The Vertical Portage by David Silcox
Not far from the confluence of the two rivers is an imposing cataract named Helen Falls. It plunges over a cliff and drops 15 metres into a canyon with sheer walls. If, accidentally, you missed the safe take-out about a kilometre above the falls, you’d undoubtedly die dramatically. What’s frustrating about the falls, however, is not the prospect of going over it. It’s irritating because it forces you into a 3.2 km portage from take-out to the put-in, which is beyond the canyon and then downstream of another lesser cascade. Assuming three-round-trips each, that’s more than 19 km for each canoeist, three of them as Sherpa. It’s an ordeal that takes the edge off the pleasure of canoeing. When we got there and had a look, we gave a collective sigh at the thought of the dismal stevedore work ahead. Then, just as we had resigned ourselves to the inevitable, Gow, who had been lying on his stomach looking down the canyon wall at the river below the falls, gave a wild, curdling “Whoop” that made us think he’d seen a grizzly bear or a wolverine ready to eat us. We all stared at him as he announced: “We can shrink the portage to fifty feet! We don’t have to do the long portage. We can lower everything from right here, and right into the canoes!”
Gow spoke with exclamation marks but, of course, our first reaction was that he was teasing, or exaggerating, or just being silly. We went over to have a look for ourselves, as he pointed out that we could easily climb down to the water’s edge (we agreed), and that we could stand on a metre-wide ledge that ran just above the water level for about 10 metres (we agreed). All we had to do was devise a system to lower everything to the ledge. We had plenty of rope, nothing was too heavy or fragile – certainly not the brutish aluminum Grumman canoes; they could be tethered at our ready-made stone dock once they were loaded and ready.
Over the Falls
We decided, without further ado, to give it a shot. The first thing lowered away was a canoe, next a barrel of food, then a personal pack, the wanigan, the freezer box, and so on. The wall was sheer enough not to be in the way. Everything landed gently on the shelf, ropes were pulled back up to the top for another load, and the different bundles were put into the right canoe for each pair of canoeists. The process actually got to be a lot of fun, and was accomplished without accident or incident. We felt quite pleased with ourselves.
The whole operation was over in about an hour, and then it was time to shove off carefully, of course, to avoid the abrupt shift from the eddy at the ledge into the strong main current – and get to our next camp and happy hour. That evening we dined on mulligatawny soup, Kotcheff’s special hamburgers with all (and I mean all) the fixings, red wine or beer, and a dessert of mandarin oranges generously splashed with Grand Marnier, and oatmeal cookies. We had earned a good meal, and we enjoyed every bite.