Review: Portage by Sue Leaf

by Mel
Portage by Sue Leaf

I can’t remember exactly where I first saw this book, but the most likely place is our local bookstore, Magers and Quinn. A fairly new book, Portage was published in October 2015 by University of Minnesota Press, a publisher of local authors that I am enjoying more and more.

In the simplest terms, Portage is a memoir composed of stories about canoeing. In each chapter, Sue Leaf recounts a story of a particular canoe trip. The stories begin in 1979 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota, and continue until 2014 covering many waterways in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but also Montana, Nebraska, Michigan, Canada, and even New Orleans. Covering over 30 years of family canoe trips, the reader begins to feel like they’re part of Leaf’s family, watching as kids are born and grow up, family and friends come and go, and Sue and her husband change from young adults to middle-aged empty nesters. There is a vivid sense of how things changepeople, society, and land.

Portage is more than just a memoir though. While reading this book I learned a lot about the history of the United States, particularly the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Corps of Discovery Expedition), as well as a plethora of natural history and geography. Sue and her husband are both avid birders and so she writes quite a bit about the birds they saw on trips. However, you don’t need an interest in birds and geology to enjoy the book, because the stories are engaging, interesting, and exciting. One of my favorite “a-ha” moments is when Sue and her family leave bikes at the take-out point before driving up stream to put in. When they finish the paddle, they bike back to retrieve their car. I had never thought of doing this—it’s brilliant! There are mishaps and tipped boats, rapids and rainstorms, failures and successes. Some trips are over many days and as far away as Nova Scotia. Some trips are a few hours long, near home. Sue writes for the reader’s enjoyment, and it works; there wasn’t a moment that I got bored while reading Portage. Plus, if you’ve paddled any of the rivers or lakes she writes about, you’ll get a little extra glee as you recognize particular spots that she recounts in her stories.

If you’re an avid paddler or have never been in a canoe, Portage will inspire you to find an outfitter and get out onto the water. I am now itching to go paddle every location mentioned in the book and see the wonders for myself.

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