Portage voyage creates plenty of pesky problems

“This is too dangerous!” I shouted.

I was up to my armpits in the stream, hanging onto the canoe, which was the only thing keeping me from losing my footing on the slippery river bottom and falling in the turbulent waters. If that happened, my partner, Vince, would lose control of the canoe, which, fully loaded, weighed 400 pounds. It would swing from parallel to the current and in control, to perpendicular to the current and out of control and then become pinned on a rock. Broken legs and crushed hands or feet could easily result, not to mention a broken canoe. I gave a wave as a signal to the rest of the team to move to shore as Vince and I wrestled the heavily loaded canoe to the right shore and beached the boat.

As expedition leader, I had told my five teammates – Bill, Vince, Dave, Bob and Julio – that this stage of our expedition would take three days. We needed to cross a divide to reach the Duhamel River, a tributary of the Manouane River, our ultimate goal. I thought the team morale was fragile because we were on the fourth day of work trying to cross from the watershed of the Peribonca River to the Manouane and there seemed to be no end in sight. Moving this expedition of three canoes, food and equipment for six men meant cutting a trail where none existed.

The portage had started four days ago on Peribonca Lake, a 50-mile lake in central Quebec. The surrounding country was low, rolling terrain covered in a dense forest of spruce and jack pine about 6 to 12 inches in diameter. A soft, light-green blanket of moss covered the ground.

With no trail to follow, we were explorers finding the way and nothing could be more exciting.

Day two of the portage brought more trail cutting and load carrying. At the end of the day we reached a lake a quarter-mile across which Julio named Echo Lake because it echoed his joyous shout at its discovery. Day three started with searching for the outlet of the lake, where the water of Echo Lake began its descent to the Duhamel. We hoped that being downstream, it would be easier going than the previous “uphill days.”

I was grateful for such teamwork and spirit in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, as the afternoon waned we found no river in sight, so we camped in a nondescript patch of woods. At least the guys could see the valley walls closing in as I had seen from a tree.

Day five dawned cold and clear and five minutes through the woods brought us back to the stream. Loading the boats, we waded in icy water up to our waists, pushing, shoving and floating the canoes around and in between the rocks. In less than an hour, we were paddling our boats and the current shot us out on to the wider waters of the Duhamel River. The hardest four days of our lives were over and now we could paddle and drift with the current. We had pushed ourselves to the limits of effort to reach this place. Passing from one watershed to the other was our entry into Shangri-La. It was no matter that we still faced the unrunnable Duhamel Gorge, 15 miles down the river. We were ecstatic. Our life on this side was all pleasure.

Brush and blowdowns by now have probably covered what crude track we left on the ground. I have no doubt few have followed our route. But the blazes we cut in the trees almost 30 years ago are probably still visible to a discerning eye. I know that the portage cut something into me that, like those blazes, I can still see if I look carefully. Great efforts lead to great places and many times I have summoned the memory of the Manouane-Peribonca portage to help me through a tough spot.

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