While certainly not as waterproof as modern canoe packs, I like the concept of using the tarp for more than one role (i.e. shelter) and doing away with a pack entirely. This pack-cloth system is featured in many old illustrations and artworks. Here are a few I've stumbled across:
Abercrombie & Fitch Illustration
Original Source Link: ArchivalClothing.com
Cruisers Making a Portage
"BY CANVAS AND BIRCHBARK" - George MacDougall
Outing, Volume LXVI, Issue 6 (September 1915)
Camping Out (1918) - Warren H. Miller
Camp and Trail (1911) - Stewart Edward White
This short quaint film featuring Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) showcases the pack-cloth & tumpline in a posed sequence starting at the 5:45 mark
The most detailed description of this pack cloth method can be found in the classic read, Woods and Lakes of Maine (1883) by Lucius Hubbard. Page 102 devotes a few paragraphs describing the tying technique used by his guides with a nice illustration to accompany the text.
...The tent usually forms the groundwork, and across it on either side of its centre are laid the two ends of a long double strap, which may be made of leather, or of a piece of the inner bark of the cedar, tapering from the centre to each end. These strap-ends are laid a little farther apart than the intended width of the pack, and in parallel lines, leaving a margin of tent more than a foot wide outside of each of them. The margins are then folded over the straps, and may or may not meet or overlap along the centre of the tent. We now have spread out before us what for purposes of this description may be called the "pack-cloth." It is long and narrow, and at its upper end we see a wide, continuous strap, which extends from side to side, and disappears at the corners under its folds.
The strap then runs along the sides of the cloth, concealed from view until its tapering ends come out at the two lower corners. On the middle of the pack-cloth are now piled buckets, blankets, pots, pans, shoes, socks, and anything else that has no more appropriate place, until a load is accumulated larger than the body of the carrier, and of a weight sufficient to tax the strength of two ordinary men. These different things are all arranged so that no uncomfortable projections shall chafe the carrier's back.
The next step is to fold the two ends of the pack-cloth over the articles just piled up, so that the structure may have somewhat the shape of a barrel with head and bottom knocked out. The Indian now usually stands astride of his pack, holds firmly with one hand the central part of his strap where it disappears among the folds of the tent, and pulls hard upon its corresponding end, which by the previous act of folding has been brought up and opposite to it. What was the side of the pack-cloth now becomes the end of the pack, and under the pulling process soon looks like the mouth of a bag, which is made fast by a knot in the strap. The other side is treated in the same manner, and we now have a shapely pack, with ends tightly closed. Along the top, from end to end, runs the broad part of the strap, and from the knots at the extremities of this broad part run the two long tapering ends. These are brought together under the centre-piece, crossed, and carried around the middle of the pack, where on the opposite side they are tightly knotted. The pack now is a firm solid mass, and the Indian, often unable from its great weight to lift it alone upon his back, either drags it to some log or mound, or by the aid of another person succeeds in getting under it. The broad part of the strap passes over his forehead, and sometimes, as an additional aid, a second strap passes from the pack around his chest.
Anyway, I've been thinking of another poling trip, hopefully in the late fall when the kids are settled into school and daycare. The plan is to use this pack cloth method on a minimal portaging route just to give it a whirl. I've already assembled a bedroll of sorts and will post about it soon.
October 7 Update: Read my attempt at this pack cloth method in Part 2 of this post HERE