East of Ely - Up hill both ways

by David Krikorian

Last week the Echo’s publisher, Anne Swenson emailed me and asked if I had kept diaries of my experiences. Afterwards, I pulled out my oldest journal from 1975 that detailed a three-week trek into the border country.
I was surprised by the clarity of my early writing, as I detailed day after day of paddling and portaging.
Meeting others along the way, I asked them to write down their names and addresses, so I would remember them over the passing years. As I re-read this list the other day, I recalled the impact those brief encounters had had on my life.
I’ll start with one man, a professor emeritus from the University of Nebraska, whom I met on a portage into Darky Lake. Well into his seventies, the professor offered to show me the location of the lake’s pictographs. We spent half a day paddling to the site, as he described his thoughts about the origin of the rust-colored images of the iconic moose cow and calf, from the source of the pigment to his thoughts of what the message meant.
He then went on to discuss the natural history of the area, sharing a deep appreciation, which had been unfolding at my young age.
A week later I ran into a party resting at the end of another portage. The appointed cook, another older man named Virgil, was tending to a gallon-sized coffee pot set up on a makeshift tripod over a small campfire. The man showed me the way to make eggshell coffee, how the broken shells not only remove bitterness but also keep the grounds weighted to the bottom of the pot instead of pouring into the cup.
The people in his group were all farmers from Champaign County, Illinois, where I had attended college. It took Virgil about thirty seconds to pry open my story about me dropping out of school that spring because I thought I needed time to “assess” my life. Then he and the others took turns urging me to re-enroll, that I was indulging myself in a potentially destructive manner.
The conversation that morning replayed in my head until the day it butt-kicked me back into class. I still feel lucky that I stopped to talk with them.
I think back on such experiences, realizing that it was the portages that served as the crucible for those encounters.
Today, I own a T-shirt that displays a tongue-and-cheek definition of the word, “portage,” as meaning “up hill both ways.” The truth behind the silly joke makes it funny, especially to those who have paddled the border country.
When I began canoeing the region, I viewed portages as obstacles on the way to places I wanted to see. Yet I didn’t realize how struggling with a heavy load would become the only way to achieve the goals of my dreams.
I know it’s hard to accept the metaphor of portaging through life when you’re up to your calves in muck and with both hands grasping the canoe gunwales, trying to lick away the cloud of mosquitoes clustered around your face. Yet on that same trip I had one last encounter with an elderly man that left my jaw on the trail.
Oddly, he was avoiding the walk over a long portage. Instead he was poling his canoe along a small creek between two remote lakes. I met up with him at a place where the stream snaked alongside the trail.
He looked at me, paused the canoe and lit up a smoke. Shaking his head at the portage trail, he said, “When you get to be eighty-three years old like me, you get to try an easier way. There’s a portage a lake ahead called the Death March. And if some poor soul finds my body up there, they’ll know I died trying.”
We talked for the duration of his cigarette before he said goodbye. Though I never got his name, I’ve always carried the wisdom of his words up hill both ways.