Alumni Submissions: “The Portage” A Short Story by David Olson ’67-’69

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February 21, 2013 by Doug Webster

Otter alum David Olson (’67-’69) has gone on to become an actor, writer and producer and tells us he is now beginning work on producing an independent film to be called “The Bonfield-Dixon”.   (By the way, David is eagerly seeking input from Otter alumni – stories, anecdotes and experiences from Otter life and canoe trips which could become details in the script he is preparing for the movie – with shooting planned next year and release in 2015.  His message to fellow alumni and his requests for input are covered by clicking here.)

Anyone who has done any canoe tripping in Algonquin will immediately recognize the name of this portage….the Bonfield-Dixon is one of, if not the longest trails between lakes anywhere in the Park, at over three miles. That’s an easy hour’s walk, but with a canoe or heavy pack….something entirely different.

I covered it one summer early in my Otter years and the memory of it is with me still.  I think we were headed to Kiosk….a two-week trip and at that time, one of the longest yet organized under the Rogers.  We had set in at Opeongo and had camped near the end of Bonfield, so this portage was the start of our second day.  With the length of our trip (and being the days before freeze dried food and ultra-light gear) our packs were very heavy.  Worse yet, the one I was carrying had been mis-packed with the edge of a metal dinner plate riding right against my spine and despite numerous tries, not easily accessible.

On this summer, the portage featured a number of blow-downs along the way and the task of trying to get over, under and around fallen trees with a super-heavy pack was a real struggle.  Another challenge was finding resting spots along the way.  The pack was so heavy that if I dropped it, I could only get it back on with help from someone else and we were strung out all along the trail.  So, I had to look for stumps or fallen logs at just the right  height for me to sit down and still let the weight of the pack rest behind me.  But in one instance, I leaned back and suddenly was pulled backwards as the pack shifted and fell to the ground behind me.  Fortunately, someone came along and was able to help me get back “in harness.”  

It was a hot day and very buggy as well and when I finally reached the other end, I had the same sense of relief, and accomplishment” that Dave describes in his story.  We paused for lunch and then headed on to Lake Lavielle and a great campsite, but I remember thinking then…..”I sure am glad THAT one is behind us”, but also feeling quietly proud that I had done it:

The Portage – A Short Story by David Olson

He was ready.  The paddles were tied to the thwarts.  His wool jacket was wrapped over his shoulders, around his neck, for a cushion against the weight of a 105 pound canoe he was about to place upon his shoulders.  He knew that what lay before him was one of the longest portages in the park and, at 3 1/3 miles, 5,687 yards, it was certainly the longest portage he’d ever been on. “One step at a time,” that’s what the others had been saying at breakfast that morning. “One step at a time and, eventually you’ll get through.”

Looking up at the sky he could see the sun finally breaking through the clouds, patches of blue sky. It had rained some that morning while they were breaking camp.  Nothing heavy, not a soaker, just enough to get the ground wet and make the trail a bit treacherous.  Moss covered rocks, like land mines, would have to be avoided.  Muddy spots to be negotiated.  The landscape of a portage has to be respected.

The sun was pushing through as if to say, “Get out of my way, I’ve got work to do!” He could feel the warmth on his face, the August sun in the Canadian wilderness.  A deep breath to take it all in, fill his lungs, and with one last look to the sky that was about to be obscured by the bottom of the canoe, he shouted to the tress, “Lord give me strength!”

He reached down and in one quick, clean motion, Thomas Porter, grabbed the gunnels of the canoe, put the bottom on his thigh, and flipped it over his head on to , his shoulders. He was about to cross the Bonfield- Dickson and with one step, he was off.

The trail leading away from the Dickson Lake was a gentle slope up from the rocky shore. Some shorelines are sandy beaches. Sometimes you can tell when the trail turns from forest soil and rocks to a sandy path you’re getting close to the end of the portage, a welcome sign.  Dickson was granite boulders left behind by the glaciers.  Over a century before the fur trappers and loggers cleared them to make way for the portage to Bonfield Lake.

A cool breeze off the water teased him from behind.  He knew that when past the tree line and into the forest, there would be no wind.  Once he broke a sweat, he’d be missing this friend.  It was still only mid morning, around 70 degrees, but still, it was summer after all and Tom understood that after the sun got done clearing the clouds, it would get warmer and he would feel it inside the canoe over his head.

Portaging a canoe is truly a unique experience.  Of the billions of people that have roamed the planet, possibly only a few million have ever done it.  You have to have strength and stamina and a mindset to go with it.  It’s not for everybody.    

 You can just see the ground only a few steps in front of you.  Every now and then you have to lift the nose up to get a peak at what’s up ahead.  It takes energy for that move.  You can’t keep it in that position long.  It changes the balance on your shoulders and on a long portage, conserving energy is paramount.

He’d been the last to leave.  The rest of the group had gone ahead either on their own or with a buddy. Tundas and Peter with their canoes, the six campers with their packs.  It was his job to police the load out spot and make sure no gear had been left behind.  He’d be passing all of them at some point along the way; his pace was faster than most.

He had calculated his speed at 60-75 yards per minute, depending on terrain.  Keeping time on the other portages earlier on the trip and dividing that into the distances on the map, gave him a good mark of 1 ¼ -1 ½ hours to cross the Bonfield-Dickson portage.  If he could hold up, he’d make it non-stop, as he had pledged to do.  

It didn’t take long to catch up to Bosco and Stats who had left five minutes before him.  He didn’t take more than a moment to exchange greetings and give them encouragement then, passing on by.  This portage was going to tax his limits and conversation was only going to slow him down.   Tom told them he’d see them when he doubled back.  From behind him Bosco shouted, “Go for it Tommy.”

He had made extra preparations for this monster of a portage.  A plastic bag on his belt held a wet kerchief to wipe the sweat from his eyes and cool his neck.  Hoarding his share of the snack rations from the past few days, there were sour balls, Macintosh toffee, gum, and cheese and cracker packs stuffed in his pockets at the ready to keep his energy up.  The watch on his wrist was wound fully to mark his pace.  A half hour in, the first wad of gum he started with was discarded for a piece of toffee. So far, so good.

This was his third trip of the summer, a “ten day trip” as they were called. The first ones were a 5 day and a 7 day.  Becoming a canoe carrier usually took several trips to prove your metal to the powers that be that you could handle the job.  And if you were portaging the canoe, you were also the stern man, you were the captain, and it was your boat. Tom had become a carrier on his first trip when Johnny Boy slipped and cut his knee.  Tom had come across him along the trail and after going for help and getting his own pack to the end of the portage, he doubled back for the canoe.  No one told him, he just did it and found carrying a canoe to be easier than the pack.  You were standing straight up and not hunched over as you were with a pack.  He could walk faster and get through most portages without much of a sweat.  But he knew this would be different.  A portage of a mile or two was no big deal but 3 1/3 was going to be a new experience and he didn’t know what to expect from his body or his mind. Could he cross the Bonfield- Dickson without stopping which was the challenge thrown down by everybody on long portages.  Would he measure up?

When the trips are announced at camp there is always great anticipation. It’s a celebration pretty much. Who is going where with who and how long is the trip, the longer the better.  Being out in the wilderness is why they came to Camp Otter and being out on a ten day was the ultimate trip to get.  When his trip was announced he decided then and there he was going “old school” and pick one of the retired Red cedar canoes to stern and carry.  Anybody could carry the new light-weight Kevlar canoes.  Carry one of the old beauties over the Bonfield-Dickson non-stop and you’ve accomplished something no one can ever take away from you.  It was time to step up and prove something to himself and so, he made his choice.

At the forty five minute mark he figured he’d covered 1 ½ – 1 2/3  miles tops, about halfway there- He was feeling pretty good but the fatigue was starting to show up.  It starts at the top of the shoulders and the base of the neck then, creeps to the rest of your body. Your arms are always up holding the thwart in front of you to balance and maneuver the canoe as you are always having to adjust to the trail under your feet.  Not only are you carrying the full weight of the load on only an 8”-10” strip of your shoulders and neck, but your also exerting energy keeping the canoe in balance while moving over uneven and, if you’re not careful, dangerous ground. A turned ankle in the middle of nowhere does not make for a good day.  After awhile, the muscles start to burn and the back starts screaming at you “Stop it!”  Even a seventeen year old has his limits.

Thomas was starting to feel his limits. The portage so far had been relatively mundane.  Not a lot of slopes up or down, log bridges over the swamps were in good shape and not too slippery from the rain, only one deadfall to go around, and the bugs weren’t hassling him. It was just-LONG.

Tundas had been passed several hundred yards back and the others before that. Since he was now first in line he was on his own. No one would be doubling back to tell him how much farther it would be to Bonfield Lake. The first one to finish any portage always doubled back to the last guy in line. It’s a buddy thing. It’s uplifting, especially on a long portage, to see the face of one of your mates coming back to give you distance and encouragement. “One step at a time.” He started to repeat it silently at first, then out loud. He was starting to doubt he could make it non- stop. Going old school over the Bonfield-Dickson was proving to be a daunting challenge.

He checked his watch. Sixty minutes in and his body was starting to melt down. His clothes were soaked in sweat. His arms ached and he was having to bounce the canoe up off his shoulders to relieve pressure and got some relief. Legs were moving slower and his lower back was feeling all the weight of that 105 pound canoe being transferred down the length of his spine. How he wished he could feel the cool breeze he left behind at Dickson Lake which now felt like yesterday.  The air in the forest was dead still and getting hotter and there was yet to be a sign that he was nearing the end.

You can always tell when you were nearing the end of a portage. Generally when you started off, the trail would climb upward from the lake then toward the end, down slope to the next lake. You can see a break in the tree top line signifying open space, a lake. But, the most gratifying was to feel that breeze come up, cooling your body and lifting your spirits. The end was near! But, there were no signs.

Thomas lifted the nose up to get a bead on what was in front of him. All he could see was more dense forest and a turn about 20 yards down the path. “When is this going to end?” he muttered. As he made the turn and lifted the nose again, his heart sank.  He kept lifting that nose higher and higher until a steep incline of about 30 yards was starring him in the face. Cut up with rocks and a small trickle of water from the rain it seemed to be put there on purpose just to test the mettle of anyone thinking they could beat the Bonfield-Dickson. He gave out a loud roar in frustration.

Next to him were two trees that formed a perfect cradle that others had used to set their canoes onto and take a break before the climb, the paint on the bark testifying to their giving in to temptation. “Who would know” he thought, his aching body screaming at him to take a break. “I would know!” He shouted at the top of his lungs. “I would know!” The second shout startling birds to take flight and a nearby squirrel to start chattering to his neighbors about the nut in the forest.

“One step at a time” and he began to climb. It was the longest 30 yards of his young life. Stopping every couple of steps to be sure of his footing and catch his breath. Not only was he climbing uphill, but he had to keep the nose up to keep from hitting into the slope. It took every ounce of energy from every cell in his body to keep moving forward, upward.

 A few yards from the top a misstep and a slip brought him down to a knee. He thought he was done. But his mind snapped into over drive and with another cry for strength lifted himself up and cleared the top with another loud declaration, “My God that was brutal!”

Looking down the trail, there was still no telltale signs of the end. An hour and ten minutes in and still just a forest full of trees. He pressed on but after only a few yards from moving past the crest he could feel his body quitting on him. The nose of the canoe started to drop and he just didn’t have the strength to pull it back up. He fought it all the way down until it settled into the sandy trail. He was done.

He stood there frozen, gasping for air, his chest heaving in and out. His shoulders were totally numb now, his back racked in pain, the weight of the Bonfield-Dickson crushing him into submission. Sweat was pouring down his cheeks, or was it tears. He took the kerchief and wiped his face and gathered his thoughts. He spoke out almost delirious, “What’s it gonna be Tom? You going to quit or are you going to pull your nose up outta the dirt and finish this thing!” The sweat was pouring like a river clouding his eyes. He wiped his face again. All he could see was the nose of the canoe stuck in the sand.

SAND! He shouted “Sand!” A sign a lake was nearby. Now, he was delirious! “SAND!” He found his last sour ball and with new found energy got the nose to start, at first a slow, painful climb up, then, finally past the tipping point and back up to level and he was standing upright. He took a step, then another, and another, and another. Forty yards down the trail there was a bend and a down slope. There was more sand on the path than dirt now and then, that tell tale break in the tree line, blue sky! He was near the end.

He picked up his pace with his last ounce of strength. He knew his legs were going to give out any minute now. Use it or lose it, he figured. The trail continued a downward slope and the tree line was opening up even more and then, he felt it, that cool air coming off the lake. He lifted the nose up one more time and he could see the beautiful blue water of Bonfield Lake. Dickson Lake was an hour and fifteen minutes behind him.

He made the beach and crashed into the water like a runner busting through the tape at the finish line. With his last, truly his last ounce of energy flipped the canoe gently down and collapsed into the water beside it. He laid there, one hand on the gunnel, the two floating on the water as if they were one. He had never felt such exhaustion and elation at the same time. The cool water was soothing his aching body and the hot, beautiful summer Canadian sun was warming his face. He had made it. The Bonfield-Dickson portage was his and he just wanted to lay there and soak it all in.

And, for a moment he did. He deserved too. But then he thought of his buddies and how they would be looking for him to double back and give them a lift. A smile of satisfaction came across his face. Soon they would all have crossed the Bonfield-Dickson and put their burdens down. They would load in the canoes and be out on the water laughing and joking as they had every day of the trip. It wouldn’t matter if someone had crossed the portage non-stop or not. There would be ribbing and joking around the camp fire either way.

It was a personal choice to go for it and you were applauded for it if you did. But, if you stopped and kept your own pace you were applauded as well because they all knew, eventually they’d get there, one step at a time. They were a team and they cheered each other on. They were experiencing ten days being in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  They all shared in that and loved each other for it.  There is nothing more intimate and God like than a friend who says “I am here for you, let me help you carry that.”His friends were counting on him. He pulled the canoe up onto the beach and started back up the trail. At first just a walk, then as his body came back to him, a faster pace.

Thomas Porter had just climbed a mountain along a portage of 3 1/3 miles called the Bonfield-Dickson and won. He carried his burden with dignity and grace and at the end, gently put it down. He started to laugh, then, he started to run. He never felt so free.

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