A 100 Mile Portage

By Wes Babcock - Community Stories

What happens when you think you know how to hike when you have only planned canoe trips? You pack for a 100-mile portage. And (with any luck) you learn things.

I grew up paddling canoes around on lakes in the Canadian Shield. That’s where I learned to tell the time left before sunset with my outstretched hand, and how to exist without support beyond the things you carry around with you. It’s also where I began learning the long lesson: that I am not invincible and all knowing. This lesson is particularly long in the learning for me, perhaps, because I spent a number of seasons in charge of teaching it to 15 year-old boys, who knew far less than even I did. My comparative expertise made me feel pretty elite, but the honest truth is that I was quite competent at leading and organizing flat-water canoe trips in the hot season of less than two weeks duration, and not much else. When I was 17, I had also once co-led a group on a four-day hike, so I also considered myself more or less competent in this field of outdoor activity.

So, when my travel partner, David, and I decided that neither of us were willing to make the time commitment necessary to realize our plan of cycling across Canada, we decided on a less daunting 10-day hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail. As the ‘expert’ in long-term camping activities between the two of us, and as the owner of a whole bunch of canoe gear, I was in charge of planning our gear and menu for the trip. The plan was that my partner and I would drive 6 hours from Ottawa to Waterloo, and then the next day pick up David for the 10-hour drive to the AT, near Hanover, New Hampshire.

Now, one of the things I like best about canoe trips is that it’s possible to cook just about anything with a little ingenuity and a camp stove. Just for example, in the planning stages of one trip, I recall changing out the proposed “hotdogs” for steaks and marinated portabello mushrooms. I also grew up in a sort of odd trip culture, in which you crash through portages as hard and fast as possible, like they’re obstacles you defeat. These two factors combined to create the central blunder in the planning stages of this hiking trip.

First, it turns out that the reason you can cook pretty much anything on a canoe trip is that your food spends 95% of its time floating along, contributing to the inertia of your boat. It can weigh nearly any amount, because you don’t actually have to lift it except for the 5% of the day you’re crashing through a portage as hard and fast as you can.

We’d planned to hike through White Mountains National Forest, because it was reputed to be one of the most spectacular sections of the AT. Those who know about mountains (who, at the time was not me), know that “spectacular” basically means walking up and down a huge amount of vertical distance. This is because craggy things with lots of folds are “spectacular” and hiking involves walking across them. Here is where the second factor comes into play: it turns out that the model of crashing as hard and fast as you can through an obstacle is not sustainable over the course of 10 full days of walking through some of the most grueling terrain east of the Rockies. My packing strategy essentially conceptualized this trip as a 100-mile portage.

The learning curve on this multi-day trek was steep. Here are some of the more obvious mistakes. We arrived around 6pm and began the trip with a tasty burger meal, instead of packing our gear and heading 2 miles up the trail to our camping spot in daylight. My partner was supposed to drive the car back to Ottawa the next day, but we only had 2 sleeping bags for the 3 of us that first night. We over-packed food so extremely that while we’d planned a re-supply stop in to day 5 of the hike, even without stopping we ended up giving away several kilos of food we’d carried with us the whole way on the last evening. Based on the sleeping bag incident, you’d think we were underpacked on sleeping gear, but we carried a 3-person tent the whole way. Carrying rope and a tarp seemed like a good idea. For the first few days we laughed at people using trekking poles, before our over-loaded joints began crying in pain on the way up and down (read: with every step). I could go on, but you’re probably clever enough to get the point.

A lot of learning happened on this trip. With each step, my ankles shooting through with pain, I learned that I’m not invincible. I learned that every gram matters when you have to carry it on your back all day. I learned that high-top hiking boots exist to support the ligaments and tendons in your ankles during the repetitive process of walking all day. I learned that you need even more ingenuity to make tasty food hiking than canoeing, and that I had a lot more learning to do about this. I learned that Camembert comes in a can, like tuna, and it’s more delicious after 10 hours of walking than it has any right to be. I learned that luxury is a matter of perspective; it’s not luxurious to eat fried onions, no matter how good they taste, when you have to carry them for 3 days before you get to eat them (garlic is a much better choice in this regard; it has a high flavour to weight ratio). I learned that a pair of trekking poles is the third greatest asset to long distance hiking after proper footwear and a well-designed and lightweight backpack, no matter how goofy my invincible self thought they looked. Hurting yourself to look cool is always stupider than developing the proper skills and strategies to accomplish your desired goal.

I ended up doing several months of rehab on my ankles after this trip, and I still haven’t been able to run long distances (over 10km) without pain, so I’ve had to refigure some of my exercise activities. Thankfully, with rehab and moving into footwear with more ankle support (read: appropriate for the activity at hand), I’ve been able to profit from the lessons I learned making these mistakes by spending many more days moving step by step through the mountains. Since this trip, I’ve planned many hikes that were much less outrageously over-packed. That said, I feel obliged to mention the counter-lesson I learned on the next trip I planned. Over 6 of the most remote days of hiking I’ve ever done, I learned that under-packing is just as bad as over-packing; half an apple and 50g of peanuts is not sufficient for lunch when you’re walking all day.

Of course, there’s always more to learn, and isn’t that the joy of it?

Photos by David Albert-Lebrun

By Wes Babcock

Wes grew up in the suburban jungle of South-Western Ontario, and has been writing his way through the western hemisphere since he was legally able to leave home. After stints in Ottawa, Santiago de Chile, and Calgary, he has been resting his head on Canada’s East Coast for the past 2 years, in Halifax. He boulders, writes poetry and theatre, and travels. Look for his writing on NewOttawaCritics.com, or check out a Fringe Festival near you in 2017.

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