They can tote a boat - canoe? Pair practice portage

Jeff Fetterman steadies the canoe on his shoulders as he prepares for his nightly walk with wife Taia Harlos and their dog, Otter. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

First, a little context: They met in 1995. They were both new teachers at Germantown Friends School. Taia Harlos was coaching the powerlifting girls. Jeff Fetterman was coaching the wrestling team. She used to stop by his practices to tease the grapplers, and to flirt.

On their first "date," Jeff goaded Taia into trying single-leg takedowns. During one attempt, she injured her foot, and he loaded her into his VW bus and took her to the hospital, where they spent six hours getting acquainted in the waiting room.

Taia, 41, a nice Polish girl from Buffalo, and Jeff, 44, a nice German boy from Haddon Township, have been married 14 years. They live in a cozy post-and-beam house in Germantown heated by a woodstove. The walls are decorated with moose antlers, snowshoes, bows and arrows, paddles, axes, and banjos.

Taia teaches music to students from kindergarten to sixth grade and directs the lower-school orchestra. She can play many instruments, but her favorite is the violin. Jeff teaches sixth grade and coaches the middle-school wrestling team. He is a mountain biker and snowboarder and is restoring a vintage Toyota Land Cruiser.

Taia is an avid snowboarder as well, and they both love the outdoors. They have hiked and backpacked and rock-climbed. They have made several cross-country camping trips. Every summer for the last 11 years, they have taken groups of GFS students on canoe expeditions in the Lake Temagami region of Ontario. The more advanced trips require 20 to 25 portages.

All of which helps explain, I hope, the spectacle that occurred in Germantown's Cloverly Park the other night. As snow fell steadily, Taia was carrying a red 17-foot canoe, while Jeff was walking Otter, their German wirehaired pointer. As is their custom, they would later switch.

Taia calls it "portaging for fun." Jeff calls it "a workout with a purpose." I call it functional fitness with a ridiculous and imaginative twist. However you describe it, the Canoe Couple have been performing this unusual ritual every evening since Thanksgiving, causing plenty of bemusement and bewilderment on the avenues and byways of Germantown and East Falls.

"It's a terrific whole-body workout," Jeff says, especially effective for strengthening the core.

"It's great for warding off the muffin top," says Taia, referring to the bulge of fat around the top of pants and skirts that often materializes in winter.

The canoe weighs north of 85 pounds. In the middle of the canoe there's a contoured piece of wood called a yoke that spans its width. When portaging, after flipping the canoe overhead, you support the yoke on the back of your neck and shoulders. You balance and stabilize the canoe with your arms, which are extended up and forward, your hands gripping another wooden crosspiece called a thwart where it meets the gunwales.

The Canoe Couple usually portage between 8 and 11 p.m. when the neighborhood is quiet, the sidewalks deserted. Their short walk is about a mile and takes about 20 minutes. Their long walk is about two miles and takes about 50 minutes. Needless to say, they attract lots of amazed looks and stares. Some people smile and give the thumbs up. Motorists often toot their horns. Wiseacres sometimes shout, "When's the flood?" and "The river is thataway." Jeff thinks they must look like trash pickers.

The other night, after crossing the park, Taia carried the canoe down School House Lane. This stretch can sometimes turn into a wind tunnel, and holding the canoe steady can require a battalion of stabilizing muscles. "It gets the heart rate up," Taia said. To heighten the exertion, the Canoe Couple sometimes jog while portaging. At a fire hydrant at the end of Oak Road, which borders the campus of William Penn Charter School, the Canoe Couple switched places, with Jeff hefting the canoe, Taia taking the leash.

Jeff calls street portaging a "getting to the point" workout. The point is preparing for the rigors of summer canoe expeditions. Some of the wilderness portages are as short as 50 meters, others as long as three miles. But the shorter portages are not necessarily easier. They often involve steep and treacherous terrain, and traversing waist-deep marshes and pools of mud and moose muck.

"The thing that's hardest on the trips is carrying the canoes," Jeff says. "As guides, we have to be at least one step ahead of the strongest participant."

Taia calls street portaging "a more natural way to work out."

"We get great exercise, Otter gets a great walk, and we talk a lot," she said. "It's a wonderful way to unwind and reconnect."

On Midvale Avenue, a jogger passed and acknowledged the sight with an amused smile. To him, Jeff and Taia seemed to be transporting a canoe; in truth, the canoe was transporting them - to recollections of sylvan splendor, solitude, and tranquillity.


Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or