What It’s Like: Crossing Your First Portage

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For most kids, a summer at camp will be their entrée into a number of firsts. Some campers will catch their first fish; others will go sailing for the first time. And for nearly all kids, camp will give them an adventure-filled wilderness experience unlike anything they have ever found in school.

Perhaps no greater camp “first” holds more significance and lore than crossing the inaugural portage. On a literal level, a camper’s first portage is likely a fairly nondescript strip of land connecting two lakes that are probably more captivating and mysterious; most young campers are mesmerized first and foremost by an abundance of water that envelopes the Northwoods rather than the woods themselves. But on a more figurative level, the first portage is a portal to new possibilities and challenges—to exploration as well as introspection. The first portage leads away from the comforts and conveniences of home and into the rigors and rewards of being both self-sufficient and group-minded.

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I think often of that famous Chinese proverb: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the context of camp, one could say that a lifetime of adventure begins with a single portage.

I am so many years—and decades—removed from my first portage that I have trouble recalling the specifics of it. I was probably nine years old, and the portage was likely just a few rods in length somewhere on the Kawishiwi River…and just a few miles away from the Camp Voyageur dock.

But even by that age, I already held the concept of portaging in high regard; stories of portaging had been relayed to me with the cadence of legend. I had listened to older campers talk about the mud on the Quetico portages that gulped up entire boots. I had soaked up stories of counselors shouldering canoes up slick slabs of granite. And I had heard of famous portages marked by tantalizing names: Yum Yum Portage, Poobah Portage, Murphy’s Portage.

To me, a portage was not just an overland trail; it was a story in the making.

Naturally, my first portage developed its own narrative. It started easily and turned challenging once the topography evolved into a bog. Mosquitoes found my cheeks, and the fishing line of the rod I was carrying found the snaggy fir branches lining the path. In a tangled, welting mess, I briefly wondered why I had ever thought about such an arduous endeavor with such reverence.

And then something happened. I kept walking, kept slogging through the bog, scratching my cheeks, and the lake on the other side of the portage slowly angled into view. I spotted it through the trees first, and it grew bigger—clearer—and more blue with every step I took. By the time I reached water’s edge, I had forgotten about the bog itself and the mosquitoes and the rocks and the weight of the Duluth pack on my back. I thought only of my friends who were also reaching the water’s edge—an honest moment of achievement and camaraderie.

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So far removed from that initial experience, I crave portages now. I love seeing what they have to offer, and how they will bring together so many aspects of the wilderness that I enjoy—trees, rocks, mud, water, and wildlife. I know that somehow it will all combine to form a unique story each and every time.

Do you remember your first portage? Tell us about it in the comments section below.