In my experience, when people hear you’ve been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, they sometimes ask what lakes you paddled or what fish you caught, but they always ask about one thing: portages.
How many did you conquer? How long were they? How muddy and buggy? Paths between lakes over which you carry your canoe and gear, portages are the measuring stick of a trip’s rigor.
Long Portage, the next step in our journey through Minnesota’s border lakes to the east — aka the Voyageur’s Highway — would be the crucible in which our trip was forged. At 660 rods — a rod being 16 ½ feet, or about the length of a canoe — Long Portage stretches more than 2 miles between Rose and Rove lakes.
The weather favored us with partly cloudy skies and a gentle breeze when we awoke around 5:30 a.m. on day three. Our group was relatively quiet as we packed up and ate our oatmeal, presumably because Long Portage seemed daunting, and its entry was in a bay just east of our shoreline campsite. A short paddle on Rose Lake of less than a mile brought us to its mouth. Out came the gear, up went the canoes, and into the woods we marched, led by my friend Brad Shannon, portaging a canoe for three and lugging a heavy pack.
Long Portage has a storied history, used in the 18th and 19th centuries both by voyageurs, the rugged French Canadian canoemen for whom our route was named, and lumberjacks in the early 20th. Writing of his experiences in the borderlands between 1789 and 1793, Sir Alexander Mackenzie of the North West fur-trading company described Long Portage as “over very rough ground, which requires the utmost exertions of the men, and frequently lames them.”
The first portion of the portage did not threaten to lame us because in the 1920s, the General Logging Company built a railroad spur to the east end of Rose Lake. After the Brule Lake Fire in 1929, loggers abandoned the area, but the remnants of the Duluth and Minnesota Railroad are still seen sunken in these lakes, and a long section of the portage follows the railroad grade. If it weren’t for the weight of gear on our shoulders, Long Portage would have been a nice stroll through the woods.
Voyageurs measured lakes not in miles but in “pipes” — that is, how many time they got to stop and smoke. Similarly, on portages they stopped at appointed poses — a pose being French for laying something down. I figured that if the voyageurs could rest on portages, there was no shame in us stopping once in a while. We took three poses.
Our two-person Kevlar canoe weighed 42 pounds, and the equipment pack weighed about the same. At each pose, Bob Timmons and I swapped loads, but my shoulders still ached. Bob told me that his were sore, too. I reminded myself that each voyageur carried two or three 90-pound bales on this very portage.
The last 200 rods of Long Portage — known by some as “Baby Grand” — are neither smooth nor flat since the logging railroad jogged south, but we pushed through with determination and emerged at its terminus, Rove Lake. We had conquered Long Portage in 90 minutes.
Feeling like a true voyageur, I dug into the food pack and pulled out the pemmican that I’d made a week earlier. A bar of dried meat, berries and nuts bound by lard, pemmican made up the bulk of the voyageurs’ diet to fuel them on the trail. My son, Aidan, who had fared well over Long Portage, helped me make the pemmican, and he warned the group: “It’s not good.” Everyone chewed on it and agreed with his culinary warning, except Crosby, our yellow Lab. He loved it.
We slid the canoes into Rove Lake and, because we’d made good time on Long Portage, we allowed ourselves the leisure of some midmorning fishing. After a few smallmouth bass were caught and released and an epic tangle of fishing line was cut free, we exited Rove and entered Watap, another small, pretty lake, its southern horizon capped with breathtaking palisades. Like the lakes they tower over, these escarpments are remnants of volcanic and glacial action over eons.
We wanted to have lunch before our next portage, and with no campsites on the U.S. side of Watap, we opted to bend the rules and make for a site on the Canadian side. Just as I pointed the canoe north, I saw Brad waving his paddle in the air from the other canoe, our predetermined signal for a wildlife sighting.
There, on the south shore of Watap Lake, stood a cow moose, with a calf kneeling beneath her, both in shade. All of us sat still, hoping the moment would last. The cow watched us warily as we drifted. Then she moved a bit, and the calf awkwardly stood on its spindly legs. It couldn’t have been more than 2 weeks old. The pair slowly sauntered back into the thick forest and out of sight.
On the Canadian shore, as we pulled out a lunch of rusk (a dense, sweet bread), cheese, salami and trail mix, Bob reflected on the fragile beauty of what we’d experienced. “That was spiritual,” he said, and I agreed.
Mountain Lake was a revelation: big and deep and blue and cold. We dipped our bottles into it and drank lustily. Eyeing a campsite on Mountain’s south shore, anchored by a massive white pine, we made for it.
The campsite greeted us with wonders: bones from a moose, a stone tile patio by the fire grate, and a tent pad carpeted with spruce needles. Having traversed 6 miles of water and 760 rods of land, we were tired and sweaty. Aidan challenged me to jump in the lake with him.
“Sure,” I said. “How cold can it be?”
Very cold, as it turned out, probably about 50 degrees. We jumped in and out quickly, letting ourselves dry in the sun and wind. Brad and Bob followed, too. Brad came out of the plunge exhilarated: “This is perfect because it’s fresh underwear day!”
We set up camp and whipped up garlic-laden fry bread and spaghetti Alfredo for dinner. Brad caught a lake trout from shore, filleted it, and sunk it in the lake in a plastic bag to keep it cool until we could eat it for breakfast the next day.
And I took a seat under a few trees at the edge of camp in my Crazy Creek chair, lit my pipe, and looked back on the day. All of us, including my teenage son, had conquered Long Portage and a second gnarly, muddy portage of about a third of a mile into Mountain with nary a complaint. Our reward was good fishing, a moose sighting, and a perfect campsite on a stunning lake.
Tony Jones is a freelance writer and theologian, and lives in Edina. Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.