Canoeists’ Wheels: Merrily We Roll Along

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Canoeists’ Wheels: Merrily We Roll Along

Wheels. Don’t let anyone tell you they’re not traditional. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s hardy “servants” used them, and so can you. Portage carts, trailers, and rack rollers make the canoeist’s life easier. If you’re 20, this may not matter. But if you’re well into your second half-century, and if the alternative is a whole-life sentence to a La-Z-Boy (or even worse, summers spent going nowhere on a jet ski), then wheels can get you back in the water. Want to know more? Then give Farwell three minutes of your time. That’s all it takes.

by Farwell Forrest | April 17, 2018

A Farwell Forrest Article on

Might as well face up to it: None of us is as young as he used to be, but if this isn’t cause for celebration, neither is it reason for despair. Just consider the alternative. If you’re not getting older, you’re already dead. Still, as Francis Bacon famously observed, “Age will not be defied.” The upshot? If we want to make the most of the journey that all of us must travel, we’ll need to adjust our expectations along the way. Take portages, for example. A lot of carries that seemed easy when I was 25 have gotten longer and steeper in the last forty-odd years. It has something to do with isostatic rebound, I suppose. Yet remote beaver ponds and mountain tarns are every bit as lovely as they were when I was younger, and I know a lot more about what I’m seeing now. But I have to get my boat to the water first.

What to do? Well, regular exercise helps stave off the indignities of age, and if you haul a hundredweight of groceries in a bicycle trailer up steep hills once or twice a week, you’ll likely discover that you won’t need to take out a membership in a health club. At least that’s what I’ve found, and I can still heft a pretty good load. But there are limits. Once upon a time, I could carry both an 85-pound canoe and a 70-pound pack across a one-mile portage in a single trip—and still find the strength to go back for a second load. No longer.

OK. There’s no doubt that I’m not the man I used to be. Is there anything I can do about it? In a word, yes: I can put my boat on wheels. Portage carts aren’t a new idea, after all, and they’re not just for wimps. As far back as the ninth century, the adventurous Rus hauled longships around the rapids of the Dnieper on peeled-log rollers—think of these as improvised portage cart, if you like—and much later—a thousand years later, in fact—crofters’ sons from Orkney were still doing much the same thing with York boats on the Hayes. Whether you’re on your way to sack Constantinople or just hurrying to catch the London boat at York Factory, it’s easier to haul a load over rollers than it is to carry it on your back.

Sound good? I thought so. There’s no need to start peeling logs, by the way. Pneumatic tires are a lot better, and the bigger the wheel, the easier the ride. You can even use your boat to carry your gear. Just concentrate the load amidships, right over the axle of the cart, and lash your packs in place. (Don’t overload either boat or cart.) Then head on down the trail. While other folks are stumbling over unseen tree roots and trying to swat the blackflies mounting mass attacks under their inverted canoes, you’ll be rolling merrily along. And who do you think will have the best time on the water later? You get just one guess. It’s hard to have fun when you’re bone-tired.

Of course, even if you get a cart, you won’t want to discard your portage yoke. The managers of some wilderness areas prohibit portage carts, on the grounds that they aren’t “traditional.” I can only reply, « Arrête de nous casser les couilles ». (The same authorities often allow floatplanes. Go figure.) And I’d be the first to admit that there are some portages no cart can traverse. You’ll need to be very careful in negotiating steep slopes, too. When the going gets tough, belay your boat and cart from above using a painter, and don’t put yourself in the path that a runaway cart might be tempted to take. You won’t be very happy if you have to outsprint 200 pounds of canoe and gear bounding toward you down a narrow portage trail, will you?

On the plus side, what works on the portage will also work on the highway. If lifting your boat onto a cartop rack is getting a little old, maybe it’s time to get a boat trailer. For years, outfitters have hauled canoes around on trailers, and now they’re starting to show up in the garages of recreational canoeists, as well. If you’ve never hauled a trailer behind your car before, you’ll find it takes a little getting used to—backing up, in particular, requires care—but you’ll soon get the knack. A little practice is all that’s needed.

What’s that, you say? A trailer is too much trouble? But you still find loading your big canoe onto your car to be a pain, especially when your partner takes the day off? Then make or buy a set of rollers for your roof rack. Just drop the bow of your boat onto a roller and walk forward. In seconds your boat will glide into place. All you need to do then is tie it down. Magic! (There are roller saddles for smaller boats, too.)

What more is there to say? Wheels. They’ve been making life easier for travelers for thousands of years. Why shouldn’t canoes sometimes go along for the ride, too?

Read more: Moving On | Rediscovering the Wheel | Mass Transit

Red River Cart Sketch by George E. Finlay 1847 -

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