Exploring the Present on a Portage Trail

March 11, 2009

By Jodi Browning, NWL Staff

I’m coming to the end of the portage trail. I’ve been catching glimpses of the lake for about 200 meters—it appears as a glimmer through the trees. It’s a brief, unattainable vision. In my exhaustion, I am considering plowing through the trees ‘off trail’ to access the water, but I still hear the falls and rapids and know that it’s too soon. The ground is slippery from yesterday’s downpour and the woods are thick with deadfall. I’m better off on the trail. Moving forward for what seems like ages, I am mesmerized as I watch my feet and my shadow against the ferns. The branches and leaves reach out to me. I glance up from under the tip of my canoe. I can see a distinct opening—the edge of the trees, open water! At last the falls are behind me.

I pound through the last stretch of the trail. With the end in sight, my body is rebelling in anticipation. It wants this portage to be over now, not in 50 meters. I keep pushing forward. As trip leader, I started out on the portage first, but I’m only about two minutes ahead of the participant behind me; the rest of the group is close behind him. He had caught up with me on a break about 15 minutes earlier. We chatted briefly (and breathlessly) about negotiating the stretch of knee-deep mud and a downed pine tree. “Did you go over or under it?” I’d asked. “The mud or the tree?” he smiled. We laughed about the mosquitoes on our forearms—the ones we couldn’t swat away for fear of displacing the precarious balance of our bow-heavy canoes. I told him about tripping on a tree root (which turned out to be my right foot) and about surprising a ruffed grouse just before the stretch of mud (I thought the loud beating was my own heart until it flew up into a hemlock). I left him resting on a rock drinking water, the bow of his canoe perched securely in the crook of an ancient cedar. “Almost there!” I called behind me as I continued on my way. I’m not sure I believed it either.

There is a steep slope as the trail empties into the lake. One final hurdle before the end. I start my decent. My legs are starting to feel like jelly, my shoulders not approving of the weight adjustment. “Almost there,” I think. This time, believing it.

Finally, I’m at the water’s edge. My instinct is to throw the canoe off my shoulders and let it drop to the ground. I want to escape from it and be free. I want to collapse into the lake, letting the water wash over me. I want to float away with the lightness of my body and this thought.

Instead, I gather the last bit of strength I can summon. I walk into the shallow water, heave the canoe up and roll it to the left, turning my body and letting it land gently on my thighs. With a final sigh and release, I lower it smoothly into the calm water. I stand up straight and look around. The lake is pristine. A merganser with a long tail of chicks glides casually by—my presence not disturbing her. A white-throated sparrow sings its familiar song. A cool breeze rises from the lake, gently brushing the sweat from my forehead.

I’m here, and realize I’ve been here all along—absorbed in the mud, awakened by the grouse, accompanied by the ferns, made conscious by the falls, and supported by this group of young people. I no longer want to float away, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

“Almost there!” A familiar voice calls from behind me at the top of the slope. I smile and help him down with his canoe. “You are here,” I reply. He looks out at the lake. The merganser has circled back and the breeze rises gently again.

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