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Portage

A Family, a Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life

2015
Author:

Sue Leaf

Portage

North American waterways by canoe: a memoir of family and nature, history and culture, along the rivers

Part travelogue, part natural and cultural history, Portage is the memoir of one family’s thirty-five-year venture into the watery expanse of the world. Exploring the river means encountering the inevitable changes that occur as a family canoes through time and learns what it means to be human in this natural world.

Read Sue Leaf’s Portage as a guidebook to canoeing or how to raise a family, as a natural history, as a meditation on the significance of wild places, as an intimate portrayal of a marriage. Leaf combines them all.

Kent Meyers, author of The Witness of Combines and Twisted Tree

When as a child she first saw a canoe gliding on Lake Alexander in central Minnesota, Sue Leaf was mesmerized. The enchantment stayed with her and shimmers throughout this book as we join Leaf and her family in canoeing the waterways of North America, always on the lookout for the good life amid the splendors and surprises of the natural world.

The journey begins with a trip to the border lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, then wanders into the many beautiful little rivers of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the provincial parks of Canada, the Louisiana bayou, and the arid West. A biologist and birder, Leaf considers natural history and geology, noticing which plants are growing along the water and which birds are flitting among the branches. Traveling the routes of the Ojibwe, voyageurs, and map-making explorers, she reflects on the region’s history, peopling her pages with Lewis and Clark, Jean Lafitte, Henry Schoolcraft, and Canada’s Group of Seven artists. Part travelogue, part natural and cultural history, Portage is the memoir of one family’s thirty-five-year venture into the watery expanse of the world. Through sunny days and stormy hours and a few hair-raising moments, Sue and her husband, Tom, celebrate anniversaries on the water; haul their four kids along on family adventures; and occasionally make the paddle a social outing with friends. Along the way they contend with their own human nature: they run rapids when it would have been wiser to portage, take portages and learn truths about aging, avoid portages and ponder risk-taking. Through it all, out in the open, in the wild, in the blue, exploring the river means encountering life—good decisions and missed chances, risks and surprises, and the inevitable changes that occur as a family canoes through time and learns what it means to be human in this natural world.

Awards

Midwest Book Award — Nature

Honorable Mention: National Outdoor Book Award

Portage

Sue Leaf is the author of Potato City: Nature, History, and Community in the Age of Sprawl. Her books The Bullhead Queen: A Year on Pioneer Lake and A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts, both from Minnesota, were finalists for Minnesota Book Awards. A trained zoologist, she writes frequently on environmental topics. She and her husband Tom have paddled the waters of North America for forty years.

Portage

Read Sue Leaf’s Portage as a guidebook to canoeing or how to raise a family, as a natural history, as a meditation on the significance of wild places, as an intimate portrayal of a marriage. Leaf combines them all.

Kent Meyers, author of The Witness of Combines and Twisted Tree

Even those who’ve never dipped a paddle will be pulled into Sue Leaf’s rich and surprising tale about the true nature of wilderness as seen from the seat of a canoe. Rich details and refreshing honesty bring her journeys to life. It’s as if I were in the canoe with her, minus the bugs, the spills, and the dangers that come from venturing into the wilderness.

Catherine Friend, author of Hit by a Farm and Sheepish

Leaf ably interfaces her personal narratives with historical facts and natural details of the more than 25 lakes and rivers she has paddled. Pleasant outdoors stories that will appeal to nature lovers, avid canoeists, and armchair travelers.

Kirkus Reviews

Take your pick of reasons to read Sue Leaf’s Portage—for a glimpse into the experience of canoeing the region’s water roads, for insights into ecology, to see how a love for wild places can be passed along from generation to generation, for a darn good story. If, like me, you mark the margins of your books for special passages you want to remember, get your pencil ready.

Laurie Allmann, author of Far from Tame: Reflections from the Heart of a Continent

This well-written book evokes the feeling of exploring one of the continent’s wildest forests.

Nature World News

Leaf is a thoughtful, observant writer, and these 28 essays, while steeped in nature, are also about much more — family, and fear, and adventure.

Star Tribune

A great read for anyone who enjoys paddling.

Northern Wilds

Sue Leaf is one of the most elegant writers about nature and the environment. She shows her talents again in Portage.

Pioneer Press

It was like a good canoe outing-- you looked forward to what was in the next lake or bend (or chapter), you felt the joy of moving along and, at the end, you were both sorry it was over and thankful for the memories.

Rochester Post-Bulletin

Insightful, peaceful memoir about years of canoeing in the area’s lakes and river, with observations on plants, animals, traveling with children and ecological degradation.

Pioneer Press

Leaf does a wonderful job guiding us visually and experientially through the lakes she herself has canoed. Vivid descriptions of the land and the wildlife paint clear visions of the scenery that she was fortunate enough to see. Fascinating and comical anecdotes featuring the historical figures who visited some of the lakes, capsized canoes, stormy lakes, and long paddles lend color and excitement to the story.

Cook County News-Herald

Portage

Contents
Prologue: In the Beginning, a Silver Streak
The Pictographs on Lac La Croix: Into the Boundary Waters, 1979
Locked In: The Mississippi at Minneapolis, 1981
Canoeing the Spirit River: The Rum, 1986
Missouri Breaks: The Upper Missouri River, 1993
Breaking in the New Canoe: The Kettle River, 1994
Canoe Swarms: Back to the Boundary Waters, 1993–94
Kids Canoeing: The Crow Wing, 1995
Self-Reliance: The Upper Mississippi River, 1997
Canoeing the Sandhills: The Niobrara River, 1998
Loving It to Death: The Boundary Waters, 1998
Burnt Woods River: The Bois Brule of Northern Wisconsin, 1999
Paddling with the Alligators: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, 2001
Mother’s Day: The Cannon River, 2002
The Eye of the Wolf: Isle Royale National Park, 2003
The Clarity of Nellie Lake: Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario, 2004
Looking for Snakes: The Marias River, Havre, Montana, 2005
Abundance: The Upper Iowa River, 2006
Sea Caves: Lake Superior, 2007
Transition: Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia, 2008
Nerve-Wracked: The White River of Wisconsin, 2010
Wild and Scenic: The Upper St. Croix River, 2011
Pursuing the Group of Seven: Algonquin Provincial Park, 2012
Chronos and Kairos: The Little Missouri River, 2013
Ancient Valley: The Kickapoo River, 2013
Urban Adventure: Minnehaha Creek, 2014
Father’s Day: The Fox River, 2014
Draining the Ancient Lake: The Red Lake River of Northwestern Minnesota, 2014
What Is the Good Life? The Au Sable River of Lower Michigan, 2014
Acknowledgments