How to Portage a Canoe

Famous Bill Mason once famously quipped, “Anyone who tells you portaging is fun is either a liar or crazy.” 

But, at the same time, the iconic canoeist and filmmaker would admit that a little pain one has to sacrifice in running away from crowds of people, making the portage an entry to wilderness paddling. 

It’s this aspect of portability that makes the canoe so impeccably suited to roaming lake-to-lake or taming wild rivers–or for going from the roof stand to the beach.

Step By Step Guide To Portage A Canoe

  • Hold the Canoe gunwale with both of your hands and tilt in a way so the hull seems pushing your legs.
  • Just lift the canoe over your thighs and center it with your hands and raise it even higher (over your shoulder)
  • Shake the canoe from backward to upward to create a motion and push it even harder to your shoulder

What is the Definition of Portage

“Portage” is a French word.  It stands for “to carry.” Portages are calculated in meters, yards, or rods. Remember this measurement unit:

1 meter = 1.0936 yards 

1000 meters = 1 kilometer = 0.6215 miles 1 yard = 3 feet 1760 yards = 1 mile 1 Rod = 16.5 feet or 5.5 yards (about one canoe length) 320 Rods per mile (5280 feet)

When it comes time to transport a 70-pound canoe and drag it across a rough trail, Quebec-based whitewater paddler and Canoe & Kayak technique expert Paul Mason carries his father’s legacy. As a teenager, when his father was filming the National Film Board of Canada’s celebrated Path of the Paddle series, Paul remembers marching the rugged trails of the Petawawa River over and over again on the lookout for the perfect shot. 

“Portaging seems logical when you’re confronted with a rapid you don’t want to paddle,” he says. “But about halfway through the carry, the canoe always feels heavier and you start second-guessing whether or not you should’ve run it instead.” — Conor Mihell

Suitcase-style

For short distance stretching 100 feet or less, such as transporting the canoe from the vehicle to the water’s edge or lifting over a beaver dam, Mason suggests a tandem upright carry. Paddlers position themselves on opposite sides of the canoe and use the carry handles at the bow and stern.

Tandem carry

Two paddlers can bring the canoe on its head and overhead for longer portages on level ground. Mason shares portaging with his 14-year-old daughter Willa. He turns the canoe toward the back and sets himself at the bow seat. Willa, in the meantime, stands at the stern. 

The pair then raises the canoe, with Mason placing the bow seat on his shoulders and Willa stabilizing the stern deck on one shoulder. Then, Willa keeps her head outside of the canoe for better visibility in leading the way on the trail.

Teepee lift

The most difficult thing about portaging alone is “committing to throwing the canoe onto your back,” Mason says. To do away with this challenge, both paddlers raise and turn the bow of the canoe upside down with the stern resting on the ground. 

From here, “it’s easy for one person to scoot under the center of the canoe while the other supports the bow,” Mason says. Apply the same approach to place the canoe at the end of a portage or take time out.

Solo carry: Lifting a canoe alone is not all about strength. It’s actually more about technique.

  • Place amidships and slip the canoe up to your shins, unlock side facing out. First, keep your back straight, bend your knees. Then, grab the centre of the hauling yoke using both hands, raise the canoe so that it stays on your thighs.

Now reach across to the far gunwale with the hand closest to the bow.

  • At this moment, one option is to pick up the advanced leg to lift the canoe up to your shoulders–a slick plan that requires some balance and skill. Mason emphasizes on a more controlled raise: releasing the yoke with the hand next to the stern, reaching between your knees, and bending your arm around the hull of the canoe.
  • Just lifting this arm will turn over the canoe overhead in a controlled manner; spin your body as you lift and place the yoke on your shoulders. Overturn the process to place the canoe down.

Reprising the Part of Mr. Canoe Head

To some, it’s much easier to fill themselves up with bulky packs and come across the portage than it is to stabilize a canoe over their heads.

However, I much prefer to select the canoe. I’m not all that muscle bound and rely much more on technique rather than strength. Maybe this is why, I find handling this canoe is much easier.

Portaging, and most important, carrying a canoe over your head is all about technique, not strength.

To lift the canoe up over your head properly, follow these steps:

  • First of all, you have to stand amidship, holding the gunwale with both hands and tilting the canoe so the hull is pushed against your legs.
  • Then, proceed to grab the centre of the yoke with your right hand, lift the canoe up to your thighs. While the canoe is rested on your thighs, reach over and grasp the far gunwale with your left hand, just forward of the yoke.
  • The next part is the most significant but also the hardest. Start by rocking the canoe gently back and forth on your thighs like a pendulum.
  • Then, with one focused motion, tip the canoe over your head, with the yoke resting on your shoulders. Don’t worry. Your head and shoulder will magically shift the yoke on their own conveniently. Just make sure not to waver. The weight of the canoe will get lighter the faster you flip.

Remember this slogan: “Right-left-right-flip” and you’ll be fine.

At the trail’s end, rest the canoe “softly” down by applying the opposite procedure, making sure to lower the canoe onto your thighs first to evade smashing the hull against a rock.

And, you thought you had to suffer the most:

While passing by the historic Grand Portage, Alexander Mackenzie mentioned in his journal that voyageurs would set off on the 17-mile (30 km) track with two parcels of ninety pounds each, and return with two more of the same weight in under six hours

Two Heads are better than One

If you feel too nervous about carrying the canoe over your head on your own, then emulate what’s called a two person lift, after that a one person carry. Have your canoe partner stand close to the canoe near the bow and position yourself an arm’s length away.

Your position should be somewhere between the front seat and the yoke. Then, both of you take hold of the opposite gunwale with your left hand and the other gunwale with your right. 

Tip the canoe over your heads, making certain the back end of the canoe doesn’t leave the ground. Now, while your partner holds the canoe up, you slip backwards and place yourself under the yoke.

Once you have control of the canoe then your partner releases and reaches you at the end of the trail to assist you in unloading, applying the opposite procedure.

The same technique can be utilized on your own.

Just tip the canoe over at the front of the canoe without the help of your partner. As long as the back end of the canoe is in contact with the ground, and you are not carrying the complete weight until you slide yourself under the yoke.

Bottom Line

Not everyone can be able to portage a kayak. It requires more technique than strength. In this article, I discussed how kayakers can portage their kayaks easily.

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