There’s probably a reason 70 per cent of the people who visit Ontario Parks never visit the interior. Portages. People think they’re ugly, uncomfortable exercises in self-abuse where even the beauty of the natural environment is mostly blocked from view by the canoe hull, hanging over you as you stomp along.
Some of the earlier recreational canoe trippers took these journeys to demonstrate religious devotion, to prove that they would endure any suffering to bring the word of God to people – and red squirrels – everywhere.
Me I just like the physical challenge. And I love to look at the places you can only get to by schlepping your boat and your gear down the trail on foot. They’re beautiful and relatively undisturbed.
However the traversing of some of them demonstrates more religious committment than others, shall we say. But which is the most piety-demonstrating portage out there?
For me there’s no one portage that takes the prize. Because there’s so many ways portages can be awful. And I have yet to find the perfect storm of length, danger and ickiness. So we’ll just go through the categories shall we?
Easy. 12km. The Basin Depot Death March. This stretch of portage avoids a long, unnavigable section of the Bonnechere River in Algonquin Park and also avoids portage trails. In fact most of the time you’re walking with your stuff down a dirt road suitable for your average motor vehicle. Technically not challenging but long? Hells yes.
Most technically difficult:
A tie between Fat Man’s and Bridal Veil along the Lady Evelyn River in Temagami. The Lady Evelyn pools and drops as it fills its homonymous lake with water from up Gowganda way. But it really drops. Over a series of water falls. This makes for short, steep portages.
On Bridal Veil you scramble up and down the walls of a deep ravine which involves turning the canoe sideways on your shoulders while facing forward when you get to the bottom, then scrambling up the other side, on hands and knees. With canoe.
Fat Man’s portage. The famous rock cut from which the portage gets its name is not actually the worst part of this one. The worst is the downstream end whereupon you discover a steep (I’m going to guess somewhere between 40 and 50 degrees) descent across rocks bigger than scree, but not quite boulders.
If the prospect of falling 20 feet face first onto jagged rocks with 50 or 60 pounds of gear on your back doesn’t get your heart racing, you were clearly killed coming across Bridal Veil and are now a portage zombie.
I know there are worse out there. Diamond Lake to Willow Island (also called the Diamond Death March) is reputed to be extremely swampy and – at 4km – promises to provide a proper religious experience. In fact it might be a good nominee for “worst overall”. But I’ve never done this one.
The one I have done that tops this category is McConnell Bay – Laura Lake in Chiniguchi. It’s not nearly as long as the Diamond Death March, but it’s got a good stretch of trail where an ability to walk on water - which is an appropriate, if rare, attribute in keeping with our religious suffering theme – would come in really handy.
It doesn’t matter, apparently, whether it’s a wet season or not. You’re looking at about 50 to 100m of wading through a swamp. A deep one.