Portage: A Family, a Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life
It’s late autumn in the Upper Midwest, which is to say still the beginning of the 5-months-long reign of cold, dark austerity that is November through March. Even the cheeriest of personalities may be forgiven for feeling forlorn by the oppressive and unrelenting regime of the climate – leaden gray skies above with an increasingly shrinking window of actual daylight, while all the world before us appears as lackluster as it gets, your choice of brown or beige in a corporeal landscape otherwise drained of its vital signs; and where the magnificent flora lies either anemic or in a coma, with the majestic fauna sensibly flown away or burrowed below in hibernation. And when your passion is paddling, each year around this time the inevitable question re-arises: why on Earth do we live in a climate prone to such cold extremes, where we can’t do what we love year-round, but instead squeeze it all between late April and early October?
We can’t answer that existential question for you, not even by offering the stop-gap measure of paddling Badfish Creek or Lake Columbia in winter. But just as eager gardeners ply through the pages of mail-order seed catalogues in the new year before the ground has thawed, reading about heirloom this and varietal that, each page awash in almost lurid, mouth-watering images of purple beets, liquid-red peppers, lettuce so green it might even taste good – the paddler, locked out by frozen lakes and streams, can find an escapist oasis in the pages of Sue Leaf’s charming, delightful book, Portage: a Family, a Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life.
“Portage” is an admirably winsome and thought-provoking chronicle of one woman’s selective adventures in a canoe, always with her husband, often with their children, spanning a period of four decades. A native and lifelong Minnesotan, Ms. Leaf describes herself as an “incurable scribbler” and writes with humor and grandeur in a modest voice that goes hand in mitten with the Midwest. And while some of the trip destinations are what one might expect – a few forays in the Boundary Waters, a jaunt to Killarney; urban novelties like paddling through the locks of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis or past the suburban better homes and gardens along Minnehaha Creek – others are enticingly diverse, such as the Upper Missouri River in Montana and the Little Missouri River in North Dakota, a bayou down in Louisiana or a wilderness bog in Nova Scotia. There’s something in this book for everybody, for while it is about paddling in a canoe, it’s so much more than that. Each chapter is a reflection of either a philosophical or historical theme, sometimes both, relative the destination of its time on the water. You could say the same about novels or movies that are road trips, where the car and open road are mere catalyst for expository contemplation. A canoe and the open “rowed,” as it were.
What We Like:
First off, before you even open the book, the cover alone will snag your attention. Yes, yes – I well know that books ought not be judged by their covers alone – but Portageis so dang gorgeous! I just love the look of it, the fonts, the colors, the retro station wagon with an aluminum canoe lashed to its roof. It’s marvelous.
But no book, however fetching its cover or clever its title, is worth its salt without toothsome writing. Here’s just a small taste of the prose…
“I could see flowers blooming amid cattails, white blooms with pointed green leaves, pink domes with feathery edges” – describing a familiar childhood lake that likely set the stage for a life of loving the outdoors. Or invoking a nerve-wracking set of rapids on the Kettle River — “Down we plunged into them, the froth and the foam.” Check out these two beauties, both from a trip to Isle Royale National Park: “the dark teal island, the ice blue sky, the cerulean waters catching the sunlight, dazzling us with sparkles” upon seeing the largest island on the planet’s largest freshwater lake; and “Most of the time the only sound was the lap of waves, the susurration of wind through conifer boughs, and the glitter of bird music permeating the forest.”
The glitter of bird music permeating the forest! I mean, come on! She makes even a dam on the Niobrara River, in Nebraska, sound inspiring with words such as “skirting the cascading curtain of water.” And then sometimes it’s a simple coupling such as “White Ibises and blooming irises” or canoes that are “battered by rocks and beset by rapids.” Whatever the passage, whichever the chapter, Ms. Leaf can wax eloquence.
On the surface, each chapter is simply a recapitulation of a particular paddling trip – the good, the regrettable, the sacred and profane. But beneath each surface structure is a subculture of motifs, sometimes geological, sometimes historical – but often both. Ghosts from the past, ancient and recent, are characters through these chapters, juxtaposed with the chronological trajectory of the writer’s life and those of her children.
Most anyone could chronicle their paddling adventures into a compendium for others to read – we started here, finished there, and along the way experienced this, that, and these other things. It takes commendable skill to combine one’s own experiences with history and metaphor. Some chapters find her in the shadow of Louis and Clark, Henry Schoolcraft, or a group of famed Canadian Painters of the early 20thCentury, others entwined in headier constructs like time, change, nostalgia. One of my favorite chapters features what I found to be the least interesting paddling prospect – the Red Lake River of Northwestern Minnesota – simply because she so deftly weaves a whole lot of capital-h History: glacial melt in the last Ice Age creating present day lakes and river systems, American Indians and French missionaries, the Métis culture that mixed both, and ignominious treaties between tribes and the federal government. The paddle itself sounded boring as hell, but the peripheral storytelling was riveting. Sometimes these legacies are figuratively marked on a landscape, other times they are literally still there, as in case of wagon wheel ruts and glacial outwash pits.
While I myself delight in reading about rivers that are foreign and exotic to me, there’s an undeniable charm to those streams I do know, especially on an intimate level. No strangers to the Badger State, several chapters in “Portage” take place on Wisconsin waters, be they the sea caves on Lake Superior, the nearby Bois Brule River, the White River in Ashland County, the St. Croix River, the Kickapoo River, and even the Fox River, in – you guessed it! – Portage. Even the Upper Iowa River – by any standard, one of the most gorgeous streams in the Midwest – gets the due it deserves.
If books had hit singles the way albums due upon their new release, I’d contend that the chapter titled “Wild and Scenic: the Upper St. Croix River 2011” deserves a lot of airplay. Nine pages long, it perfectly distills everything in the book from crowds versus solitude, home versus cabin, protected environment versus exploitation; the landscape as present day opportunity while still bearing the hallmarks of history, and the long, drawn, quiet but unwavering recovery of an ecosystem after decades of scarred and scary abuse, serendipity following depredation, seedlings among the ashes. With comic aplomb she contrasts invasive Zebra mussels with local (but hilariously named) species such as the “snuffbox” and “spectaclecase,” as well as one deadpan moment as good as a Smothers Brothers shtick involving a capuchin monkey (without the hat) seen for a second, while bicycle-shuttling after reaching their take-out. Or maybe it was a fox. In the final paragraph she teases the reader to consider the subtle distinction between recreationand re-creation. The Upper St. Croix River, one of the first to be designated “wild and scenic” by Congress 50 years ago, embodies that very duality better than anywhere.
Ms Leaf also captures feminine sensibilities. In an old fishing resort in Ontario, outside of Killarney, she writes that the lodge she and her husband would stay in for a night was “not accustomed to hosting women,” which she prefaced beforehand with “and I write this with complete certainty.” Or, much later in the book, after describing a bank-side lunch of pretzel rolls, turkey, goat cheese, pears, and chocolate, “One could guess, rightly, that women packed the lunch.”
One of my favorite asides is when she matter-of-factly states, “I am always happy to meet a woman; believe it or not, they are not all that common on most rivers, and I pay more attention to their assessment of a river, thinking, perhaps wrongly, they will be less inclined to machismo.” I can hear almost every single woman friend/paddler of mine articulate that sentiment more or less verbatim. No question about it: there are some dumb things we guys do, and lead others to doing, too, for which apparently we have no knack for tact or convenience. Plus what a long distance goes the simple act of packing a little chocolate for lunch.
There are many, many funny moments in the book – moments that are universally funny to anyone, some only to her in a you-had-to-be-there kind of way, and still others that are funny just by her droll prose. Before launching on the Marias River in Montana for a multiday excursion with her husband, they ended up buying a perfectly worthless snake bite kit that they both well knew would have no actual prophylactic power – both having backgrounds in science – but instead a purely talismanic one, to help ward off the snakes. Who hasn’t done the same buying overpriced pepper spray marketed against grizzly bears when hiking/camping out west? Or how about when it took her husband three times to get his belongings together before getting in a canoe for a little day trip – putting the car key in a dry bag inside a second bag before remembering the car was never locked; or the sunscreen, in a different bag, or changing into water sandals, which were in the now-locked car, which meant…you get the idea – probably because you’ve been there and done that. We all have.
Or just, “Why is it that we never think of gin and tonics on a canoe trip?” Again, this is from Isle Royale, where they’d celebrated their 25thanniversary, toasting with filtered Lake Superior water. I love their simplicity and dedication to paddling and camping; but I love too this totally understandable, almost naïve question – why don’twethink of such a grown-up luxury like a little G&T?
In one passage any contemporary parent can relate to (as well as childless adults with a Luddite predilection), when contrasting her consternation that a nasty thunderstorm was afoot with her grownup son’s nonchalance, she writes that her husband and she “had consulted the Weather Underground website and then looked at the sky. The millennials looked at real-time radar maps, which showed the movement of actual storms and knewthe future” (italics hers). Hilarious.
But there are many serious moments in the book, too, as one would expect when chronicling paddle and camping trips for some 35 years. One that resonated with me particularly was likening a moment of mixed dread and reckoning when finding herself and family – young kiddos at this point – lost in the Upper Mississippi River in a cattail marsh. “I recognized the same helpless feeling I had had some years before in childbirth, “ she writes, “of being faced with a nearly impossible situation, requiring physical strength I did not have, and yet having no option but to proceed.” I myself can’t relate to childbirth, but I know all too well that same hopeless panic of defeated fatigue that simply must endure and persevere, despite hardship, hunger, darkness, cold, as there simply is no alternative.
Elsewhere, she masterfully combines humor and seriousness when paddling the Upper Missouri River. First she reflects on their solitude in so vast and majestic a place. “In the golden light of sunset, amid the sweet scent of wild roses and the melodious call of birds, it seemed a secret pleasure: we were all by ourselves!” But then, after a storm of frigid rain and lashing winds, “as lightning flashed and the wind tossed the cottonwood boughs, shrieking with intensity,” the utter solitude solicited sheer fear: “we were all by ourselves!”
There’s philosophy and food for thought in these pages as well, ranging from conscience, observation, and provocation. One of the hallmarks of parenting is introducing your brood to what you yourself cherished in childhood, or even later in life, so as either to continue a tradition or create one by giving your kids a heads-up. Like many Minnesotans, particularly those with a canoeing inclination, the author and her husband introduced their children to the Boundary Waters as soon as they were fit for it in what must be a kind of enviable rite of passage, hoping of course that something would kindle within them the way it had for them before they’d had kids. On this return trip, an introductory exposure for their kids, Leaf silently witnessed much change in the park, to her regret: “They [her children] didn’t see the deeply trampled portage paths and wonder how many boots had pressed down upon the soil, exposing the gnarled tree roots, and making the rocks seem to rise from below.” She would return once more with her husband, sans kids, in a chapter intuitively titled “Loving It to Death” – their last trip to BWCAW.
Sometimes she cross examines herself, as in the final chapter of the book, ostensibly about the Au Sable River in Michigan, but really about the present state of the planet, climate change, population expansion, wherein she writes, “We, of course, Do the Right Thing – and yet, did we not drive eight hundred miles to a river in Michigan, when we have perfectly wonderful rivers to canoe in Minnesota?” As a paddler, I totally get this. I always wish to explore somewhere new, which means driving, which means burning fossil fuels, which means contributing to the problem. And guess what? The boat I sit in and the paddle I use to make it move, both are made of plastic, which comes from oil, which also contributes to this problem. It’s a question we all must wrestle with.
In a later chapter she reflects on wilderness: “It seems to me that the reverence in which the Boundary Waters is held and the high demand to experience it is just a nonsense dream, pursued in the same way well-heeled people pursue a new craft beer or a trendy restaurant… In truth the sacred is all around us.” Elsewhere, in two separate chapters she muses, “Does wilderness exist because we do not know everything, and if we did, would there be no wilderness?” and “What really defines wilderness? Is it an actual place, or is it a state of mind?” I don’t know about you, but I get really excited thinking about what actually constitutes wilderness; is it truly a measurable, physical place, or a mental construct that says more about trying to atone for our ravished sins in making a rich nation than it does about where the wild things are? To wit, is wilderness simply where humankind is not? Or is it a place we’re permitted to trespass lightly, quickly, by boot or boat, without roads, towers, wires, buildings of any kind beyond beaver dams, bird nests, and dens of umpteen critters? And what about the far more approachable cousin once removed of wilderness some of us like to call wildness? Is wilderness a wolf, wildness a coyote?
(Hint: no. These are, at best, imprecise, impractical distinctions that are irrelevant to the reality of blurred lines and porous borders, physical andpsychological.)
A former professor in biology and environmental science, Ms Leaf – actually, Dr. Leaf – holds a doctorate in zoology from the University of Minnesota. She doesn’t state that anywhere in the book – I took the liberty of looking up her bio online – but it comes as no surprise given her adulation for birds, observations on plant and tree types, fondness for fungi, etc. In one chapter she wonders aloud why we have departments of natural “resources,” as in fungible, tangible things that can be harvested as commodities, be they chafes of wheat, cranberry bogs, rainbow trout, or trophy bucks – as opposed to creatures of living reverence. Imagine that: a Department of Natural Reverence! (Well, maybe in Vermont…)
In a chapter aptly titled “Transition,” which centers around a trip to Kejimkujik National Park, in Nova Scotia – but is equally about becoming empty nesters after their youngest child went off to college – she shares a metaphor of life being a river: we start out, really as spawn, where the stream is small but all the while moving downstream, the current gradually quickening with less and less time to stop and play, and now a boulder or two, a downed tree or three – obstacles impeding your progress. But you plod on, as you must. Unmistakably, a distant thunderous roar can be heard. At first a murmur, the sound gets steadier, eventually deafening. Sure enough, there’s a waterfall – one “that would be best to portage around, but of course, you can’t… You will go over that waterfall.” And maybe a few more, too, after that initial one. And we may well merge with another stream, two as one now. But eventually we slow down towards the end, sometimes to a stillness. The sea is the great dissolver.
In closing the chapter about Isle Royale, she writes with grace, “How wise the people were who dreamed of this park – who envisioned a lasting value for a landscape that was not dramatic, that did not have deep canyons, soaring mountains, or oddities like geysers. How fortunate that they realized that water and woods, wind and isolation are enough to restore a soul and should be preserved for future generations.” I’d say much the same to her and her incurable scribbling. That she put together such a worthy book and let it stand robustly for its good writing and engaging storytelling. No, she’s not paddling with orcas in the San Juans, past Scottish castles or Buddhist pagodas. She’s not circumnavigating Cuba or Vancouver Island. And neither is she attempting first descents down 100’ waterfalls in Patagonia. She knew well enough that a good book can grab you by the collar not by derring-do or adrenaline, but the essentials of soothing comfort. How lucky are we to have such a book!
The Final Word:
I began reading “Portage” around this time last year. I’d borrowed it from the public library but had to return it well before I could finish it. On the chalkboard in my living room I wrote down her name and the book’s title, knowing that I needed to buy it for myself and finish it – and then write this review, as I knew too that I had to share this book with others.
Like a good narrative arc should, Ms Leaf begins the book in her childhood, when a wild wonder of the outside world – and water specifically – took root in her, which would burgeon brightly all her life. She ends the book some sixty years later, but also with a nod to her past, this time in high school, when she was first posed the essential question: what constitutes the good life? You realize, as the reader, it’s all these adventures, companionship, and lessons learned – the college of ecology, the onion layers of history, geological and anthrocentric – all of these, added up, are her answer to what is the good life. In other words, the good life is what is, what has been.
It’s a good book.
While reading it there were many times I felt like I knew her and her husband. I don’t, of course, and likely never will. But such is a testament to the power of her prose. Still though, I would love to go paddling with them sometime, near or afar. And rest assured, I’d pack in the gin and tonic for a well-deserved cheers.
Author: Sue Leaf
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press