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Hiking the Maumee-Wabash canoe portage

By Nate Meyer for the News-Sentinel

The journey begins
News-Sentinel photo by C. Somodevilla

The journey begins
Every journey begins with a single step; the journey to retrace the historic Maumee-Wabash canoe portage began in a soybean field just west of Fox Island County Park in Allen County. The six-mile path passed through cornfields, interstate highways, quiet neighborhoods and busy downtown areas.
On a mid-September morning, a soft sunrise washed over our quiet gathering. We stood at the edge of a drainage ditch crossing fields of dry soybeans off Yohne Road.

Chip, who had studied old maps of the route, assured us that the straight trickle of green ditch water west of Fox Island County Park marked the embarkation of the portage that once linked the Little Wabash River with the St. Marys River, the Maumee with the Ohio, and eventually Lake Erie with the Mississippi. Before a dredge erased its curves, the ditch – near what is now the Interstate 69-U.S. 24 interchange – had been the Little Wabash.

As we prepared to move, Tony and I looked at each other.

"Ready?" he asked. I nodded, and together we lifted a 50-pound canoe made of Kevlar fiber above our heads.

Slowly, I settled the rear wicker seat onto the top of my skull. Tony let out a short grunt, and we began to step together, hitched by the slim, 16-foot-long hull.

Chip hiked alongside, snapping photographs. Becky helped guide our path while playing with a farm dog that joined us. We laughed quietly about the prospect of hauling a canoe along Jefferson Boulevard in busy traffic.

The excitement subsided quickly under the strain of holding the canoe aloft. The boat kept tilting, wrenching my neck at odd angles. The wicker seat was raising a series of neat lumps on my head.

Although I had never met an unprocessed soybean before, I learned to curse it after a few hundred paces spent kicking and shoving through the bean field. Over and over, I hummed the mantra, "Just keep going . . ."

Weariness revisited

Struggle and hardship have always been part of the Maumee-Wabash portage.

The men who blazed this trail carried boats of sodden wood much heavier than our craft made of lightweight, bulletproof fabric. They dragged packs that likely weighed hundreds of pounds. Long before soybeans knotted the way, the trail sliced under the thick canopy of a swampy forest – dark, wet and full of mosquitoes.

I imagined that their weariness was much heavier than my own, as they pulled wet feet from the suck of swamp muck, as boats and packs pummeled back muscles, and bugs drilled into exposed skin. Perhaps the voyageurs shared my mantra while pushing through the wilderness of early Fort Wayne.

Chip and Becky helped Tony and me heave the canoe from the edge of the soybean field, up an embankment and onto a set of railroad tracks, where progress became easier.

We floated the craft briefly across the shallows of a ditch under I-69, then continued past Wesleyan College and into a maze of streets heading toward downtown Fort Wayne.

We began stopping often to slurp water against the rising midday heat. During one break, we noticed a group of turkey vultures gliding low. They seemed out of place over the tightly packed houses and groomed lawns – habitat usually reserved for dog and cat, songbird and squirrel. When we rose to leave, Becky plucked a bird's feathers from the ground and fixed it to her barrette.

The vultures were one tiny link between the voyageurs and myself. This was one sight that we may have shared, though hundreds of years passed between our journeys.

Nevertheless, I discovered that 200 years had severed ties between the portage and the people of Fort Wayne. Chip took on the job of explaining our quest to the growing number of people who were puzzled by the sight of a canoe going past their house on the shoulders of two crazy men. Few had ever heard of the trail originally used by Native Americans. I doubt if many recognized its role in the origin of their city.

Battle for control

The portage was the vital seed from which Fort Wayne eventually sprouted and grew. Up until the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, water provided the most efficient means of transporting trade goods. The path through what would become Fort Wayne blazed one of the shortest overland separations between contiguous bodies of water in the eastern United States. Depending on the amount of rain that had fallen, less than 6 miles usually split river from river, and east from west.

I could imagine the battles fought and forts constructed by Miami, French and English peoples to control the Maumee-Wabash portage and protect easy travel. Our group was retracing the once-great crossroads of an emergent nation.

We took a short lunch break at Portage Middle School, which sits on the old overland path on Taylor Street. I devoured food and drink. We were all the worse for wear.

I envied the dog we sent back home in the car of a friend who delivered lunch to us. I would have happily quit at that point, had pride and fear of embarrassment not pressed me forward. Instead, I contented myself with a few luxurious moments lounging on cool concrete. After Becky had unbent my back with well-placed heels, I made ready to reposition the canoe on my lumpy gourd. "Just keep going . . ."

When we got to Rockhill Park, Chip and Becky took the canoe for a short stretch. They flipped the canoe upside down and dropped the floor of the boat directly onto their heads. A makeshift grass pillow and wadded flannel shirts helped soften the burden. With the canoe dropped down over their heads, the lowered center of gravity helped with balance. However, this carrying position allowed them to see nothing but the ground beneath their feet.

The group became quite interdependent and even more hilarious: Two guides leading two blind boat bearers.

A simple ending

As Tony and I took the canoe back, the hike moved quickly. Block after block passed unseen under the shield of the boat in our newfound carrying position. I merely responded to voices telling me to stop or go, turn right or left. Tony and I listened to the curious inquiries of passing children; I laughed at Chip's varied explanations for a canoe walking on two pairs of legs. I caught a glance of the city every time we removed the canoe, committing each time and place to memory.

The sky grew dark as we crossed West Main Street near Earth Adventures and O'Sullivan's Italian Pub and hiked east toward Wells Street. A few drops of rain pelted our canoe. Suddenly, a heavy downpour forced a halt. We dumped the canoe in a small patch of grass on Wells Street and huddled under the awning outside Lev's Pawn Shop. For nearly an hour, we sucked sodas from Burger's dairy store and hoped for a break in the weather.

We were just blocks from the old fort reconstruction at Historic Fort Wayne, and rain and encroaching nightfall threatened to end our journey. Finally, the rain diminished in time for us to finish. Each of us hurried down the street in a race to the end. Crossing Clinton Street, through some hedges and around the curves of the bike path, we passed onto the parade grounds of the old fort.

Tony and I dropped the canoe one last time, and we all paused, unsure of the proper course of action. After an awkward moment, Chip began shaking hands and quietly congratulating each of us.

Then he drove off with Tony to retrieve our car from our starting point some 6 miles away. Becky and I sat and talked, tossing pebbles and guarding the canoe. The trip ended as quietly as it had begun.

Heritage carries on

Over the past few months, the image of the deserted fort under the darkening sky has remained a vivid one.

As Fort Wayne enters a new millennium, I fear we risk forgetting our heritage. I hope that some of the children and adults who puzzled over our passage – as well as those who never saw us – will learn in the coming years that they dwell on the footsteps of strong people, along the edges of a great trail, at the early crossroads of a great country.

Perhaps they will re-create other historic moments, experience their own histories and find pride in their city. I am sure that looking back and grabbing hold of our beginnings could help us all move more assuredly into the future.

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