The Portage Pilgrim’s Progress

We left Gunflint filled up and stretched out but, like the first day of the holidays, with the added realisation of just how tired we were. Good job there was a nice easy stretch ahead… 

Gunflint dock, site of breakfast yoga shocker

After an early morning yoga session on the dock (during ‘happy baby pose’ I imagined the view for the breakfasting onlookers and got uncontrollable giggles) we set off down the lake with a gentle tail wind. We stopped in at the next campground store to pick up as many Ibuprofen as they would let us buy (this being the US, ‘many’ was the answer): Mike’s shoulder – which was injured a few years ago when he was knocked off his bike on his way to work, subsequently arriving at his place of work in an ambulance – has been causing him some grief, most notably since we started this section of heavy portaging. Skype advice from a top physio, and also from Mike’s best man, was rest (they know Mike well enough to know this won’t happen), excercises, and a course of anti inflammatories. Paddling doesn’t seem to aggravate it so we continued on through Little Gunflint lake and Little North lake onto North lake. From here we took the excitingly but slightly misleadingly named ‘Height of land’ portage, figuring everything beyond should be downstream…right?

Portaging injuries…

We paddled very definitely into the current on South lake to find the Rat Lake portage: by now we are accustomed to looking intently for dark holes in the forest which might indicate a trail, and as we get closer the shiny exposed roots and smoothed rocks that tell of several hundred years’ worth of use (and on arrival see the confirmatory grazes of aluminium from other canoes to which we add a dash of bright pink gel coat. Good old Bertha). 

We started unpacking when another canoe arrived: people! We yelled them to pull up as there was plenty of room at the get out, and started our first run up the trail. We were halfway back when we passed one of the paddlers: ‘where are you camping?’ Said he, apropos of nothing. ‘We’re going to try and get to Rose lake and…’ he didn’t stay for the rest but broke into a run. Ah, our first taste of competitive canoeing: the campsites in Boundary being limited we had been told that there could sometimes be a race for the best spots. Well, it’s a very serious business, holidaying…! 

View from the portage trail

We made it onto Rose lake in time to see a storm gathering behind us and the other canoe pull into the first campsite on the lake. Knowing we had the (entirely appropriately named) Long Portage at the end of the lake sometime the next day we paddled as far as the storm allowed before diving for cover and setting up the tarp. Also in deference to the Long Portage we ate a huge dinner which consisted of ‘whatever’s heaviest’ (rice and daal, one of our favourites).

At 4km the Long Portage was to be our biggest ‘trail’ (as opposed to highway) portage to date – good preparation for the Grand Portage then!? Although these trails are quite obvious they’re by no means easy, with stretches of rooty hill and rocky steps and soggy marsh and fallen trees and occasionally narrow, sometimes rotten, gangways across bog. Breaking it down into 1km sections where we’d depot the first bags and return for the rest seemed to go ok, if not quickly. Many Clif bars were consumed. But the wine gums were being rationed for what lay ahead… 

With the Long Portage completed in time for coffee the remaining 4 short portages for the day looked a breeze. Little did we know the muddy, wet ‘portages’ would be barely distinguishable from the muddy shallow ‘lily lakes’. Some pole-ing was required… finally we arrived onto lovely Mountain lake where we sat and watched a timber wolf whilst it stood intently watching us from the far shore. We camped on Moose lake, which didn’t live up to its name in spite of much evidence on the trails. 

Moose Lake

Our last day in Boundary involved a portage onto the Fowl lakes and then a foul portage onto the Pigeon river – another landmark moment on the trip and name from the list! Foul in part due to us taking a wrong turn and heading up a steep path onto a high escarpment – returning to the junction we saw that the fallen wood that appeared to lay across the other path was, in fact, quite clearly an arrow. Doh! But also this was another 2km portage through dense woodland with many fallen trees to climb over and a twisting meandering hilly track, clearly now rarely used. We did it in 3 stages with coffee at the start (whilst Mike picked a record 5 leeches off his feet) and lunch at the finish on the Pigeon river. In the middle I snagged my prized bug shirt on a branch and tore a hole in the mesh – our second portage disaster!

We both had ideas what this legendary waterway would be like and I think  it’s fair to say it was neither. Bigger than Mike thought, reedier than I had expected and with less flow and more headwind than either of us had hoped for we still enjoyed our paddle down to the English rapids which were bumpy and fun, and then the dramatic and stunning Partridge falls before we arrived to camp at the old site of Fort Charlotte. The Grand Portage is, in fact, a national monument, with permit controlled camping, a fire pit, a long drop and some signposts about the history of the trail. We thought this boded well for a clear route. 

With the light fading fast we made a hasty fire (for cooking and as a mosquito deterrent), pitched the tent on one of the plinths (it didn’t fit), sewed up my bug shirt and set up the bear hang. Then we scrambled into the tent and tried to convince ourselves we were ready for the next day…

And so it was that the day after our 4 month anniversary, and one day short of being 3 months out, we woke at 530am to walk our canoe and all the rest of our kit 14km to Lake Superior. 

Only it’s not 14km when you have to cover the route 3 times to get everything from point one to point 2… and that was with us both very much maximising our carrying capabilities: on the first portage run we both carry huge packs and clip on additional bags or carry paddles, and on the second run Mike has to lift the bag onto my back before balancing various other bits of kit and the canoe trolley etc on me before he lifts the canoe. I felt a strong empathy for mules… 

Typical of the Grand Portage trail

The trail was quite obvious but not always in great shape and after over 6 hours and 21km walking we’d made 7km of progress. So about 1km an hour then. It was at this stage we arrived at a junction with the old highway 61 – a gravel road. We stopped for lunch to discuss… it was twice the distance by the ‘highway’, but if we could use the trolley then actually it was 2/3rds the distance we’d have to do on the trail… we could do 1km an hour on the trail, and about 5km/hr by road. and our wine gums were running low…

So we loaded up the boat with all our gear and let our shoulders breathe a sigh of relief as we hauled the remaining 18km to Grand Portage. Taking a last diversion off the actual proper highway to get into town we thought we might be able to get back onto the last section of the trail and feel like we finished properly. After a protracted battle with some muddy ditches we got back onto the road and, nearing the bottom of the wine gums and the end of our tethers, finally saw the unmistakable gleam of RVs through the woods – a campsite!!! 

Grand Portage Marina and campground – that’s Lake Superior right there!

What we’ve learnt: 

Canadian cheese is so synthetic it lasts, virtually unchanged, for weeks unrefridgerated! Win!

We have a slow leak in our mattress. 

3 thoughts on “The Portage Pilgrim’s Progress

  • You are heroes!!!!! Well done gorgeous ones you are doing so amazing!!!! Keep on keeping on xxxxxxxxxx

  • Can’t believe what you two are doing! You’ve both met your match, big time. Little did I realise when I met Cas for the first time in an estate agent’s office, that she was as mad as a hatter! very, very well done to the pair of you.

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