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Basic Information

A portage is a section of shoreline (normally riverbank) where watercraft are drawn up out of the water and moved by land for a distance. This significant labour is usually undertaken for one of the following reasons:

  1. The river is about to encounter a waterfall or a set of rapids that cannot be safely navigated.
  2. The watercraft are to be moved from one river to another.
  3. The short cut thus created is sufficiently large to reward the effort of portaging.

Alternatively, a portage may be cargo only - that is, the stores are transferred from one watercraft to another, although this is often not considered a portage (e.g. transferring cargo from a seagoing ship to river barges in an estuarine port is not a portage, whilst the same move performed across a set of rapids or falls might well be). The Darien portage - transporting cargo across the Isthmus of Panama prior to the construction of the canal - might be an extreme example of a cargo only portage.

Examples of 1. are found on many of the worlds navigable rivers (although industrialised nations often bypassed them with canal locks in the 19th century) - and this is the context in which many leisure boaters encounter portage. Examples of 2. are generally found in the interior of large landmasses - the "Height of Land" portage in North America being a prominent example - this procedure is also quite common amongst leisure canoeists. These too have tended to be rendered obsolete by canals.

The most prominent example of type 3 is probably the diolkos of Corinth - a portage capable of hauling whole ships across the Isthmus, again, large civilisations are prone to constructing canals to eliminate these.

Portages are often economically and strategically significant and can be protected with fortifications such as the chain of Egyptian fortresses built at the cataracts of the Nile, both to protect those using the portage and to maintain control of its use.

(Note that the armed forces in particular also use the verb "to portage" to cover the carrying about of large pieces of equipment that aren't boats - heavy weapons for example)


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • The most prominent fictional example of a portage is probably that of the Sarn Gebir in Lord of the Rings - occurring just before the Fellowship divided at Amon Hen. Had they continued as originally intended towards Gondor they would also have been obliged to portage the falls of Rauros.
  • Likewise, for an American Mountain Man/Voyageur campaign (or one based around the voyages of the Rus in Central Asia), portages should be a regular occurrence.
  • Consider prominent portages for your campaign world, possibly as locations for fortresses and/or settlements. Until very recently the majority of cargo trade went by water.
  • Where a portage isn't fortified (and, perhaps, held against the PCs?) this is still a good place for a wandering monster - bandits in particular could logically be expected to lie in wait in this sort of location.
  • Something like the Darien portage should be fairly rare - generally it will require a significant culture (such as the Spanish Empire) with business on both sides or a significant trade route interrupted by land. Suez, historically, would seem another route with potential - although quite a lot of the trade that might have passed that way landed at Berenike and went up the Nile, which is a different, but still significant portage.
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