The Portage – Voyageur’s Burden
Portage is a French word meaning carrying place. The word is used to describe a place where you must carry your equipment and provisions across a stretch of land to the next section of water that can be safely navigated in a canoe. The path may be short or it may be long. It may be flat and easy to walk or it may go up and down across rocks or through deep mud.
For the voyageurs it meant carrying a heavy load at a trot. Although it broke the monotony of paddling, the effort to carry the bundles of furs or trade goods probably made the portage an unwelcome break.
It is likely that voyageurs often tried to find ways to avoid or shorten the portages. Sometimes they may have attempted to run rapids and this often had disastrous results. A diving expedition has found evidence of many lost provisions at the bottom of Lower Basswood Falls, a notorious rapids along the Canadian border in northeastern Minnesota, a route known to have been used by the fur traders.
The northeastern area of Minnesota and the area of Ontario, Canada that lies immediately north is dotted with thousands of lakes. Some lakes are connected directly by small rivers or streams. But most are separated by sections of land that may be just a few yards wide or several miles. Even where the lakes are connected by streams, rapids and beaver dams may make it impossible to travel through in a canoe.
Most of the portages used by the voyageurs were first established by the Indians. Some of these are still being used today by visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota and the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. Some campsites in these two large wilderness areas are also known to have been used for hundreds of years.