List: Things that aren’t so bad about portaging a canoe through thigh-deep mud

As my Chaco-clad feet sank ever deeper into soupy black mud, I thought briefly of the woolly mammoths, who perished in droves as they struggled to free themselves from quicksand. Like the mammoth, who no doubt once inhabited the same sort of glacier-carved landscape I was now thoroughly stuck in, I was fighting against my own weight, not to mention that of the 100-pound portage pack strapped inconveniently to my back.

“Are you stuck?” Bix asked as he rounded the corner with the canoe. “It looks like you’re stuck.”

“I’m not stuck,” I answered firmly, groping at the edges of what passed for a portage trail for a branch strong enough to pull myself out. The dog looked on, perplexed as to why we’d suddenly stopped, then pounced at a small frog as it leapt to take cover in the puddle next to me.

Eventually I had to unbuckle the portage pack straps and roll out from under it, but not before I’d sunk into crotch-deep mud. By the time we arrived at the end of the 167-rod portage (a rod is about the length of a canoe, so this was approximately the longest one-half mile I’d ever hiked), I remembered a little sheepishly my assumption that a five-day trip to the Boundary Waters would be a relaxing vacation—certainly more so than last year’s anniversary trip, the goal of which was to climb Mount Rainier in a single-day push—and felt utterly chastened.


The oh-no-what-have-I-done feeling lasted until we all piled back into the canoe. We paddled into the heart of the next lake, which we had completely to ourselves, except for the loons. It wasn’t hard to see why that particular portage doesn’t see much traffic, but the effort was worth it. A few other things that weren’t so bad about the portage from hell:

  • Subsequent portages seemed like a piece of cake, relatively speaking
  • The view of this moonrise:


  • Several phenomenal campsites
  • Waking up in the middle of a thunderstorm to hear wolves calling in the distance
  • Hours of paddling silently across lakes that look just as they have for millions of years
  • Excuse to eat Top Ramen for lunch every day, which I would gladly do in real life if it weren’t for what I imagine is a near-toxic dose of sodium
  • No wifi or cell service
  • I read a biography of Roald Amundsen cover-to-cover in three days and it was excellent
  • Opportunity for Bodhi to prove his worth as an Up North Dog

As we paddled back toward our put-in, completing an approximately 20-mile loop, a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike paddled past us and smiled at Bodhi.

“Now there’s a dog who knows how to ride a canoe!” he called.

On the last night of our trip, I finished my book next to the fire, serenaded by lonely loon calls, and it all came together. I see now why the Voyageurs and countless others were so drawn to the Boundary Waters, and why Bix has been rabblerousing to get back there since I met him.

As with most things, it was worth spending some time mired in the mud to get to there.



2 thoughts on “List: Things that aren’t so bad about portaging a canoe through thigh-deep mud

  1. Great read. Thanks for sharing. Now I have all the feels to get back into the BWCA! (Heading for my first trip to AK in June, stumbled upon your podcast. And now subscribed to your emails!)

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