A portage is a path or passageway along which canoes or other small boats and goods are carried around obstructions in a stream or between navigable bodies of water. A portage is also a place where such a land route begins or ends, and it refers, too, to the act of carrying or transporting canoes and goods overland, usually to skirt unmanageable rapids or waterfalls. So established a fact of transportation were portages, there existed a portage collar, a strap that passed around the forehead and attached at each end to the burden being carried, which was then supported on the back. A portage was no picnic, but it made traversing the wilderness possible—eventually there were even portage railroads. Most portages were only known locally, but one became famous: the Chicago Portage, which made possible the crucial water route from the Great Lakes to the mighty Mississippi.

Donna Seaman

The word “miles” should never be applied to a portage. Whoever thought of measuring the lengths of paths between lakes with “rods” had the right idea. Only an unfortunate few actually know that the rod is sixteen and a half feet. Fortunately I am not among them, and I have trod many portages in a delightful fog of ignorance.

— Scott Anderson, “Grand Portage”

More from Donna Seaman

» see all 18