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The Portage From Hell

Ah, the dreaded portage from Kemano to Tahtsa Lake! I figure there will be roughly 125 portages during my expedition. The first one just happens to be 51 kilometers, starting at sea level and peaking out at nearly 3300 at a mountain pass along the Coast Mountains. This is what will enable me to put together a route that will take me from the British Columbia coast and up and over the mountains of BC.

After paddling into Kemano from Europa Hot-Springs, 37.5 km, I arrived in a pouring rain, late in the afternoon, promptly changed into a dry base layer and my Moonstone Gore-Tex pants and jacket, assembled the portage cart, loaded on the canoe and my huge pile of gear, food and equipment and began walking. I figured the 51 kilometers is along an old logging road, I’ll just pull the canoe along behind me on the cart, it can’t be that bad right? Wrong!

PortagingonsnowThe first 14 km is along a good paved road with only a mild incline, should not be a problem…I thought. After only about 6 km, what do I see just off the road in the trees? Ahhh….2 Grizzlies! Well, I make a bunch of noise and they look at me and tear off into the forest…..whew! Okay, no worries…until 15 minutes later I see one of the bears again, about 200 meters back on the road, standing on its hind legs, watching me….hmmm….not good! Finally the bear heads back into the forest and I resume walking, nervously looking back every 30 seconds or so now….paranoid about the bears!

A few minutes later a white van comes along and stops, full of construction workers working for Alcan, the aluminum company that runs a huge operation in Kittimat and draws power from Kemano and the Nechako Reservoir system. We talk for a few minutes and they give me a beer for later, figuring I’ll have earned it. About 20 minutes later, they stop again on their way back and they tell me they just saw 6 more bears. They then offer to help me haul my gear up the last 3 or 4 kilometers to where I turn off on the old logging road to Tahtsa Lake, the turnoff is also the site of a recently abandoned logging camp….abandoned because of the problems with the bears. Kemano is well known for its extremely high concentration of Grizzlies as well as black bears.

At the old logging camp, the guys show me the old houses used for lodging the workers when it was in operation…fully equipped kitchen clean room, fresh sheets…and the power and hot water is still hooked up, I can’t believe it! Not exactly roughing it but right now, that does not bother me at all.

After a hot shower and some supper I went to bed. 5 minutes later I heard something scratching at the front door…it was a Grizzly! Yikes, glad I’m inside tonight. Duwayne, one of the guys from the van, had also told me that just a couple of years ago, someone had left the door open in this very house overnight and a grizzly walked right into the kitchen. One of the workers had to shoot it right there in the living room! Pretty crazy. I quickly made sure all the doors were securely shut and then went back to bed.

The next morning after breakfast and making some quick repairs to the portage cart, off I went. I was hoping to make it 21 kilometers up the logging road today at least, according to Duwayne, that is where the snowline starts. I figure all the bears are now well below the snowline by now so that would be a safe place to camp tonight. The road started out pretty good but soon became much rougher and steeper, making for hard work hauling my overloaded canoe behind me. Rocks the size of basketballs, deep ruts and then landslides. At the landslides, I’d have to unload the canoe, carry all the gear across then come back, take the canoe across and then finally the cart. Load the canoe back on, put the gear back in and away I’d go. This happened several times while the “‘road: continued to get steeper and steeper.

After about 12 hours of working my way up the mountain I was pretty much exhausted… and I’d only gone about 15 kilometers so far. Not good! Bad you might even say…I did! I ended up setting up camp here, in the midst of bear country with fresh bear sign all around me, even two huge piles of grizzly droppings within site of the tent! I was not feeling too good about this at this point. A few minutes later Duwayne comes along on a four wheeler, he’d mentioned last night he would ride up after work to check on me, see if I’m making out okay. We talked it over and I ended up agreeing that I’d be much better off up in the snowpack tonight. We strapped my gear onto the racks on the quad, I sat on the back, holding the bow line of the canoe and Duwayne then slowly made his way up the next 6 kilometers and into the snow where I quickly made camp by the light of my headlamp, feeling much better than I had down below.. I’d planned to do the entire trip self propelled but in this case, I think the idea if “Safety First” had to be taken into consideration and I have no regrets at all about that decision. Thanks for your help Duwayne!

The next day, after a quick breakfast, I broke camp and was off once more, this time hauling the canoe along behind me on the snow. It was so much easier than yesterday, hauling the cart up that “Road”. Things went great until I started hitting bare patches of road and had to begin switching back and forth from the cart to hauling on the snow. Loading the canoe on and off the cart over and over, pulling gear out of the canoe, putting it back in….on and on it went. Progress was being made though. Soon I was on the steepest sections of the portage yet and working like mad to haul things up behind me. A few minutes later however I finally reached the top of the mountain pass, nearly 3300 feet above my starting point down at sea level. “Awesome” I thought, all downhill from here to Tahtsa Lake, can’t be too bad now! Wrong again!

Next I was pulling the canoe along the road, bordered by a 200 foot drop off when I encountered another series of 3 land slides, all covered in deep SLIPPERY snow! Steep snow ending with a cliff! Yikes!! I could picture the back end of the canoe sliding out along the landslide and heading right for the cliff…not a pleasant thought at all! I used my spare paddle, a Grey Owl Hammerhead, to dig out a 2 foot wide trench, a foot deep and I hauled the canoe, carefully, across the landslides this way, on a very short leash. It seemed to work fine so I did the same thing on the remaining landslides as well.

After this, another couple of hours and I was at Sanifer Lake where Dujwayne had told me about an awesome cabin I could stay at. Wow, he was not kidding. Beautiful log construction, upper loft for sleeping, front veranda with an epic view of the Coast Mountains and a fully stocked kitchen! Nice! Upon unloading the canoe however, I noticed a nasty hole in the hull of the canoe, must have happened one of the times the cart, canoe and all, tipped over yesterday on the rocky “road”. Damn! Well, it looks like I’ll be taking tomorrow off to stay at the cabin and do some canoe repairs!  I spent the next day patching up the canoe, catching up on my journal, reading outside in the sun….yeah, a pretty relaxing day all in all!!!  I was off bright and early the next morning to finish the last 5 kilometers of the portage to Tahtsa Lake. It went well enough but I did have to switch back and forth from hauling on the snow to using the cart several more times. I finally arrived at Tahtsa Lake at 12:00 noon and was back on the water 30 minutes later, the 51 kilometer monster portage now behind me! There were times when it was so steep and rough that I’d be standing with my back to the mountain, facing the canoe, holding on to the grab loops with both hands, feet firmly planted and I’d pull HARD, hauling the canoe up another 2 feet. Then I’d do it again. There were stretches like this over and over.

Most importantly however is that I made it. One lost pair of gloves, one broken canoe hull, one very tired paddler… but it was finished! 1 portage down, roughly 124 to go. Luckily this was THE one I was worried about though.

Stay tuned for the next report on paddling from Tahtsa Lake to Prince George, coming soon to a computer near you!

Cheers…Joe O’Blenis