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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Carried Away!

Rediscovering the Wheel —
The Lure of Portage Carts (and More)

By Tamia Nelson

March 7, 2006

A print made from a hand-tinted glass lantern slide lies before me on my desk. The original photograph was taken in the late nineteenth century. A white horse in a cart harness waits quietly for the photographer to finish his exposure, while his sour-faced driver stands at the forward end of an unsprung wagon, reins in hand, impatient to move off down the sandy track. A handful of onlookers clusters nearby, while in the distance a lush green wood extends right up to the water's edge. A two-tiered rack rises above the bed of the wagon, supporting four elegant Adirondack guideboats, the light but stable canoes in which grizzled locals rowed city-bred "sports" from one waterfront hotel to another, making occasional stops along the way to shoot a swimming deer or hook a brookie on a streamer.

This was Nessmuk country, and the photo I've just described was probably made around the time of his death in 1890. While most locals roughed it back then, many sporting gentlemen had the means and inclination to smooth it. Adirondack waterways were (and still are) a paddler's paradise. Portages linked pond to pond and lake to lake along scores of well-traveled routes, where hotels stood ready to cater to the needs of tired guests at the end of each invigorating day. Their guides weren't always so lucky, however. They did the heavy lifting, after all, and while guideboats were lightweight compared to other rowboats, they could never be mistaken for the ten-and-one-half pound Sairy Gamp made for Nessmuk by the "Little Giant," the Canton, New York, canoe builder J.H. Rushton. Hauling a waterlogged guideboat on your back over a steep esker was no more enjoyable in 1890 that it would be today. Nineteenth-century camping gear wasn't exactly lightweight, either. That's why many guides took advantage of wheeled carts or wagons to get their boats and baggage over the portages ("carries" in Adirondack parlance, then as now). If wheeled transport was lacking, horse-drawn sleds were sometimes pressed into service.

But Adirondack guides weren't the only ones to look for an easier way to portage their boats. Long before the Reverend William Murray's 1869 best-seller, Adventures in the Wilderness, lured thousands of city clerks, school teachers, and doctors into the Adirondacks — where they braved blackflies, bad food, and hurricane-force squalls in their pursuit of manly exercise and the simple life — the pragmatic "servants" of the Hudson's Bay Company were experimenting with rollers and rails in an effort to speed York boats across many of the portages on the Company's Main Line. They had no choice. York boats were simply too heavy to carry on the boatmen's shoulders. (Similar fixed rollers can be found on many Canadian portages today, particularly in popular fishing areas.) And in the Canadian West, Red River carts were frequently pressed into service by the Métis "wagon-men" to transport canoes from one prairie waterway to another. You'll find a contemporary (1847) illustration of a Red River cart being used for just this purpose in Peter C. Newman's Caesars of the Wilderness.

It's obvious that wheeled transport has long played a role in the history of canoeing. And as we've heard many times before…

History Repeats Itself

OK. The glory days of the Company lie in the past, and not many waterfront hotels remain along backcountry routes in the Adirondack Park. The voyageur, Orkney boatman, and Métis wagon-man are now only bit players in summer pageants, as is the unshaven Adirondack guide with a plug of tobacco in his cheek and the tattered remains of last winter's long johns still clinging to his spindly shanks. Most modern paddlers in search of a wilderness experience travel independently and carry their bedding in their boats. Luckily, today's boats and gear are lighter than their nineteenth-century counterparts. (Few of our canoes can better Sairy Gamp's minuscule weight, however.) But this hasn't exactly made portaging fun. Portages still test the resolve of canoeists and kayakers, and a lot of us find ourselves wishing we could hitch a ride on a Red River cart from time to time. This has led a few of us to…

Rediscover the Wheel

Of course, you won't see a Red River cart in the catalogs, but you'll find nearly everything else. On one end of the spectrum are the trailers intended to haul a rigid boat behind a bike. The upside? They'll save you money at the gas pump. And the downside? They're not really designed to be used as portage carts. If you own one, you may want to experiment. But if not, you'll probably want to look elsewhere.

The workhorses of wheeled backcountry transport — modern paddlers' Red River carts, if you will — are heavy-duty portage carts. They're pretty simple affairs: a steel or aluminum frame, a cradle of some sort for your boat, and a couple of wheels. The wheels fold away or come off when the cart's not in use, and the frame can often be collapsed. On the trail, two webbing straps hold your boat in the cradle, while pneumatic tires cushion the ride. (Don't forget a spare tube, patch kit, and pump!) Portage carts are simple to use, too. Lock the wheels in place. Adjust the frame to fit, and lash your boat securely, with the center thwart right over the center of the cart. Then just walk on down the trail, one paddler at each end. If your boat is tough enough, you won't even have to unload it — you can cross every portage in a single trip. Bliss! (A hint: To limit the strain on the hull, concentrate your gear in the center of your boat, right over the cart.) You'll have to carry the portage cart along with you on the water, of course, but it's worth it. There's probably no easier way to get a big freighter or sailing canoe across a long portage.

Does this sound like overkill? No problem. Move down-market. You'll find the heavy-duty portage cart's little brothers and sisters in almost every catalog. They have lighter frames, solid tires, and sometimes only one strap to hold your boat in place. They're not meant for loaded freighters, and they're not up to long hauls, but for most of us, they're plenty good enough. Some cradle one end of the boat, rather than the center. No problem. All of them will do the job, if you just keep their limitations in mind.

And while we're speaking of limitations, the devil's in the details, isn't it? Remember that…

What Goes Around

Comes around. And there's no such thing as a free launch. Then again, carrying your boat on your back ("backing" was the old Adirondack guides' word for it) isn't what I'd call easy, either. In fact, it can involve a lot of twisting and shouting. Not to mention the occasional sickly Crunch! followed almost immediately by a very expensive flight to an even more expensive ER. A cart will spare you all this. But — you knew there was a but coming, didn't you? — it ain't as easy as it looks. Few portage trails are smooth, dry, and level, and few carts negotiate roots, rocks, and mud holes with much grace. Larger wheels help, as do pneumatic tires, but sooner or later you'll discover why every wagon driver had a shovel strapped to the side of the box. And then there are the hills. Pushing and pulling your load uphill is usually just hard work, but easing it down the other side can be a real challenge. Most climbing accidents happen during the descent, and I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing were also true of portages. At any rate, more than a few Company boatmen died when their York boats got away from them on a long downhill grade. The upshot on downhills? On a really steep slope you may need to belay your boat for safety's sake. And what about beaches and swamps? Sand and water, particularly salt water, don't do bearings any good at all — and if your wheel bearings go, your cart is now a sledge. This is (with a nod to George Orwell) doubleplus ungood.

There's more. Do you have room for your cart inside your boat? If your boat is a kayak, the answer is probably No. How will a bulky 16- to 20-pound deck load affect your windage? Or your roll? Better find out before you leave for the put-in. Unless you anticipate a killer portage — not likely on a weekend adventure — you may decide to leave your wheels at home. And then there's the joker in the pack. Many parks and wilderness areas prohibit all forms of wheeled transport on portage trails, including bikes and portage carts. Curiously, the same areas may permit ATVs and snowmobiles, at least in some places. Occasionally, they're even permitted on the same trails. Go figure. I suppose this just goes to show that "tradition" is a mighty flexible rule when it's invoked to establish acceptable use. In any case, you don't want to get a ticket for illegal carting on the portage trail, do you? Certainly not. So learn the rules before you go.

Still interested in rediscovering the wheel? Then…

Let's go Shopping

There's not much to it, and most of what follows is just common sense. A portage cart isn't a Porsche, after all. It's a cart. Know how much you can afford to spend, and stay within your budget. (You don't want to spend much? Then check out garage sales in canoe country, or build your own.) Match your wheels to their intended use. A heavy-duty cart is out of place at a summer cottage, while a light-duty cart will be useless on a stony, three-mile portage, when you have a month's worth of food and gear in your boat. Make sure whatever cart you buy fits in your boat, and that your boat fits on whatever you buy — and be sure you can exchange it if it doesn't. Test you new cart under a full load before you hit the trail. Tackle a few hills, too. And buy any spare parts and tools you know you'll need long before you need them: patch kit, inner tubes (a spare tire might come in handy on an expedition), minipump, special wrenches, extra webbing, even waterproof grease and ball bearings.

That's it. Now you're ready to hit the trail.

We might live in the age of high-tech materials, but most of us would still be happy to take some of the weight off our shoulders if we could, particularly on the portage trail. That's why many canoeists and kayakers are rediscovering the wheel. So listen up. You just might hear a different beat in the music of the north wind — and it could be the rumble of a Red River cart. Will you be the next paddler to rock and roll your way through the backcountry? Stranger things have happened.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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