I want to delve a little bit into the yoke used to portage the canoe. If you are going to carry a canoe on your own, a yoke is a helpful thing to have and, if you've ever carried a canoe for any distance, a good yoke makes for a more comfortable portage.
Portage refers to the practice of carrying watercraft or cargo over land to avoid river obstacles, or between two bodies of water. A place where this carrying occurs is also called a portage; a person doing the carrying is called a porter.
The name portage is derived from the french word "portage" and the french verb "porter" : to carry. Early French explorers ventured in New France and French Louisiana encountered many rapids and cascades. The Amerindians carried their canoes over land to avoid river obstacles. The french coureurs des bois and trappers used the french word "portage".
Over time, important portages were sometimes upgraded to canals with locks, and even portage railways. Primative portaging generally involves carrying the vessel and its contents across the portage in multiple trips. Small canoes can be portaged by carrying them inverted over one's shoulders and the center thwart may be designed in the style of a yoke to facilitate this. Historically, Voyageurs often employed a tump line on their head to carry a load on their back.
I know this from some hard experience. When I was younger, we went on a canoe trip in Maine and my paddling partner and I were paddling a borrowed aluminum canoe.
It was shiny.
It was hot.
It was noisy.
It was heavy.
It didn't have a yoke.
We arrived at a portage of about a mile and a quarter in the rain. We took our paddles and square lashed them to the center thwart and the thwart behind the bow seat. It looked a lot like this:
The downside to this situation is that your head is between the paddles and it's not really comfortable, even with the canvas "horse collar" life jacket to pad your shoulders and neck. I must say that I don't like this situation of having your head trapped like this - if you trip and take a tumble, you wouldn't want your head in between the paddles. A better way to rig it is to have the tips of the paddle blades pointing toward the bow and overhang the center thwart by about 4-6 inches, creating a yoke.
In the Paddle Making Blog, there is a neat post on traditional carry methods using paddles and a tumpline to create a portaging rig. It has some excellent illustrations showing the rig in detail - well worth the look.
Today, most canoes have a yoke. They vary in design quite a great deal. It is important to recognize that the fit of a thwart is very individual - much like finding a good pair of shoes or a pair of pants that fit just right. If they don't fit right, they can be very uncomfortable. Also, it is important the the yoke is located very close to the balance point of the canoe, but is preferably a little heavy to the stern. (If the yoke opening faces the bow, of course.) This keeps the bow up so you can see as you portage. Note the variety of the yokes shown here (not including the thwart at top, or the grab handle at the bottom...):
Padding is an important addition The heavily padded yoke shown below are similar to ones that were made by Joe Seglia on his canoes. Jerry Stelmok shows some great pictures of Joe upholstering the yoke in his book about Joe. They appear to have been fairly common in the Michigan/Minnesota area.
Another way to go if you don't have a yoke or want it installed only part of the time is to have a removable one like this one by Old Town:
More padding is always good:
The heavily contoured "ox-yoke" style canoe yoke can work very well if it fits the person carrying the canoe. Fit cannot be emphasized enough.
Some people add a third seat to the center of the canoe that has a yoke built in. These are available commercially, but this one is home-made.
The canoes that my students build are small solo canoes. Because they are intended to be lightweight, they have little trim. In the case of the Wee Lassie and Wee Lassie II, we usually have a cane seat, a single thwart located behind the seat, decks, scuppered inwales and an outwale. Before this trim is added, the fiberglassed hull is, well, floppy. The trim helps add rigidity to the hull and helps it hold its shape under load. This doesn't mean that it is the only way to build the canoe - - there are many ways to finish the canoe. It's up to you to choose.
Because these are light-weight canoes, you can quite literally throw them over a shoulder and go. Still, even with a light-weight canoe or one with a good yoke, the best modern alternatives are the myriad of folding carts that take the load off your shoulders. Do remember that if the portage trail is rugged, these carts may do you little good! Smooth trails are a must!
I still think that the method below is the best way to portage!
(Portage Wagon from the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, NY, photo taken by Mwanner. Just add horses!)