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7 Ways Portages Teach Us: an essay by local author John Bragstad

Jul 12, 2023 11:20AM ● By Content Editor
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By local author and writer John Bragstad for Boreal Community Media - July 12, 2023

In life, we know there will be difficulties. But we often don’t
know what lies ahead. We can only anticipate some of the

In canoeing, these hardships are sometimes well
announced with names like Mantrap and Cannibal and
Dead Man’s Portage. Other portages, however, steal upon
us unaware. Their names do not give them away. Lines
drawn on a map don’t warn us of the misery to follow.

Portages can teach us a lot about the burdens confronting
us. There are lessons here in the discouragement, effort, and

Number One: There are surprises you can’t know from 
the water. You must leave the lake with its open spaces to 
discover what is not always visible from its shores. Here are  
lady slippers to be found. There is the promise of 
blueberries. Here is shadow and the interplay of light.

Number Two: Sometimes, you have to make adjustment.
There are sharp rocks along a broken trail, roots that sneak
up to twist the unwary ankle. And, of course, there is always
mud and deadfalls! Sometimes the best route is not down
the middle but clinging to the sides of the trail. We innovate
as we go.

Number Three: You don't want the sun to go down while
you are in the middle of the portage. Black flies feed on
the dark and dampness. Firewood is in short supply. Breezes are
almost nonexistent. There is no fresh water for cooking, Yet,
still, with lightning on the way, I have had to make do with
tree roots and rocks as my sleeping companions. And I’ve
been glad of it!

Number Four: Portages are never about fairness. Ideally,
portages should all be paths with a gentle rise and descent.
They should only be a few rods long, with a minimum of
mosquitos, and flies and hornets.

But I haven't met too many people who would choose this.
We go into the wilderness to be challenged, and this is part
of the journey we take. We seek out, by design, the unknown
and, with that, sometimes the difficult.

Fairness is only a concept. It is never part of nature’s calculus.
It rests on us to solve problems, to regard danger, to get on
our way.

Number Five: It’s hard, but remember, others are dealing
with the same adversity. It's not just you on the trail. There
are others up ahead, and yes, those who have fallen behind.
They need your consideration.

Number Six: Tough portages make the best memories.
Later, we will look back on this experience. The mood will
have changed. We now will see it as a time of real testing
and accomplishment. We feel more self-reliant because we
have achieved this in our own personal history.

And Number Seven: It is what lies ahead that makes
portages worthwhile. We must persist in the belief this
path is taking us somewhere. The maps are telling us
another lake is just ahead. We focus not on the muck (no
one wants to make this their vacation) but on the glory that
lies ahead.

This makes each step purposeful. We persist in hope; we
gain small victories, another few rods before we rest, the
glint of the lake surprising us through the trees. We can look
back and see what we have achieved. And we look forward,
always; to the roll of the canoe off aching shoulders to cradle
it in the lake.

Certain portages stand out in memory. Others can
sometimes recede, but the remarkable are what give us a
litmus test to our character. They provide templates for how
we can respond to other challenging occasions in life.

A footnote: 7 Ways Portages Teach Us was written during 
the muddling time when the Coronavirus-19 was still raging 
and uncertain. I wrote, “Time will tell. This portage is not yet 

About the author

John A. Bragstad has been a therapist, working with couples and individuals, for 25 years. He is self-published and is enjoying retirement. Lake Superior is just off his front porch.

He has written three books: Compass Season, Loon Laughter at Midnight, and Who's Watching Whoo? They are available in Grand Marais at Drury Lane and Lake Superior Trading Post, or at

Related: Meet your Boreal Community Media Freelance Journalist: John Bragstad
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