Before my three children grow up and leave home, I'd like to take a family canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I got a taste of what that might be like last weekend when I took my kids and some friends on a mini canoe trip right in the middle of the Twin Cities.
Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan includes a chain of nine small lakes and ponds connected by portage trails. It has been around for years but has gotten more use since 2004, when the park started renting canoes and kayaks. Scout troops and others regularly paddle and portage the loop as practice before heading north to the BWCA.
"We call it Boundary Waters South," said park director Katie Pata. "You're not going to hear the loon calls and see the big black rocks that run down to the water, but it's beautiful and definitely peaceful."
And, you get to experience what it feels like to carry a canoe. As we found out, portaging is a lot harder than paddling. But it has its rewards.
On Pata's recommendation, we rented two canoes and a single kayak.
"Those tweens and teenagers, they love single kayaks," Pata said. "It's that independence thing."
My sons' 10-year-old friend took the first turn in the kayak and zipped ahead. He had kayaked once or twice on vacation in Mexico with his family and seemed to know what he was doing. My husband and I followed with our 6-year-old daughter in one canoe. Four boys piled into a second. We paddled several hundred yards toward the opposite
I had paddled a canoe as a teenager and again as an adult a few times with my children. But none of us had ever portaged. Unsure if we'd be able to carry a canoe, we had asked for portage carts, two wheels on a collapsible metal frame that slips over the stern and is held in place by a bungee cord. The keel of the canoe rests in the "V" of the axle. In theory, you hoist the front of the canoe and let the rear roll along behind, like a kid with a pull toy.
This worked well with the kayak, which one kid could pull by himself. But pulling the canoe down the twisty narrow trail felt like dragging a piano up a winding staircase.
"Watch where you're going," I snapped at my husband as the wheels got knocked out of place when the stern crashed into a tree trunk. It's always easy to blame someone else when you're handling a canoe.
Meanwhile, three boys were wrestling their canoe up an incline. They displayed better teamwork. "Is this an unusually long portage?" one kid shouted.
We were hot, out of breath and discouraged by the time we spotted blue water through the trees and arrived at the next lake. Did I mention is was 90 degrees? I was worried
But moods improved when I passed out cold grapes from the cooler. Then the boys spotted tadpoles in the muddy shallows.
"Dude! They have little legs!" cried out our 12-year-old friend. "They're everywhere." My son caught one in his cupped hands and asked if he could take it home.
Our spirits lifted more when we met five middle-aged women coming the other way on the route. They were preparing for a July trip to the BWCA and told us we had just finished the longest portage, a quarter mile.
Paddling the canoe across the next lake was easy compared with carrying it. And solitude and beauty were the rewards of our labor. The crowded parking lot and beach by the visitor center seemed a world away. A great white egret flapped slowly overhead and landed on the far shore. Neon-blue dragonflies flitted among white water lilies with petals so stiff and brilliant white that they didn't seem real.
I've been told that by midsummer, the lilies form an unbroken bed across a few of the shallowest ponds. Halfway across the lake, the wind picked up, which made paddling harder. It whipped up the edges of the lily leaves and blew my hat into the water. My husband caught it before it sank, but one of the boys wasn't so lucky and lost his.
The next portage was easier. The trail was straighter, and we were getting the hang of it. But heat and fatigue had caught up with my 12-year-old son.
"Can we just leave the canoes here?" he asked.
He said Lebanon Hills should stash canoes on each end of every portage so you wouldn't have to carry them. "I wonder if anyone has ever fainted." He said he was getting a headache.
Meanwhile, his 12-year-old friend was eager to try carrying a canoe on his shoulders. The friend will be heading out later this summer for an eight-day canoe trip with YMCA Camp Menogyn, where campers don't use carts. The word portage derives from the French verb "porter," after all, which means to carry.
So, after our third lake, we flipped a canoe over our heads, voyageur style. The 12-year-old settled the pads of the center yoke on his shoulders, staggering under the 65-pound canoe. Another kid helped him balance the front and I walked behind, nervous that it would crush him.
"Are you OK?" I kept asking. "Let me know if you need help."
"This is better than the cart," he grunted, as sweat broke out on his upper lip. He made it down the trail.
After this, we all needed a break. We stopped on the shore of Lily Pond and broke out the salami sandwiches and ice-cold melon and sodas.
We decided to turn around after lunch because the boys were tired and wanted to swim on the beach. We had paddled and portaged 11/2 miles, just over half the portage route. We would have gone to the end, another mile or so, if the day had been cooler and the kids had been less tired from end-of-school sleepovers that had kept them up late the previous nights.
I carried the canoe on a couple of portages on the way back. It felt like balancing a long load of lumber on my shoulders, and I had a hard time keeping the stern and bow from seesawing. And the yoke dug into the back of my neck. But carrying the canoe was easier than hauling it on the cart.
SHARING THE LOAD
When I got back to the newsroom I called Doug Nethercut, executive director of Camp Menogyn, which takes kids in seventh grade and older on canoe trips in the Boundary Waters and Canada's Quetico Provincial Park.
I wanted to know how the camp taught kids to portage. He confirmed what we figured out, that it's easier for one person to carry a canoe on his shoulders than for two or three people to carry it over their heads with the weight on their arms, especially if the people are of different heights.
"If a canoe is well balanced, even a 12-year-old can carry it," Nethercut said. "The main thing is practice. Our groups will actually spend two days in camp, getting used to carrying canoes back and forth in front of our boat house."
The camp also emphasizes teamwork. Smaller kids might not be able to carry the canoe, but they can carry packs. The camp also teaches kids how to transfer the canoe by lowering the stern and having a second teen hold up the bow in a "bridge" while another teen slips into place under the shoulder pads.
"On some of the longer portages, you might have three or four or even five people carrying the canoe for different portions of the portage," Nethercut said. "Sharing the load, that's a key thing."
Nethercut has a unique view of portaging. It's not meaningless grunt work, not the downside of paddling. It's where kids learn and grow.
"Portages are fantastic," he said. "You cannot get through a portage if you're only out for yourself. The way portages work is when people are all working together."
We didn't paddle for eight days, but we gained a sense of accomplishment from our mini canoe trip.
"This was fun!" one of the boys said as after we'd returned our canoes, three hours after leaving. The other boys agreed. "Tiring, but fun!"
Yes, we suffered. But we also had the satisfaction of accomplishing something difficult. And we enjoyed the reward of leaving behind the crowds on Schulze Lake and exploring those lesser-traveled ponds you can reach only by canoe.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Canoe portage route
Where: Lebanon Hills Regional Park Visitor Center, 860 Cliff Road, Eagan
Information: 651-554-6530 or dakotacounty.us/parks
Hours: Canoe and kayak rentals 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily Memorial Day through Labor Day (last rental at 6:45 p.m.)
Cost: $35 per day for kayak or canoe, includes life jackets, paddles and optional portage carts
Target audience: Families who want to portage as well as canoe
Crowd pleaser: Satisfaction of carrying your own canoe to a new lake
Avoid: Wet stuff. Borrow a waterproof box from the rental office for your wallet, cell phone and other items.
Tip: Head out early and pack a lunch to enjoy halfway through your trip. Nothing beats eating on the trail. Just plan to pack everything out.