world2022/01/24

The Silence Of Portage

by Wolf & Badger

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of portage (or portaging). Literally, it’s the practice of carrying water craft or cargo over land, either around an obstacle in a river, or between two bodies of water, deriving from the French “porter” meaning "to carry". 

Early French explorers in North America encountered many rapids and cascades; the Native Americans carried their canoes over land to avoid river obstacles, with other examples of its use going as far back as the Greco-Romans. Portage, along with it’s more well-known sibling canoeing, has various health benefits. Read on as we unpack why this might be worth adding to the bucket list.

A connection to nature 

Even if paddling in an urban area, simply being on a canal, river or lake usually means we are surrounded by the natural world. Generally as soon as you’re in a canoe on water, you’re instantly more relaxed & less stressed. Portage helps take canoeing a step farther, and connects us to untouched nature. There are unavoidable barriers that generally separate us from what’s truly wild, and portages help dissolve those barriers - for the small price of some effort. The tallest trees, the clearest waters, the greenest woods, the quietest campsite, the brightest skies and getting up close to wildlife - moose are common to see portaging in Canada.

The wilderness factor can be striking. Gone is careless tourist debris. Earning your way through the landscape - sometimes on water, sometimes on foot - can result in discovering wondrous waterfalls, rocks, cliffs, canyons, marshes and even mountains.

Escape from humanity

Even if just temporarily, actual wilderness can be hard to come by these days - news of queues at the top of Everest illustrate this point perfectly. For urban dwellers, a walk in a city park or local woods tend to be well subscribed, and popular country walks or mountain paths can be anything but escaping civilisation. Portage can help distance yourself from the noise of modern life - even if for just a day or two - with every path you carry your canoe over.

For multi-day camping trips, you’re usually pitching up with not one other soul in sight - it’s in equal measure exhilarating & nerve wracking. If that sounds too intense, or you’re doing it as a group, the good news is you can hire a 2 or 3 person canoe for a portage, ensuring the loads are spread out a bit more. 

Gratitude & accomplishment

After a portage trip, you better believe you’ll have found a newfound appreciation for the smallest of luxuries - a comfy bed, a takeaway, hell, maybe even the tube or metro. Maybe.


The sense of stress free tranquillity can stick with you long after your portage trip is over, not to mention the sense of accomplishment from having traversed wild terrain, all by yourself. Simply peering at the map of where you’ve been in the afterglow - so many kilometres, so far into the wild. How many other people have even been there? What a story to tell, a memory to cherish.

Improve your fitness

Portage can be tough. Really tough. Sometimes, the land bits come up so often, you’re left cursing at having to pull your backpacks out of the canoe one more time. Other times, especially in Canadian summers, mosquitos can be a real nuisance. Not to mention the paddling. The portaging sections can provide a much needed break from paddling, using totally different muscles and giving your arms and shoulders a break while you work your lower body.

The history

The aptly named “Grand Portage” was 8.5 miles, and like others, didn’t have the luxury of park staff maintenance. This allowed Native Americans, explorers and voyageurs to bypass high falls and gorges to the historic rendezvous point to exchange goods. Retracing these steps is fascinating - fortunately with tents and sleeping pads and cooking stoves and ergonomic backpacks. When travelling the Mattawa river for example, they have plaques at each portage with their historic names and the distance listed in paces.


So hopefully this convinces you to investigate portaging some more, or creates some curiosity for canoeing or kayaking. Studies have shown such activities can help reduce stress & depression, lower anxiety, help with sleep and create less mental fatigue. All of these are somewhat a by-product of the physical benefits too: if you're summer portaging, say hello to lots of Vitamin D, along with lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart attacks and a stronger immune system.

These words were inspired by a portage trip in Algonquin National Park
Check out the Best places to canoe or kayak in the UK - National Trust or 10 best places to kayak in the US - Visit the USA

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