Photos by: Ken Buck
The late Bill Mason famously said, “Anyone who tells you portaging is fun is either a liar or crazy.” But in the same breath, the iconic canoeist and filmmaker would note that a little suffering goes a long way in escaping crowds of people, making the portage a gateway to wilderness paddling. It’s this element of portability that makes the canoe so perfectly suited to traveling lake-to-lake or descending wild rivers—or for going from the roof rack to the beach.
When it comes time to shoulder a 70-pound canoe and haul it across a rough trail, Quebec-based whitewater paddler and Canoe & Kayak technique guru Paul Mason shares his father’s attitude. As a teenager, when his father was filming the National Film Board of Canada’s acclaimed Path of the Paddle series, Paul remembers pacing the rugged trails of the Petawawa River time and again in search of the perfect shot. “Portaging seems logical when you’re confronted with a rapid you don’t want to paddle,” he says. “But about halfway through the carry, the canoe always feels heavier and you start second-guessing whether or not you should’ve run it instead.” — Conor Mihell
Suitcase-style: For short carries of 100 feet or less, such as moving the canoe from the vehicle to the water’s edge or lifting over a beaver dam, Mason prefers a tandem upright carry. Paddlers stand on opposite sides of the canoe and use the carry handles at the bow and stern.
Tandem carry: Two paddlers can carry the canoe upside down and overhead for longer portages on level terrain. Portaging with his 14-year-old daughter Willa, Mason turns the canoe backward and positions himself at the bow seat. Willa, meanwhile, stands at the stern. The pair then lift the canoe, with Mason resting the bow seat on his shoulders and Willa balancing the stern deck on one shoulder with her head outside of the canoe for better visibility in leading the way on the trail.
Teepee lift: The hardest thing about portaging solo is “committing to throwing the canoe onto your back,” Mason says. To eliminate this challenge, both paddlers lift and invert the bow of the canoe with the stern resting on the ground. From here, “it’s easy for one person to scoot under the center of the canoe while the other supports the bow,” Mason says. Use the same strategy to put the canoe down at the end of a portage or take a break.
Solo carry: Lifting a canoe alone requires more technique than strength. (1.) Stand amidships and slide the canoe up your shins, open side facing out. With your back straight, bend your knees and, grabbing the center of the carrying yoke with both hands, lift the canoe so that it rests on your thighs. Now reach across to the far gunwale with the hand closest to the bow. (2.) At this point, one option is to lift the leading leg to propel the canoe up to your shoulders—a slick maneuver that requires some balance and coordination. Mason prefers a more controlled lift: Letting go of the yoke with the hand closest the stern, reaching between your knees and curling your arm around the hull of the canoe. (3.) Simply lifting this arm will roll the canoe overhead in a controlled manner; pivot your body as you lift and rest the yoke on your shoulders. Reverse the procedure to put the canoe down.