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Walking the Grand Portage

August 3, 2011
By MIKE LYNCH, News Outdoors Writer
Standing in the middle of the two-lane highway leaving Mansonville, Quebec on the morning of July 13, I felt a bit out of place. Jacob and I were wheeling our canoe and gear out of town on the way to the Grand Portage, which would take us to Lake Memphremagog. Portaging on a road wasn’t a big deal, it’s just that we were standing in the road waiting to be waved through a construction zone.

As we were standing there, a man wearing a construction helmet and holding a two-way radio approached us. With a French accent and using broken English, he asked if we needed to get through this area. We said that we did. Like many others in Mansonville, he seemed entertained by our predicament of having to wheel the canoe down the road.

Standing before us, he indicated that we would need to wait a few moments. After walking away, he began talking into his radio again in French. I didn’t understand many words other than canoe as he spoke to someone at the other end of the site. After a minute, he walked back to us and waved us through with a laugh.

Although this wasn’t the official start to the 6-mile Grand Portage, to me it felt like a fitting kickoff, as we walked through the construction zone wheeling our canoe and gear.

The official Grand Portage connects the North Branch of the Missisquoi River to Lake Memphremagog. Most of it is along the Chemin Peabody, a quiet country road with farms, fields and a few houses.

We were starting the portage early because we wanted to skip the upper reaches of the river, where we heard water levels were too low to paddle. This added in the neighborhood of two miles to this already long portage.

Despite the added distance, I was looking forward to this portage. Jacob and I were learning that wheeling the boat wasn’t actually that bad in stretches, especially when there was a paved road to walk on. The harder part of the trail was dragging your boat through the low stretches of water. A few miles of that could eat up hours quickly. When you’re doing a long-distance trip, this burns very valuable time. So we were actually content as we walked down the road, moving at a pace of about two miles an hour.

We were also learning that if you get the canoe weighted properly, it seems to walk itself. At various points in the trip, the person not walking the canoe often fell behind the person who was pulling it.

Another thing we learned is that wheeling your canoe often allows you to socialize. On the water, we were often the only boat around for miles, particularly on the Missisquoi River.

When you’re wheeling your canoe, people pull over their vehicles and talk to you. They offer you advice, rides, lodging. Lots of things. They also want to know what you’re doing. Not many people wheel their canoes down many of these roads.

The most common question is, “Do you want a ride?” Often people with large trucks will pull over and offer to give you and your gear a ride to the water. Although the ride offers were always tempting, we declined them. I wanted to do the trip without any assistance. Plus, being on the road longer allowed you to meet more people.

On the way from Mansonville, we had about a half-dozen people pull over and offer us rides or just stop to talk to us.

As we got about two-thirds of the way through the portage, one of those to stop was Ed Burke, a photographer from Saratoga Springs that I used to work with at the Saratogian newspaper. Ed had planned to meet us on the portage and camp with us that night in Newport, Vt. Ed stopped and talked for a while, taking some photos along the last stretch.

Eventually, after several hours, we arrived at Perkins Landing, ready to canoe 12 miles down the lake back to the U.S.

As we walked through the parking lot, I noticed several boats on the water but overall the scene was pretty low key.

The biggest excitement came from a few fishermen. They had a large cooler full of lake trout. As we walked by they showed off their catches. The fish must have weighed in the range of eight pounds each.

After hanging around for about 30 minutes at the landing, we shoved off. It was about two o’clock.

To my surprise, the waves were very large and caught me off balance a bit. In the end, though, we used the wind to our advantage and rode it down the lake. It took us about three hours to get down the lake. It wasn’t a blistering pace, but with a loaded boat it was sufficient.

When we arrived, we pulled up to a U.S. customs station and checked in. We had arrived in Newport. We were back in the states.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Ed Burke
Mike Lynch, left, and Jacob Resneck wheel their canoe on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail’s Grand Portage that connects the North Branch of the Missisquoi River to Lake Memphremagog.

Fact Box

Intent on Fort Kent
This is the sixth in a series of dispatches from Lake Placid News outdoors writer Mike Lynch as he paddles the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. The articles will appear on the Ad’k Expeditions page every week until the completion of the journey. 



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