One Portage at a Time

<written in Sept. 1995; 15 years ago now!!>

My family went on a canoe trip with friends recently &, as always, had a thoroughly wonderful time. The peace & quiet of canoeing & camping in Algonquin Park (in Ontario, Canada) is something everyone really ought to try. It’s amazing. So relaxing & stress-reducing. (1)

Except, of course, when one of your children gets lost while your party of eight is on a very, very long portage(2) between two lakes &, as a typical frantic parent, you begin to let your imagination run away with you & start picturing all sorts of horrendous things happening (in my mind, once J. had returned safely, but her Dad was still down the (darn) logging road looking for her, a bear attacked him & started pulling him to pieces. I was a much happier woman when both had returned safely & it was clear we were all safe and sound!?)(3)

Well. The whole crazy thing ended happily, I can report, after an incredible amount of anxiety on the part of most of us in the group. A few lessons about canoeing etiquette (or rather, portaging etiquette) were learned (e.g., children should be assigned to a designated adult on portages & should not be out of sight of that designated adult at any time. Another suggestion received later – now actually a law, I believe – was about the carrying of whistles by each member of the group. You can call yourself hoarse pretty quickly!)

But I remember something else about that day. We had known all along we had a very great deal of ground to cover, & had broken up camp & departed by 8:45 am because of the humungous number of metres of portaging we knew we had ahead of us before we’d reach our eventual destination for the night.

I had been feeling pretty much like a kid on the trip. Others had planned the route & were more on top of where we were headed & how long the various portages were likely to take. I felt free to sit in the canoe, paddle & simply enjoy the beautiful surroundings & incredible peace of the lakes.

Some of us, I think, were dreading all the portaging – but I’d decided not to think about that ahead of time. Once I landed at a portage spot & had a sense of what was ahead of me, then I would finally think about the reality of it & how we’d manage it. I was aware that we had a bit of a brute of a day ahead of us, but just didn’t feel like getting into a big hairy sweat about it ahead of time.

I think this way of thinking has something to be said for it. We can know in our minds what the big picture is (& for an environmental activist like me who fears/knows we are doing much too little, much too late, the “big picture” looks very scary indeed!), & we can be trying our best to plan appropriately for things. But there is very little point in getting in a huge sweat about it ahead of time, because

a) things will very likely not go as anticipated – some utter surprise is more than likely to come along

b) if things don’t go as planned, most of the fuss & worry & stress we’ve engaged in will prove to have been simply a waste of our time & energy

c) we can’t really give ourselves fully to what we are doing now if we’re constantly fretting about the next thing that is going to happen & finally,

d) we may very well get hit by a truck 5 minutes from now & wish we’d learned the lesson much sooner that we have to live fully today & right now, because tomorrow & the future in general are by no means guaranteed.

Heck. Lots of people much wiser than I have expressed all this before. Live for today. Plan sensibly for tomorrow & next week & all that, of course. But don’t be so darn busy planning & worrying about what’s ahead that you forget to live fully today!

One portage at a time. It really worked for me on that canoe trip. I think we can let it work for us all the time, although I think we chronically rushed North Americans are generally not at all good at this. We need to learn to let go more, slow down the pace enough to “smell the roses” more than once in a blue moon, & to really listen when, for example, our kids or other loved ones are talking to us (I’m just as guilty as the next person of being too harried & only half-listening – but at least I’m trying!)

One portage at a time. Really being where we actually are at any given moment. Taking some deep breaths once in a while, & not constantly hyper-ventilating. Heck – we might all even begin to make sounder decisions about things by slowing down a little, hmmm?? (4)


p.s. My goodness but a lot has happened in the now-15 years since I wrote this little essay!? “Good” things. “Bad” things. Tragedies, even, & hugely surprising & utterly unexpected major life detours. So much life… One thing has remained “the same,” though. Taking “one portage at a time” still seems to be eminently sensible advice…

‘Quote of the day’ with this post: “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of Destiny can be handled at a time.” – Winston Churchill


(1) One major proviso: you must be properly prepared!! Too many first-time campers go into the Algonquin Park “wilderness” clearly unprepared – in terms of canoeing skills, equipment, wilderness “savvy” &, apparently, plain old common sense.

(2) Does everyone know what a portage is?? For any non-canoe-ers, it’s a trail between 2 lakes that one hauls all of one’s canoe gear (canoe included) across. They can be long or short, & involve easy or quite challenging terrain. Algonquin Park is full of portage routes between lakes.

(3) I should point out that I’ve been on many canoe trips since this so-memorable one all those years ago, & am now much less paranoid about bears. Thank goodness for that!!

(4) I’ve often had the thought lately that the way the human race has conducted itself – & in many cases continues to conduct itself – is more or less in “Ready. Fire!! Aim” fashion, rather than in the more sensible “Ready, Aim, Fire (if you still need to)” order of things. A little slowing down – a little more consideration – might not be such a bad thing…