Paddle to D.C. Dispatches V: Canoe Cart Portaging Tips

The Freemans share canoe portage Dos and Don’ts from the expedition trail

The last time that we heard from Dave and Amy Freeman, the canoe-tripping couple was heading east across the Canadian Shield, plugging along with their message about the sulfide ore-mining threat to the Boundary Waters.
Crossing through Quebec in their signature-laden canoe ‘Sig,’ they check in from a portage-studded section of their route from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., highlighting some canoe-cart portaging Dos and Don'ts in this latest dispatch from their ongoing series of lessons learned during their 2,000-mile expedition across the Northeast.
(Read the previous dispatch, Part IV: Destination Mattawa River.)

Photo: Dave Freeman
Dave on the Montreal portage slog with SIG. Photo: Amy Freeman

Some portaging purists may frown upon the mere thought of using a canoe cart to portage. But in our contrived route to reach Washington, D.C., before too much snow flies, I've come to grips with the fact that a cart makes life significantly easier when portaging for several miles on (sometimes urban) roads.

Our most significant portage to date along our current route has been in the Montreal, Quebec area. We had two options: Paddle about 100 miles to where the Richelieu River meets the St. Lawrence River, or portage for about 14 miles from Montreal to a spot much farther south on the Richelieu. With the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder, we agreed that portaging was in our best interest.

So Dave and I found ourselves wheeling our loaded canoe on the shoulder of a busy yet flat street with wide shoulders for 14 miles. With the exception of squeezing in between concrete barricades in a construction zone, the portage was relatively easy and uneventful. In case you're curious about what it takes to pull off an urban portage with a cart, I'll share a few tips with you.

The right cart for the job. We opted for big bicycle-style tires because we knew we'd be on a paved road for the most part. Also, for going a long distance, wheels with bearings will be much better than bushings.

Study your route options ahead of time. Google Street View is really handy to get a sense of the road, traffic and size of the shoulder. You don't want to put yourself in harm's way on a narrow, winding, busy road with no shoulder. Oh yeah—hills can also be challenging.

Wear bright colors. One would hope that drivers would notice the 16-plus-foot object you're towing, but I always feel a little better if I'm wearing something that makes me visible.

Load the boat strategically. You can achieve near-perfect balance with the cart so you don't have to lift at all as you roll—with wheels and gear in the middle of the boat.

Don't exceed the weight limits! Actually, don't come close to the weight limit of your cart. After we contacted a manufacturer about a cart that fell apart, we learned that the weight limit listed is the static weight; bumping down a rocky trail can easily double the force applied to a cart.

Consider rigging up some sort of harness/tow system for a long haul. A rope or webbing looped over your shoulder works. However, it was a pretty sweet ah-ha moment when I first hooked up my North Water Sea Tec Tow belt.

Pack footwear fitting for a long walk. Rubber boots or paddling booties can be pretty hard on your feet as you tread on pavement or gravel.

Not just canoes. Nope, you're not limited to doing this with a canoe. We've used carts with our sea kayaks as well.

Happy Portaging!

–Read C&K’s review of 5 portage carts.

 ... another reminder on the fitting footwear point. (Photo: Dave Freeman)
… another reminder on the footwear point. (Photo: Dave Freeman)

— The Freemans will be sending in a series of dispatches from their Paddle to D.C. journey, highlighting skills, destinations and lessons learned as they paddle, portage, and sail SIG across the country.
Click to read Part I: Lessons from the Grand Portage,
Part II: Superior Paddling Destinations,
Part III: Upstream Travel Advice, and Part IV: Destination Mattawa River

— Watch Nate Ptacek‘s film on the Freeman’s expedition and cause.