In life, we know there will be difficulties. But we often don't know what lies ahead. We can't anticipate all the problems.
In canoeing, these hardships are well-announced with names like Mantrap and Cannibal and Dead Man's Portage. Other portages steal upon us unaware. Their names do not give them away. Lines drawn on a map don't warn us of the miseries to follow.
One of the portages I remember began in sun-dried mud
that spilled out onto the lake. Unloading my canoe and hefting it to my shoulders, there was an archway
of small trees, beautiful in appearance.
Here was a gentle path, dusted with light and pollen coming from above. It was inviting and beckoned me to the next lake.
But a few steps in and I would know more of what it had in store. The dust only covered the moose muck lurking below. In places, it sucked me in, up over my knees to almost mid-thigh. I scrounged for any stick of beaver wood to stand on.
Black flies were there in abundance. The shade and dampness made them frenzied and hungry. The uneven path of twists and turns kept every person in the party feeling alone in the gloom.
There was no sighting of any lake for many rods to give any comfort. All the beauty of the north seemed drained from this place and experience.
Trails like this are not common in life. But we will
all experience them eventually. You will know them
when you are there. Even in the company
of others, you will feel alone.
You won't be able to tell where the path will end. There can be little hope other than the fact you are making some headway. You can be reduced to precarious balance moving from one "stick" to another.
Still, portages can teach us a lot about the burdens that confront us. There are lessons here in the discouragement and effort and strain.
Number one: Sometimes, you must do things that are not what you are used to.
In this case, I avoided the center of the path and clung to the outside edges. Here I could grab onto saplings to help and free me from that sucking sound of the stubborn mud.
Sometimes, we could put the canoe down and slide it along the surface, applying our weight to the gunnels.
But the point is that the usual place, the familiar walk, the roots and rocks that generally were there, were not. On these portages, the center of the path was the trap, the problem.
Number two: Frustration, anger, impatience, feeling sorry for oneself, insult, pain, a sense of unfairness can all be genuine. They can describe how we are feeling. But all these (and more) are quite useless (except as motivation) to get through the problem.
Complaining is one way of stating the obvious: that we are in a situation we don't want to be in. But it does not solve anything; it does not get us through.
Too much expression will dampen our spirit and will drain away from the kind of positive energy we need to overcome.
And the truth is that nature is indifferent to our situation. It is best to just keep on making an effort to rescue ourselves.
Number three: Fairness has little to do with circumstances. Ideally, portages should all be highways 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 four: You don't want the sun to go down while you are in the middle of the portage. Here there is shadow. Black flies feed on the dark and dampness. Firewood is in short supply, breezes are almost nonexistent. There is no home to freshwater for cooking.
It is a place of discouragement where the end is uncertain. There are no vistas here, no ledge rocks warmed by the sun.
Number 5: There are times when you choose NOT to camp on portage paths, BUT they sometimes are the only option you have available. You can be grateful for them then. With storms advancing, they may be a chosen misery that is a better option than what we would've wished for.
Number 6: 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.
And you can be buoyed by the fact it is a group effort even though you have only the individual piece in the work you are doing.
Later, we will look back on this experience. The mood will have changed. We now see it as a time of real testing and accomplishment. We feel more self-reliant because we have achieved this measure in our own personal history.
Such a portage stands out in our memory. Others
can sometimes recede, but the remarkable is
what gives us a litmus test to our character. They
provide markers and templates for how we can
respond to other painful occasions in life.
They are visual representations. They remind us we don't want to find ourselves in hardship when the sun goes down. We must get through, with feelings and all. We steel ourselves to the unglamorous task at hand.
This isn't what we would have chosen,
but it is that to which we are called.
And number seven is this: 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. For this moment, it is the vision quest we have afforded to us. We persist in hope, we gain small victories. We can look back and see what we have achieved.
And we look forward, always, to better times ahead.
J. Bragstad is the author of two books: Compass Season and The Poetry of Life. Great reading if you're stuck at home or to take on the road. Tales of outdoor life. Available at Amazon.
Tough Times / Rough Spaces was written during the muddling
time when the Coronavirus-19 was still raging and uncertain.
Time will tell. This portage is not yet over.