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Phantom of the Peat Bog

So there I was, at Opeongo Lake, Ontario following a late night drive and fitful sleep in the back of a small sedan. It'd been a long summer of work while planning the canoe route I would take: go the hard way with the most portages, and the fewest humans to relate to. In early September, the holiday crowds were gone, with just the basics of eating, sleeping, and paddling to keep me occupied.

I traveled up the North Arm of Opeongo, over the 2180 meter portage to Happy Isle lake, 930 meter portage to Shiner lake, and started the 1855 meter portage to no-name pond with the days goal being Otterslide Lake. I was approaching the end of a 15 mile-all day paddling and portaging frenzy, single carrying the pack and canoe, both feeling heavier than when I started in the morning. The sun was getting low when I noticed the trail was petering out.

There's not much worse than carrying a shoulder numbing load down the wrong path, so I ditched the boat and pack and started hunting for the trail. After 3 moose trails that dead-ended, I followed a creek bed that emptied into the pond. Success! I trotted back, grabbed the gear, and headed on down. "No problem", I thought, "back on the trail". I started paddling with the portage sign visible across the pond 400 yards away.

The paddling turned into shallow stroking, then pushing through swamp stuff, then hard surging strokes to move the boat several feet, and ended with a final exhausting heave with the boat moving an inch. I was stuck. Looking around, I saw some grass shoots growing near me, a bad sign. Over my right shoulder, I saw another portage sign, where I should have started, probably with deeper water. I had food and water for several days, but wasn't about to stay where I was.

As a card carrying Young and Dumb member, I decided to strip down to my running shorts, take the bowline, and leap out onto the grassy area to pull the boat toward the shore. All went well until I landed; I was up to my waist in a peat bog, 5 feet from the boat. My legs would not come out, the boat would not come closer, and I was holding onto a skinny " bowline that I did not want to break. Check number one: Was I sinking? Nope. Could I dig out? Maybe. Would I turn into Bre'r Rabbit and Tar baby if I stuck my arm down into the bog? Not sure. Would I be preserved 4000 years like the Scotsman they found tossed into a peat bog? Didn't want to be.

I dug one leg out and loosened the other. I thought of walking on hands and knees over to the boat, but did not want my arms stuck deep and my head close to the bog until I drowned. With time to think, I realized my comic strip hero, the Phantom, (the guy with the skull on his ring) had spread his weight out in the quicksand and got to shore, so I did the same, crawling with my forearms and shins against the bog until I was safely back in the boat. Yup, back in the boat, food and water for several days, but wasn't about to stay where I was.

New plan: Spread the tent groundcloth onto the bog ahead of the boat, place my PFD on top, step gently onto it, and pull the 16' boat past, step in, pick up the platform, and repeat the process. Five pulls and 90 feet later, I was able to move the boat by paddling.

The last 540 meter portage ended in the dark when I finally launched onto Otterslide Lake. Tired, hungry, with little pieces of dried peat bog itching inside my pants, I made for the first marked campsite. Occupied. People. As was the second. How did they get there? From where? Were they masochists?

The third camp site was open, with a waxing moon shining when I set up camp and washed up. I spent an uneventful evening questioning where these people came from. In the morning sun, the map showed a long but fairly easy paddle from the main access point to Otterslide lake. Question answered, I had another days paddle to get on with.

Submitted by Steve Rosenau, Denver, NC

For more great stories: See the Archive!

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