Portage of Pain

A True Story of and By Luke Bryson

It’s always so strange when such a painful, scary story starts with such a comedic beginning.  How can a story that ends with a lung collapsing on an innocent canoe trip begin with a rubber clad, suspected meth-head fisherman?  I’m still trying to figure that out. For a good chunk of my life, I’ve attended a summer camp in Northern Minnesota, and every year I go out on a canoe trip with a group of boys my age.  Each year the trip gets longer and increases in difficulty, but this creates a sense of indescribable connection between the guys in my group. We’ve spent years together, learning and growing.  So last summer, our group of six campers and two counselors set out on one of the most anticipated trips possible: The Sanford. Its namesake comes from the fact that the trip passed through the legendary Sanford Lake.  A lake so uncorrupted by modern life that its pristine waters allowed a viewer to see the rocks sitting even at the deepest parts of the body.  There are supposed to be jump-worthy cliffs on the banks of the water. I had heard the legends of this place for years and was ready to see if they were true.

On day one of our trip, we woke up early and threw our bags into the trailer carrying our canoes, and crammed into the van that would carry us for eight hours to our drop off point on a small lake.  Due to an incident a few years ago, the song describing numbers of beers hanging on a wall was banned, so I decided to make fun of one of my counselor’s beards. “Aaron, that scraggly beard is so patchy I think we could substitute our map of Canadian islands for it.”   The guys laughed and Aaron sent me a joking scowl and replied, “Yeah well at least I can read a map.” A chorus of “Ohhhhhhhh,” erupted through the car, scaring a family of deer we drove past. The other counselor responded, “Yeah well it’s easy for you to read a map Aaron, ‘cause you get practice every time you look in the mirror.”  As I reached up and high fived him, Aaron said, “Calvin! What the hell? You’re supposed to be on my side.” A riff-off is hard to avoid in a group of fifteen year olds.

Hours later we passed through a decrepit and rusty town and pulled into the lot next to our put-in spot.  A woman looked up at us from sweeping the porch as we pulled the van and trailer up next to the water. Our sore and aching group fell out of the car like clowns packed into a circus-mobile and started unloading the trailer.  The woman approached us and asked us something in an exotic language I couldn’t understand. Calvin responded in a similar tongue and the woman put up a finger and retreated into the house. “Calvin, I didn’t know you spoke Canadian!” I exclaimed.  I only got an eye roll in response. He turned to Aaron, who had just gotten out of the car, and said, “She’s going inside to get her brother. She isn’t sure if we can drop in here.” I took a moment to take in the setting and realized that we had been transported to an alternate post-apocalyptic reality.  Three lean-to shacks with peeling white paint stood on pegs about three feet above the ground. They were dispersed around the property which had not been kept particularly well. Waist high grass was everywhere that wasn’t a road, including around and beneath some yard equipment. A rotted picnic bench was being consumed by the grass right next to a swing set in a similar predicament.  While I was looking around, a man walked up to our group. Now I know that judging a book by its cover is not typically acceptable, but boy did I do some judging at this cover. In ninety-degree weather, this guy was wearing a black beanie, black rubber boots up to the knee, black sweatpants with a sizable hole mid-thigh, a black shirt, and a black sweatshirt. I say black, but it’s more of an accidental mud flaked camouflage.  A clandestine speck of dirt covered the left half of his shirt. The counselors talked to him for a little bit, so naturally I took this opportunity to use the massive amount of comedic material I had been granted through this situation to tell the same joke to my cabin mates over and over again. I walked up to Billy, my five-foot tall, six-foot loud cabin mate, and asked, “Hey, which one of those shacks do you think the meth lab’s in?”  Billy responded quickly, “Maybe all three.” I stalked up behind Ralph and whispered in his ear, “Hey, which one of those shacks do you think the meth lab’s in?” He jumped and turned around with large eyes and asked in a surprisingly high pitched tone, “Wait, meth labs? Are you serious? You think those are meth labs?” I confirmed his fears without skipping a beat and left him glancing nervously from shack to shack. I then turned around to continue my factory line procession of recurring jokes, moving from one cabin mate to the next.  We ended up not being able to drop in at that lake, so we drove a bit further and started our journey at a different bank of the water. 

We paddled for hours, talking about various things that matter little.  Every now and then a refrain of the Pirates of the Caribbean would explode from my lips.  This inevitably led to pulling up next to Ralph’s canoe and pirating his water bottle.  Eventually we got to our first of eleven campsites and pitched the first of eleven tents, collected wood and built the first of eleven fires to cook our first of eleven dinners of mac and cheese.  Of course our preparations of the beloved noodle dish would vary throughout the trip. There was Classic (just the cheese), Pizza Mac (tomato sauce and pepperoni), and Hot Sauce (I bet you can get this one).  The secret ingredient to meals in the wilderness is a flavor known only to the most seasoned voyageur: trail spice. Trail spice is an earthy blend of dirt, pine needles, and a touch of mosquito. No trail food could be cooked without it.  I was chopping logs for a more sustainable fire when I heard Aaron and Calvin talking in hushed voices. I walked over and asked, “Hey what’s going on?” Aaron looked towards Billy’s tent where a well timed groan emerged and said, “He’s not doing super great.  He’s having a lot of stomach pain.”

In the morning Billy seemed to be doing a lot better and said that he’s only in a little pain and was going to be fine.  Rejuvenated by the news, we set out on the glass-like water. The Pirates of the Caribbean goofs and shenanigans continued, but as we did so, Billy worsened.  He was in the bow of Calvin’s canoe, and soon couldn’t paddle any more.  He was in so much pain that he just alternated from sleeping to crying in the bottom of the canoe.  We were all pretty worried about our fun-sized friend but unluckily, day two was full of portages. A portage is a path on land that connects two shores.  Aaron, an EMT, took a closer look at Billy and determined it was appendicitis. A cloud of realization descended upon our group. If we didn’t get Billy off of the trail and to a hospital before his appendix burst, he wouldn’t make it.  We looked at our maps and saw that we were supposed to portage over an old lumber road just before we reached Sanford Lake. Aaron used the satellite phone to call the camp and have them send someone to pick up Billy that evening. There was an issue though.  The road was a good deal farther than we typically paddle in a day so we were going to have to go hard. After some paddling, we hit portage one. In hindsight, I guess portage one hit us.

We unloaded our canoes and pulled them onto land.  The other guys in the group carried our packs and such, while Aaron, Calvin, and I carried the canoes on our shoulders.  I positioned my feet, dug them into the pine needle mulch that made up the ground, and bent my waist.  Back flat, and ready for the lift. I placed my hands along the yolk (the center bar) of the canoe, lifted and pivoted.  As the canoe landed on my shoulders like it had time after time in the past, something happened that was not supposed to happen.  I felt and heard a pop deep within the right side of my chest. There was no pain at first. No shortness of breath. It was only jarring, but I could tell something was not right.  I started my trek and soon realized that I was alone on the trail. The others were too far ahead or behind to see. Our group was sprinkled along the trail like ants marching in a line.  Trying to bite the mosquitos away from my face, I suddenly stopped feeling like joking because suddenly the pain started. I felt a burning, yet somehow sharp, yet somehow blunt ache spread across the right side of my chest.  The pain wasn’t pleasant, but I had a PhD in pain, being a long time sufferer of chronic pain, so I was able to grit my way through it. Soon the air began to thicken and the pain flared with each step. My limbs felt heavy as if the ground of the isolated Canadian wilderness was trying to claim me.  The world slowed as if to draw out this portage of pain. Eventually I heard the sound of Billy’s sniffles and canoes being loaded. I decided not to mention the chest incident. The counselors already seemed to be quite distressed about Billy, and with my history of pain it could have been anything. We started paddling again and I regained my ability to make situationally inappropriate jokes.  I used this ability to try to cheer up the group but the cold Canadian water seemed to swallow the jokes before they could be heard. Or maybe they just weren’t funny. We landed on the bank of another portage and began the routine of unloading. Picking the canoe up to my shoulders let me know that the rate at which I was going would not be sustainable. Soon my breathing started to sound like a wounded goose and the pain was staggering.  At some point I came across Aaron returning for more gear and told him what was happening. He took the canoe for me and I went back to grab a pack instead. When I reached the end of the portage, the guys asked me about the fowl noises coming from my lungs, and I explained my situation.

The fast paced paddling needed to get to the lumber road by night didn’t help my state, and the formerly silent wilderness lake was filled with duck-call coughs and a sobbing Billy.  We traversed portage after portage and I began to feel much worse. Billy was essentially crawling from shore to shore, and the paddling in between portages was almost as painful as the portaging itself.  At around four o’clock that evening, we had yet to eat lunch, and somehow the mosquitos were hunting in packs. It was around this time when we hit the infamous mile and a half long portage. I remember bits of that portage with perfect clarity, while other parts are just missing.  I remember stepping over an expanse of mud from one massive, gnarled root to another. I remember the pain and I remember the exhaustion. But I remember, with clarity as crystal as the legendary Sanford Lake, the end of the portage. I dropped the pack, sat down, and leaned against a large slab of cold stone. Then I woke up.  Had I fallen asleep? Before I could figure out what had happened I woke up again. Oh. I was passing out. I looked at the imposingly beautiful tree line that towered above me and then felt myself go again. I woke, and truly realized, with devastating clarity, how far from help we were. I felt myself being pulled back into unconsciousness.  I opened my eyes and saw my friends passing with faces full of panic and horror. The pain was unbearable. I started to fall back into the darkness and wondered if this was what it felt like to die. Then I was awake. I felt the unconsciousness creep up again and wondered if this would be the last thought I had. It scared me horribly, but I didn’t panic.  I just felt defeated. I felt alone. I felt disappointed. But more than anything, I just felt tired. I felt ready to go. Every time I passed out, I wondered if it would be for the last time. I woke up again and Aaron had pulled out the satellite phone. The call connected to the camp and Aaron started screaming into the device like a soldier shouting for backup.  “We-we need help! We need help real bad! Billy is looking…Billy is looking real bad and Luke’s really having trouble breathing!” He looked shakilly panicked. Like I said, Aaron is an EMT, so seeing him like this was quite concerning. He even looked li-I fell into the blackness again. I came to and saw a wailing Billy collapse on the other side of the trail. He hit the ground with more force than a kid that small should have been capable of.  The massive pines above him swayed with the impact. Back to the darkness. Then something new. An icy feeling on my forehead. “Goddamn it! It-It’s starting to rain! A huge storm’s-a huge storm’s coming. There’s lightning!” All I could think before stumbling back into the abyss was, “Huh. I like the rain.” I’m not sure how long we spent at the end of that portage in their time, but in mine, I had always been there. There were only two places that existed.  The numbing darkness and the end of that portage.

I was pulled to my feet and pulled from that dark place and ushered into a canoe.  I started doing the only thing I knew to do in a canoe: I paddled. Moving my arms twisted my chest, and as you can imagine, that didn’t feel great.  Fortunately it stopped raining after about twenty minutes. Unfortunately, that was just as long as that angry cloud needed to soak us. After another forever, we came across the opening of a river.  I say river, but it really wasn’t. It was a continuation of the lake, but there was a field of reeds growing up to seven feet above the surface of the water. There was a path cutting through the river, and we followed it.  The reeds bent over us, almost making a hallway for us to paddle through. It sounds majestic, but somehow the stalks didn’t cover us enough to block the sun, but covered us enough to rain spiders on top of us. After a short time I had a beard of cobwebs and a crew of spiders manning my canoe.  The path was narrow and the water was a reeking, stagnant soup. It was slow going but after an hour or so, we reached the end. Unfortunately, the end was simply that: the end. Our watery path just stopped, leaving us at a wall of impassable reeds. We had to turn back. I grimaced and wheezed my way back through the maze until we came to the opening once again.  We had taken a wrong turn. Coming across the same place as two hours ago was indescribably discouraging. Those two hours could literally have been life or death.

The ceaseless strokes of my paddle in the water made soothing sloshing noises in the water that were corrupted and muddled by the rude gasping horn of my breathing.  I was so tired. I couldn’t feel my arms but I could sure as hell feel my chest. I was convinced I was dying every time the darkness of unconsciousness snuck up on me.  I remember being confused as to why I was paddling. After all we couldn’t paddle up to a hospital.

“Okay the campsite’s here.”  Those were the sweetest words I had ever heard.  I was going to be able to sleep. By Aaron’s request I moved to the bow of my canoe and he picked up the packs from my boat and threw them ashore.  I watched him shuffle Billy into the midship of the canoe where he curled up. Aaron lowered himself into the stern and pushed off the shore. I wasn’t going to stay at the campsite?  I had to keep paddling? What about my friends? I later found out that the rest of the group stayed at the campsite and passed the lumber road the next day where they picked up Aaron and continued the trip.

All I remember after that point was unending pain and the chorus of a canoe full of pained voyagers.  “The map says it should be just around this bend”. To this day, I have never seen a longer bend. Then I saw it: an opening in the trees.  We pulled the canoe ashore and walked up to the road. Another fifteen minutes of waiting yielded a dirty minivan and counselor to pick us up.  We piled into the car and Aaron explained what had happened to our sorry group. Billy fell asleep in the back almost immediately and we drove to the hospital, preventing me from ever seeing the long-anticipated Sanford Lake.

I use the term hospital very loosely in this situation.  There were two moose hanging out in the five car parking lot.  The sign above the door said Atikokan Hospital but it should have said Atikokan “Hospital”.  It was more of a school nurse’s office. The “hospital” had three rooms in it, one of which was to be occupied by the man who was checking in at the front desk as we entered the waiting room.  I assume this man was a fisherman. A few factors contributed to this deduction. The first was that the man smelled like fish. The second was that he wore a fishing jacket and hat. That was all I needed for my conclusion but he decided to give me one more small clue.  If I wasn’t so superhumanly perceptive, I probably would have missed it. This man had a massive fishing lure stabbed all the way through the knuckles of his pointer and middle finger. I don’t know what he was trying to catch with a lure that big. After a couple minutes Billy and I were given rooms and checked out by a doctor named Stephen.  He walked into my room and I immediately knew that I had to have stumbled onto the set of a sitcom. He was a tall, skinny guy and wore the typical blue scrub shirt. It must have been casual Tuesday though, because he wore skinny jeans. And when I say skinny jeans, I mean skinny jeans.  Most surprising though, was the fact that Stephen sported socks and Tevas.  Was there no dress code in “hospitals”? He checked me out and took an ultrasound.  I looked at him and asked, “is it a boy or a girl?” Confused, he glanced from me to the monitor several times. Stephen diagnosed me with a spontaneous pneumothorax–Canadian for a collapsed lung.  There was a Lorax joke somewhere in there but I was too tired to figure it out. He said that if it became worse I may have to get a lung tube. He stared at me blankly when I told him that I’d basically be a human bagpipe.  He took a picture of my lung and told me to check up at a hospital in two days. I walked into Billy’s room and talked to him for a bit. It turns out that he had pulled a muscle in his abdomen and was going to be fine.

That evening we slept in a “hotel” by the name of White Otter Inn.  It was an experience. Let’s call it rustic. In the morning we dropped Aaron off at the spot where we were picked up so that he could continue the trip with the rest of the group.  The car ride home was uneventful but portage-less. We reached basecamp, where I spent two days thinking about where I’d be if I wasn’t coughing up phlegm alone in a cabin. Billy was well enough to go out and do activities all day so I entertained myself with reading, writing, and moping.  I slept for a total of four hours during those two days. Sleep was hard to come by because I’d see the end of that portage every time I closed my eyes. When I did fall asleep I’d swiftly be woken by fits of coughing.  

After two days I went into Bemidji, the little town by camp, where my checkup was scheduled.  The Bemidji “Hospital” was a hell of a lot better than the Atikokan “Hospital”, but still a “hospital”.  The doctor reviewed my case, and looked at the picture taken by Stephen. “Well it looks like you did have a collapsed lung, but your pictures are all good now.  The discomfort should subside any day now.” The discomfort did not subside any day then. I was running on two or three hours of sleep a night. It had been about five to seven days at that point and it was utter hell.  The thought that I hung onto was that there was one more trip later that summer. I had a chance to redeem myself and go back on the trail with the group. During my waking hours, which was most of the hours, I tortured myself by thinking about what my friends on the trail were doing.  They saw one of the clearest lakes on earth. I saw the doctor. They swam in wide creeks next to towering waterfalls. I swam in the confinement of waiting rooms. They slept in tents under the stars. I slept on a small cot in a lonely cabin. They felt the thrill of the trail. I felt unforgiving, ceaseless agony.  They conversed about girls, conspiracy theories, and the mysteries of life. I read to myself.

I spent another week in this sleepless, pain-filled hellscape before I went back to the hospital to see if they had missed something.  The doctor told me that according to Stephen’s picture, I never had a collapsed lung and that I should be fine now. I did have some pneumonia, but that’s nothing a handful of antibiotics couldn’t fix.  Another week passed and I only got worse. I was exhausted. At this point my mom flew out to Minnesota, (where the camp is) and I met her in Minneapolis at the Mayo Clinic. This was not a “hospital”. This was the real deal.  The doctor ran tests I was now very familiar with and determined something surprising. This world class doctor told me that I never had a collapsed lung throughout all of the recorded pictures, but I had one now. She couldn’t explain it but that’s what the tests said.  A pneumothorax is supposed to be an easy yes-no diagnosis. Then she broke the news to me that shattered the bit of hope that had kept me going. I couldn’t go on the next trip. My best friends were going to finish another trip without me.

I flew back home and spent the rest of my summer pining in the absence of pines.  My pain stayed horrible through the summer and into football season and at that point we didn’t know what was chronic pain vs injury induced pain.  The hurting never stopped but it got better at times and worse at others. I caught up on my sleep and things returned to the normal flow. At least as normal as my flow could get.

Things stayed this way until I started to write a trip report.  A record of what had happened. Before I could finish the paper, my way of life shifted radically.  My lung pain skyrocketed and I couldn’t sleep. I had vicious, intrusive nightmares of being at the end of that trail.  I became depressed for the first time in my life and schoolwork became laborious. Worst of all, flashbacks haunted me. I was diagnosed with PTSD.  I dropped out of school and joined a less traditional school where I could determine my hours and work. Days were long, sleep was elusive, and my poetry became exponentially darker.  I worked with a therapist for a brief time and worked through the trauma until I was functional. Things got better and better but that long portage seemed to stretch on forever.  

I finished up my required school work for Sophomore year as summer came around and had the fortune of going on a service trip to South Africa with friends from my previous school.  Reconnecting with them gave me power again and I decided to go back to my formal education. Most surprisingly, I decided to go on another canoe trip with my beloved camp and beloved group.  This trip was longer and even more challenging than the Sanford. On day one, I positioned my feet, dug them into the pine needle mulch that made up the ground, and bent my waist. Back flat, and ready for the lift.  I placed my hands along the yolk of the canoe, lifted and pivoted. The canoe landed on my shoulders and I felt whole again. I completed the trip with nothing more than scrapes and bruises.