“Only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience anything.”

Gustav Mahler, Austrian composer 


Over a lifetime of canoeing into wild places, I’ve known my share of portages.

Portaging requires unloading packs and gear from a canoe and carrying them overland to another body of water then stowing them again in the canoe. The carry-over can be short or it can run for miles. The longest portage I’ve made was a three-mile carry around Kasmere Falls in northern Manitoba while the shortest is literally a handful of steps. Sometimes, like in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the trails are well worn. In more remote areas, you might find an old hatcheted blaze on a tree that marks a seldom-used portage route. In really remote areas you literally tread your own trail.

Portaging doesn’t get any easier as I age. But with the accumulation of experience I have learned how to cope with the exercise. While fitness and perseverance are handy traits, sometimes you need to use your brain.

Earlier this summer four of us faced a mile and a quarter portage in northern Saskatchewan. It wasn’t a new experience for us since we had made this very portage about ten days earlier. Knowing we had to deal with the carry a second time had me strategizing for a diversion. How could I mask the physical discomforts of the effort?

My strategy was simple. I would shroud the task with an exercise in creativity. The resulting release of painkilling endorphins would blot out any potential pain. I decided to compose a live classical music piece.

I’ve never written music in my life. Birthing an original tune would require sharp focus and increase the odds of successfully masking pain and fatigue. The result was not a well thought out score but rather an improvised collaboration.

Instead of lifting a conductor’s baton, I flipped the canoe upside down onto my shoulders, shrugged it into its comfortable berth and stepped boldly towards my composition.

After fifty foot-sucking steps into a bog, the first inspiration for my symphony descended on me. I love classical pieces that open with only the notes of strings. Mine opened with the sound of wings. Mosquitoes joined in a most energetic chorus as they bounced around my head underneath the canoe canopy.

My wife is an accomplished violinist and fiddler. But never has she been able to reach the high pitches of the genus Aedes. On this overcast day, these female mosquitoes would aptly provide my ostinato in the score. Derived from the Italian word meaning “stubborn” this phrase is persistent with the melody delivered at the same pitch.

How perfect for me to co-create with these spritely musical blood-letters. There was no doubt as to how my symphony must unfold. I had to walk fast to escape the onslaught. This was the perfect place to insert a spirited allegro, a brisk and lively tempo, into my score.

Collectively, mosquitoes’ passionate peals have the power to make grown men weep. And even a single mosquito solo can snap you out of a deep sleep. Now that is pure inspiration.

I tried in vain to step onto hummocks or clumps of leather-leaf bushes but soon my feet were soaked in the muck. There was a tympanic rhythm to the squelching percussion as I pulled each foot from the peaty mire.

With a surprising flourish, a duo of lesser yellowlegs hammered out a string of flat “tu-tu-tu” whistles. The alarm calls of this boreal shorebird added a much-needed fanfare to my piece. I tipped the front of the canoe slightly skyward so I could watch the pair of birds alighting on the tips of black spruce trees. As they fluttered to balance on their perches, I could imagine them dancing in time to the score. They flew from tree to tree, upset at my intrusion into their bog where they probably have their ground nest.

Their musical contribution is nothing compared to their physical efforts during their migration. Amazingly, this year’s young will depart for Central and South America after the adults leave, yet will still find their way to the tropical coastal regions.

As the trail left the wetland, it rose gently upwards. Passing through a screen of alders I encountered birch and aspen trees. The wind rustled the leaves, adding a gentle patter to my composition. My own breathing provided an underlying beat.

I interrupted the rhythm of my piece with a couple syncopated steps to avoid two piles of bear scat.

Soon I crested the slight rise and began heading downslope. At this point there was a poignant shift in energy. The descent to the next lake was quiet. Surrounded by a blackened landscape of burned spruce and jack pine, I felt that my piece had become a dirge.

In the flooded last stretch of the trail, my footsteps splashed like the clashing of cymbals. Finally, I stopped at the lake’s edge and rolled the canoe off my shoulders. I released a sigh. The conductor’s baton was lowered.



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