In the prologue to her new memoir, “Portage: A Family, a Canoe and the Search for the Good Life,” Sue Leaf reflects on how, as a young girl boating near her family’s cabin on Lake Alexander, she longed for a canoe so that she could travel through a culvert into a nearby marshy area where pink and white flowers bloomed among the cattails.
While writing the book, Leaf said, she realized that “the canoe was kind of a metaphorical vehicle to get me farther into nature.”
Leaf, of Center City, married someone who shared her affection for the outdoors, and the two have traveled waterways throughout Minnesota and North America, both as a couple and with their four children.
Her book, released in October by the University of Minnesota Press, chronicles 35 years of outings. Of their annual trips through the Apostle Islands sea caves or down the Brule River, near their cabin on Lake Superior’s south shore. Of longer anniversary trips, often to isolated places like the Missouri Breaks or the Niobrara River, which winds through the Nebraska Sandhills. Of urban adventures in Minneapolis on Minnehaha Creek or traversing the locks on the Mississippi River.
The book’s essays, each highlighting a specific trip, are contemplative pieces on cultural and natural history, and Leaf is equally fascinated by pictographs on shoreline cliffs, expeditions of early explorers, and Canadian wilderness painters. Her detailed descriptions of landscape and wildlife were informed, she said, by photos taken by her husband, Tom, and trip journals she brought along in waterproof bags to record her observations.
“That’s how I get the most out of a trip, is to write it down,” she said. “Even as a kid, I felt this driving need to record things, to immortalize it in some way.”
Leaf, who writes daily at a desk with a view of visiting birds at a feeder and Pioneer Lake, has long focused on the regional history and the natural world. Her first magazine essay focused on the history of white pine destruction. The essays in her first book, “Potato City,” published in 2004, explore the natural history of North Branch and the changes that farming and urban sprawl brought to the oak savanna. “A Love Affair with Birds,” a 2013 biography of Thomas Sadler Roberts, a topic she stumbled upon when writing bird biographies for Audubon Minnesota, brings to life the early Minnesota ornithologist and Minneapolis in the 1800s. She also wrote “The Bullhead Queen: A Year on Pioneer Lake,” published in 2009.
Leaf said she envisioned “Portage” as something of a guidebook to canoe trips that are alternatives to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which she and her husband find too crowded these days.
As she wrote, other themes emerged, one of them being the arc of a family. The reader sees her young family toting their Duluth packs to places like the Crow Wing River, a shallow, sandy river that Leaf recommends for beginning canoeists. In another essay, they face challenges on the upper Mississippi, where, despite careful planning, they run out of navigable river. In later essays, the adult children are still paddling.
“That was our legacy, I think,” she said, “is that they all like to go outside.”
Leaf has long admired nature writer Aldo Leopold, who “raises kids to be outdoors people,” she said. She and her husband gave each child cross-country skis at age 3 for regular Sunday winter treks, and once past the toddler stage, each was canoeing.
“I think it’s a binder,” she said.
Even today, the entire family regularly schedules “24 hours on the North Shore” — hiking and an overnight stay Up North.
In addition to creating an intimate portrayal of a family and marriage nurtured in the outdoors, Leaf also considers what defines wilderness and muses on the effect of technology. “As the world becomes more known,” she said, “the amount of wilderness grows smaller.”
In places, she meditates on the dangers inherent in the wild — describing her fears when running rapids or surviving a bout of hypothermia.
“I think there has to be an underlying hint of possible danger,” she said. “The wilderness should make you a little anxious because you might be called upon to rely on yourself and only on yourself to get yourself out of mortal danger. We’re always in mortal danger, but civilization cloaks that from us. We have people around us, we have gadgets, and it seems like we’re safe, but in just a stroke of a car accident, you’re in mortal danger. In wilderness, that veneer of safety is stripped away from you, and you realize that maybe you should be happy to be here minute to minute.”
In many ways, she said, canoeing and camping force us to live in the present.
“Everything is pared down to really simple things,” she said. “It’s very elemental, and that’s a good way to live, for at least part of the time. It’s a very good way to take a vacation.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.