now saying a final farewell. Here were our knapsacks, presided over by a whisky jack; he waited impatiently while we ate our sandwiches and left some crumbs for him. Finally came the last crossing of a now familiar path. Though it was curiously difficult to remember just how far along we were at every stage, we seemed to get to the end very quickly.

The long portage over, we still had to find a place to camp. Once more we loaded the canoe. A short paddle, another easy carry, and we were on the shores of a third lake, where a grove of great red pines led down to a sandy beach, above a blanket of blueberries so thick that you could milk a cupful without changing your stance. In a sort of trance of tiredness 1 put up the tent and cut firewood, plotting each ax stroke to hit the wood and not my hand. Later, heartened by rum, gorged on blueberries, feeling almost guilty that there weren’t more people to enjoy both, we hung the food pack on a high branch out of the way of the bears, who, I am glad to say, had obviously been gorging themselves before we arrived and would doubtless continue to do so long after we had gone. Nothing, we thought, makes one feel more a part of the natural community than sharing one’s berries with a bear. It was a warm farewell to a wilderness.