When forging a route in the wilds of northern Canada, linking various watersheds into one glorious line, you will inevitably find yourself in the midst of an untracked wilderness with no trails to speak of. You will face a seemingly endless wall of 'Pecker Pole' spruce forest interspersed with leg-sucking 'Sphagnum Swamp' that stands between you and the next lake. There is no relief, no magical way through for your gear and canoe.
Shauna Liora and I found ourselves in such a situation at the end of the ironically named 'Door Portage Lake' in northern Manitoba during a 25-day, 1,060-kilometre journey from Saskatchewan to Hudson Bay this summer. Scouring the shoreline for a trail, we found nothing—not even an animal trail. On the map, this seemed like the shortest and best route to get to the source of the South Seal River at Chiupka Lake. Perhaps there was once a route here, but usually paths not used for decades give you at least some sort of clue as to their former existence as vegetation grows very slowly in the thinning treeline at the northern edge of the great boreal forest. You expect at least a furrowed indentation to give you hope that you don't have to plow onward into that most hideous of tasks... the BUSHWHACK PORTAGE.
Using a compass to hold our general direction, I heave our on my head and start out, skirting a floating sphagnum swamp by heading onto higher ground and into a seemingly impenetrable thicket of black spruce. Shauna falls in behind with a massive 115 litre pack that seems twice the size of her. I try to become one with my inner moose, powering the canoe through like a battering ram until the forest refuses to let us pass through. I'm reduced to dropping the canoe and groveling on the ground, yanking it sideways, inch by inch, to fit through the narrow slots between the trees like I'm playing a very analog game of Tetris in the wilderness. After eventually breaking out into a temporary reprieve of an opening, we drop our loads and rest for a moment alongside our very eager mosquito and black fly friends. Our little winged forest companions never let us rest for long, always driving us onward, motivating us from the sidelines like a verbally abusive football coach.
Marking the spot with the GPS, we double back for our second load. Once everything is halfway, we descend through Pecker Pole forest again and then finally descend into the Sphagnum Swamp. We avoided this up until this point but now have no choice but to venture in. Though seemingly solid ground from a distance, we realize that once we're in it, we're walking on about a metre of floating moss over an abyss of inky water. It immediately grabs at my legs, eagerly absorbing me with my hundred-pound load until I'm crotch deep and have to hurl the canoe from my head so I don't disappear into the swamp entirely, as if I've spontaneously combusted with a lone canoe sitting on top of the moss as the only evidence of my existence there.
Finally, the lake comes into view and we painstakingly, step-by-foot-sucking-step, make our way there. Dropping our loads, exhausted, we high-five each other and raise our arms in victory, welcoming the breeze from the lake that instantly drives away our insect guests like couch-surfing friends who have overstayed their welcome.
A bushwhack portage is really just a metaphor for life: a lesson in perspective. We all face seemingly insurmountable obstacles from time to time—those proverbial 'Pecker Pole Sphagnum Swamp' moments that seem impossible to get through at first. Like the bushwhack, we just have to move forward—even if only an inch at a time—and we'll get past these crises to the beautiful ‘lake of life,’ where the good times can resume again.