Lessons from the Trail: The Big Carry

One thing you learn pretty fast when canoe tripping is that the difficulty of a portage doesn’t depend entirely on its length. It’s more about how much weight you’re carrying, how rugged the trail is, and what kind of condition it’s in. For example, does the trail go up the side of a mountain? Is it clogged with downed trees? Has it been in disuse for 70 years? In the case of the portage in this episode, you could check the yes box on all of the above. In the end, it took Tori, Buck and me 18 hours of carrying over the course of three days to complete the portage.

When we finally made it to the end of the trail, I was impressed by the original travelers who plotted the route without maps to guide them. The long trail veers off the river and ends at a small beaver pond, and from there, a winding creek is followed back to the river. The detour shaves off about a mile-and-a-half of portaging. On the other hand, I wasn’t so impressed when I realized that what I thought would be a three-mile portage, actually turned out to push four. To make matters worse, the weather was hot and the bugs were bad. Buck didn’t even want to walk back with us to get our last load.

DSC_3322Following a faint trail

When you’re exhausted and carrying a heavy load, taking even five steps in the wrong direction can be enraging. To our knowledge, only one other person had walked the trail since the 1940s, so we were expecting it to be hard to follow. We were right. To stay on the trail, we had to constantly use our tracking skills.

When you lose the trail, look out for these signs to get you back on track.

– Log vitiation: Decaying logs that cross the trail are stepped on by passing people and animals. On a portage trail that hasn’t been used for 70 years, any log that has come in contact with a moccasin will be old, decayed, and may be flattened right down into the trail where it crosses. Keep a keen eye out as these crushed sections of log provide what is likely the best evidence of a trail.

– Bald roots: Bark is worn and scraped off of roots that protrude from the trail as the trail is worn down around them. If dead, they’re usually light gray in color. Keep an eye out for roots like this as it almost always means the trail crosses them.


– Color change: In many areas, the top soil or forest debris layer is a different color than the soil a couple inches down. When a trail is worn, it often exposes a different color of soil which can point you in the right direction.

– Concave: A slight U-shaped depression in the ground is often a sure sign of a trail. Just make sure it’s the trail you want to follow, and not a crossing game trail. Animal trails can be very well worn in wilderness areas.

– Tree opening: If there are no signs on the ground, look up at the trees in front of you to find what looks like the most inviting opening. This will often mark where the trail leads.

Note: If traveling with a group, flag confusing areas of the trail with trail tape to help those behind you find their way more easily.

Blister Prevention

By the beginning of the second morning, my feet were feeling pretty sore. The bottoms were raw, blistered and in need of some TLC. I suppose hauling over 100 pounds of gear for four miles will have that effect on your tootsies.

Keep the following things in mind for preventing and treating blisters.

– Double up: Blisters are caused by friction. Help prevent them by wearing two pairs of socks. This way the socks will rub together, as opposed to one sock rubbing against your skin.

– Duck tape to the rescue: Apply at least two layers of duct tape over top of sore, blistered areas on your feet. In addition to giving an extra wall of protection, the smoothness of the duct tape also helps reduce the intensity of the friction you create when walking.

– Moleskin must: Moleskin is an adhesive barrier specifically made to prevent or protect blisters. It’s like adding another layer of skin to sore areas of your feet. It’s a really good thing to bring along on canoe trips where you’ll have a lot of portaging. So make sure some Moleskin finds its way into your first aid kit. (You can see at 1:48 in the video that we needed the first aid kit for more than just blisters on this portage.)

– Crazy Glue: I didn’t need to use it on this portage, but if you have a painful blister, cut off the dead skin and apply crazy glue directly onto the sore blistered area. This is a great trick that’s been used by ultra marathon runners for years.

DSC_3681Leap Frog Lessons

– When you’re leapfrogging or doing a long portage in stages, you may be separated from half of your outfit by a night or more. In situations like this, you’ll need to put some thinking into what you’ll be carrying when you head down the trail. If you know that you won’t have time to go back for the second load before dark, prevent an uncomfortable night by making sure you’re carrying all provisions and camping gear you’ll need for that night.

– Always keep a couple water bottles and some water purification tabs on you. On a long, tough portage, chances are you’ll run out of water, and when you’re parched, you’ll be tempted to lap up whatever water you find on the way. If you don’t have the tabs, you could end up drinking some unsafe water. Midway through a long wilderness trip is no place to get Giardia, so keep some water tabs in your pocket.

Our bodies were sore but our moral was high after successfully completing the long carry. It felt good to get it over with, and doing so came with a strong sense of accomplishment. I must admit, there were a couple times along the way where we wondered if we’d ever be done. After finally climbing back in the canoe, we hauled over a beaver dam, and then followed a small creek that carried us through intimate S-bends back into the east branch. The hard part of the trip was over.

— Check out more LESSONS FROM THE TRAIL WITH JIM BAIRD, including Episode 1 of the Côte-Nord Adventure: Getting There, Episode 2: How to Strap a Canoe on a Float Plane, Episode 3: Tips for Dealing with Waves and Bugs, Episode 4: Sometimes There’s a Cabin, Episode 5: Shotgun Whitewater, Episode 6: Maneuvering a Canoe in Whitewater, Episode 7: Cleaning Pike and Brook Trout, Episode 8: Delaying the Inevitable.

This summer, C&K will be rolling out new episodes of Jim Baird’s Cote Nord Adventure series, presented by Nova Craft Canoe.

About this Series: Come along with Adventurer Jim Baird, his girlfriend Tori, and their dog Buck as they paddle a wild and seldom traveled river of Quebec’s breathtaking Côte-Nord region. Watch the story of their adventure unfold in this 15-part video series as they use and learn a variety of wilderness travel skills, including everything from whitewater paddling maneuvers to axemanship and, when unwanted visitors show up, operating a bear banger. You’ll get to see things from the dog’s perspective too. So grab a paddle, and get ready for a 14-day journey that begins 118 miles from the nearest road.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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