Portaging: The Can Sack

“Because the activities involved in canoeing
activate hearty appetites, don’t skimp on food supplies.”

– Temagami Canoe Routes

I had it in my head that the can sack was 100 pounds. It could have been 500 pounds, but regardless, when we got to the edge of a lake, somebody’s back had to transport it over land to the next lake.

The can sack was a large, long, Army-green duffle with two straps that you fitted over your shoulders. We had a couple of heroes who took it on several times. I was never a hero, though I did carry it once.

It was a bright and cool day, the air without heat but spiced with pine sap. As we pulled up to the edge of a lake, we yanked the packs and tents and duffles off the canoes, piling them on a dry area. The sack looked at me, and I decided to try it.

Sixteen-year-old “Boomer,” mature in his role as counselor, raised it onto my back. (I never learned Boomer’s first name.) I was seriously surprised at how heavy the pack was and realized quickly that I couldn’t walk upright. So I walked stooped over with nature above me and watched where my feet were being placed on the skinny path that had exposed roots, stones, hills, as the other campers passed me by. I have no idea how long this portage was. Most were under a mile but long enough so that you couldn’t see the other lake from where you started and had some walking to do.

Eventually, no one was on the path with me. After the silence became obvious, I knew they were finished and waiting. Alone on the path, peering up from my stooped position, I could see sky through the trees ahead, telling me the new lake was getting close. But the straps were digging into my shoulders and they really hurt.

I stopped to try and adjust them off the raw spots. I stood there and tried to shift the straps but they didn’t budge. The sack was just too heavy. I leaned forward more, trying to give myself room to loosen them, but as I leaned forward, the noisy rush of cans went over my head and onto the dirt in front of me.

My fanny was in the air, my head between my legs. I listened, heard nothing. No loons, no cousin, no counselors.

Now, I was once a girl who asked for advice. The girl who asked not just one person, usually my mother, but several people, taking polls. What should I do? What do you think I should do? With no one to ask, or even offer help, I seriously didn’t know what to do.

Getting conscious of the time, and embarrassed about my situation, I tried several ideas but the straps were adjusted tightly, so it was hard to slip them off my shoulders and start over. I just had to push through this and make it a physical stunt. Bending my body, moving, sliding, doing some sort of freewheeling yoga, it hurt like hell and caused bruises I would admire later that evening, my knees and I got that can sack onto my back again and merely continued on to meet the others by the lake. They were resting, waiting for me. Since we were all expected to do our job, no one had even thought to check on me. In fact, they were happy for the rest. They knew I would eventually get there and I did. A week later I carried a canoe on my shoulders during another portage. That was it for me and heavy lifting.

The following summer, when I asked to go back to Canada, I already knew the trip was meant for only once. It was an expensive camp and I’m the oldest of five, so I got a newspaper route and carried those, also rolling up my beach towel with 12 cents for the orange ade at the pool. The summer after that I got a job for great money at the Ardsley DPW, painting fences and ripping up weeds and deadheading public geraniums with other kids my age, hiding out in Macy Park when the heat was too much. On the weekends my neighborhood friends and I did a lot of walking to the village for pizza, taking the shortcut alongside the stream but no longer bothering to sit on the big rock. I guess because kids think about what they see and what they do, I eventually stopped talking about Canada. I moved on as life carried me grade to grade, and the lessons I learned in the woods quietly stayed put without fanfare or me noticing.

Canoe bow on lake