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Lobster Lake - 1999

It seems that every year we encounter once in a lifetime situations where none of us can draw on past experience for answers. This is my fifth year, and, once again we find ourselves struggling for the right action to take. I have been asked to explain how we wound up portaging (pushing, pulling, dragging, sweating and groaning) two canoes through the dense underbrush of an island.

For me, the experience started days earlier as we unloaded two truckloads of camping gear, food, and, most critical to any wilderness expedition, chairs, into three canoes. As we pulled mountains of gear from truck to boat, I managed to twist my back so badly that I dropped to my knees in pain. Fortunately for me, I camp with a group of guys better suited to a hospital ward, and each and every one of them had back problems and could relate to my plight (as I crawled around on my hands and knees in the mud, unable to stand). Although I found I had loads of empathy and sympathy, neither helped my situation in the least. After several minutes, and uncounted attempts, I was able to struggle to my feet. The rest of the canoe loading experience for me consisted of standing around and occasionally helping with small items. I could tell the gang was impressed with my contributions.

The one joy I found this afternoon, that paddling a canoe didn’t hurt my back, was soon overshadowed with the despair that we were going against gale force winds. For every paddle stroke we took forward, the wind blew us half way back. After a seemingly endless amount of time, we decided to give up and paddle in the opposite direction with the wind at our backs. I believe that around this time it started to pour. Some time later we found a campsite on the banks of the river. At this point we were soaked through and all I could think of was, "If I slip getting out of the canoe, my back will surely break". Well, we made it out of the canoe, and spent a considerable amount of time unloading all of our supplies onto the campsite, which, from my hunched position, seemed to tower a mile above the river. If only I could have fully appreciated the joy of standing around while my fellow campers unloaded the canoes, but my back wouldn’t cooperate.

By evening I had several instances where I bent over to pick up a stick, or something equally trivial, only to find myself driven to my hands and knees in pain. I think by now I had usurped most of the sympathy from my buddies who realized I was about as useless as a one armed paperhanger. The comment that drove the most fear into me was, "You won’t know how bad it really is until the morning". The comment I chose to ignore was, "The biggest danger is thinking you’re healed, and then doing something stupid to re-injure it". Well, the next morning my back felt much better and for the next few days, it continued to improve.

Which leads me to "The Portage".

Sunday we decide to do a day trip around a large island with a several mile circumference. The closest part of the island is probably no more than a half-mile from our campsite. We leave in the morning, with a slight wind at our backs, which seems to be steadily picking up. By the time we round the lee side of the island, the wind is pretty brisk, but we're on the calm side, so why worry about it. After a nice paddle, an uneventful hike up to the highest point of the island, a short swim (I won’t go into details on that; it’s a story in itself), we head around the remainder of the island. As we get back into the windward side of the island, I find that not only are we not making headway, I have no control of the canoe. There are whitecaps on the waves, and the wind is blowing us in any direction it pleases. Since I'm in the stern, it's my job to steer. It's obvious to Mike in the bow that I have no control. After a few minutes of being thrown around, Mike and I paddle to shore.

Adam, Dan and Mark have made great progress and are several hundred yards away, but they turn around to see if we are all right. This is yet another example of good friends. After fighting the same wind, making some very difficult progress; they give it all back. After a few minutes rest, we head on, sticking to the shoreline for safety. We make it to the next inlet and pull in to discuss our next step. Do we paddle back into the wind to get around a peninsula, or carry the canoes across? After a little reconnaissance, we find we can cut across the neck of the peninsula with only a short fifty-yard portage. This is accomplished quickly and painlessly by pushing and pulling the canoes over and through brush and rocks. I still can’t believe how durable these things are!

Now we are facing directly into the wind. There is no way any of us would be willing to paddle in these conditions. We discuss our options.

•First is risking capsizing and drowning. Even if that didn’t happen, we couldn’t paddle hard enough to make any progress in the wind.

•Second is waiting for evening when the wind usually dies down then. Usually. What if it doesn’t? Now we’re in the same boat (pardon the pun) at night, with no camping gear. What if the wind does die, but by then it's too dark to risk being in the canoes. C’mon, too dark? It's only a few hundred yards and there will most likely be some moon or starlight. We've made that mistake before. It's hard to conceive how dangerous it is on a lake at night when you have no bearings. This is not an acceptable option.

•Third is pulling the canoes along the shoreline. Nope, the shoreline is too steep, rocky and slippery, plus the wind would be throwing the canoes onto the rocks with every gust.

•Fourth is portaging the canoes through the woods to the point closest to our campsite. From there we would only have a few hundred yards to paddle. A distance we may be able to make if the wind isn’t too bad, or if it isn't too dark.

After MUCH discussion (We either over or under discuss everything. There is no moderation.) we choose option four. Mike and I hoist one canoe onto our shoulders and start up the first ravine. Adam, Dan and Mark choose to drag their canoe behind us. Since we call it a battleship, their choice makes more sense for their canoe. Now, portaging a canoe does not mean taking a leisurely hike down a well-groomed path with it on your shoulders. It means climbing over fallen trees, tripping over gnarly roots, pushing and shoving through bushes, looking for footholds on three or four foot vertical ascents, etc. To make life more interesting, Mike has to constantly hoist the canoe up in the air to see where he’s going. After the first hundred yards we are tired, sore, and exhausted. We have barely started.

Then I have my stroke of genius. What if I carry the canoe by myself? That way I can tip the bow up and see where I’m going. There is a nice yoke in the middle for a single portager, and with my life vest on, I have additional padding on my shoulders. That also eliminates the constant tripping where one portager takes a half step up a rise when the other portager takes a big step over a log, very painful for both! Mike thinks this is a great idea. It doesn't occur to me at the time, but since that leaves Mike with a six pound backpack, no wonder he is so supportive. It also doesn't really occur to me that three days ago I was on my hands and knees in pain with a twisted back.

With a little help from Mike I get the canoe on my shoulders and, hey, this isn’t too bad!! I could go for miles with this thing!! Come on, let's go!! Well, that enthusiasm lasts for about fifty yards (still, pretty impressive) when the canoe begins to get heavier and heavier and the brush thicker and thicker. Now the routine is put the canoe down, search out the best path for the next fifty yards, go back, hoist up the canoe (jesus, my back!) carry the fifty yards, put the canoe back down and repeat the above. This works until we reach a point where there seems to be absolutely no way to make any forward progress with the canoe.

Now its time to rest and reevaluate our options. Dan scouts up ahead and tells us its really not much further. No thanks, I’ve lost interest in portaging. Mark S is convinced the wind has died down enough to attempt the lake again. C’mon Mr. S, are you sure its not just wishful thinking? At this point capsizing and drowning sounds like a welcome relief. Let's try it. We drag the canoes out to the rocky shore, put in, and yes, there is wind, but it's not that bad! Ten minutes later (was it really only ten minutes?) we are back safe and sound at our campsite.

Did we learn anything from this expedition? Not that I can think of. If you wrench your back, should you be more careful in the future? Not from what I can tell.