So you want to step up your wilderness experience from paddling to portaging? Great. You’re going to love it. In short, the best stuff is over the portages, and the extra effort will be rewarding – especially when you find that fewer people will follow you over, giving you an unspoiled, solitary experience. (If you still need convincing, give this a read.)
For the sake of this article, let’s assume that you have experience paddling and camping. I’m going to go through the additional steps to take and the knowledge required to take the leap into portaging.
Usually, the first thing you’ll need is a destination. Deciding on this first will give you a better experience, allowing you to go somewhere you want to go, rather than just what’s available. First time portagers would probably be safer choosing a popular portaging location. Depending on your back-country camping experience, I’d first recommend Algonquin Provincial Park. It’s easy to get to, with lots of access points, facilities and outfitters on-site (or close enough). It’s also the safest place for beginners because the portages are (generally) easier, and in case something does go wrong, there’s plenty of other people around, and in many areas you’ll be close enough to access civilization.
Next I would suggest the Kawartha Highlands or Killarney Provincial Park. But if you’re a bit more of a seasoned camper, you may want to visit the Temagami area. For any of these locations, try to plan your route so that you’re not too far away, again for safety reasons. (That’s the beauty of the portage: In a lot of cases it’s the effort of carrying over that creates the solitude, not necessarily the distance.) But once you have a bit of experience under your belt, I would encourage you to go further in, for longer periods of time and in as many other places in these parks and many others.
Planning a route is getting easier and easier. First, you can check out some guide books. I’d recommend authors Hap Wilson and Kevin Callan. You can also search the internet for trip logs. Some great trips can be found at Canadian Canoe Routes and Mark in the Park – where you’ll find even more links to other sites with trip logs. In either case, you can copy an existing route or use it as a starting point to make a route more suited to you. The bonus is that reading the logs will get you an idea of what you’ll see and what to expect.
Next, you should get yourself a map of the area in which you’ll be travelling. Most areas known for portaging have one specific to the area. When looking for a good map, make sure it has marked campsites and portages. A great place to start your planning is at Jeff’s Maps, which has the most accurate and thorough maps of both Algonquin and Killarney. You can plan free, from the comfort of your computer, then order a waterproof version of the map you need to take with you.
The biggest planning problem you’ll face right away is determining how far to travel. This is a tough question, because it really depends on your fitness level, enthusiasm, as well as the length and difficulty of portages. I usually tell beginners that you shouldn’t plan to travel more than 8-10km a day. Depending on portages, rests, and hopefully some time spent to check out the scenery, this can take the whole day, but should give you plenty of time to get to camp and set up for the night. If you don’t think you’ll be that gung-ho, decrease the length.
As for the lengths of portages, usually beginners find anything bigger than 400m to be “too long”, but again, this is just a rule-of-thumb. Length is just one aspect of the portage’s difficulty. Read those trip logs if you can. If you’re planning on going over more than 4 portages, maybe decrease the day’s travel by a km or two.
Something else you might want to ask yourself is how much of your trip do you want to spend traveling. Would you rather portage into a destination where you’ll be making a base camp for your trip, then portaging out? Or does it sound more appealing to spend your entire trip traveling from one campsite to the next? No matter which you decide, try to plan for a rest day on every fourth day at least. This will give you a chance to re-charge and reorganize.
Once your route is planned, it’s time to make your reservations. You’ll first need to call and tell them which park, which access point you’ll be entering and which lakes you’ll be spending each night. They’ll also ask how many people will be in your party, along with your personal information and of course a credit card to pay the deposit. Do this as soon as you can to ensure you can get your desired route. You can reserve up to 5 months in advance, and for popular areas with fewer campsites, many people do.
Next, call the closest outfitters. If you’re a paddler, you may already have a canoe. But before you try and save some money by using your own, ask yourself whether or not you’d want to carry yours over a 500m rocky portage, and will it stand up to the occasional rock bump, scratch or drop (it happens) – and even if so, is it worth the money being saved. And yes, you can portage in a kayak, but for brevity, I’ll just say that I wouldn’t recommend it.
You’ll need a canoe for every two people on your trip. If you’re group is uneven or has kids, I’d recommend trying to rent a 3-seater.
The outfitter will also have anything else you might need, or at least make your portaging experience a little easier. But we’ll get into that in the next installment when I discuss the gear you’ll need and provide some other tips for when you get out there.