Books

Female friends tackle a summer-long canoe journey from corn country to the Arctic

Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic

By Natalie Warren. University of Minnesota Press, 2021. 224 pages. $24.95 on Amazon (also available for Kindle).

Two college friends who had spent their teenage years canoeing together in Northern Minnesota and Canada one day discovered a book, “Canoeing with the Cree,” about two young men who canoed from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay in 1930.

What a great idea, Natalie Warren and her friend Ann Raiho thought. (Warren, in her writings, mentions the canoeist-author, Eric Sevareid, but neglects to mention that he’s the same person who went on to great fame as a decades-long TV news journalist.)

Let’s be the first two women to tackle the same adventure! Others had been inspired by Sevareid’s book to replicate the journey, but none of them had been women.

Thus began the preparation and then a 2011 paddle of 2,000 canoe miles across parts of three states and then the length of Manitoba, from city and corn country into wilder territory, intersecting with remote communities, historical landmarks, and nearly a century of change. For 85 days the two women challenged themselves against high water, wind and hailstorms, treacherous river conditions, difficult portages, various misadventures and their own personality conflicts.

When the two landed at last on an Arctic shore they had not only strengthened both their outdoors and life skills but earned a deep appreciation for rivers and wild places, an understanding of some historical issues and an enduring friendship. And a dog. The two picked up a stray dog along the way, recommended to them for bear protection.

Each stretch of the various linked rivers offered its own challenges and delights. The first 330 miles were on the grossly polluted Minnesota River — upstream during flood stage and heavy summer heat. Here, in the heart of the Midwest, they observed corn fields seeded to the river’s edges, portaged around dams, and enjoyed the hospitality of many they met along the way.

The Minnesota gave way to small lakes and then the Red River, a twisty river that continued through farmland to the Canadian border and on to Winnepeg, Manitoba. The route then followed the east shore of the very large Lake Winnepeg (actually a reservoir managed for hydroelectricity), where the women encountered storms and high waves. In the lake’s northern basin they paddled through huge algal mats fed by the agricultural chemicals that were carried there from the Corn Belt. They stopped at a remnant of what had once been a thriving fishing community.

After reaching the Nelson River, the two made a prearranged stop at Norway House, a Cree community just then celebrating what was known as Treaty and York Boats Days. There they learned about broken treaties and the plight of First Nations people confined to a reservation. They were advised about Sasquatch and polar bears and adopted one of the town strays for the final push north.

More short river stretches, lakes, and portages brought them to a last remote Cree community, known as Oxford House, and the wild, free-flowing Hayes River, where they survived rapids that nearly broke their boat but not their spirits. They ended their journey on the shore of Hudson Bay at York Factory, once the site of a boat factory and now an historic site with a caretaker. There, they saw their first polar bear before seeking safety in a bunkhouse.

The three-month-long journey is well-told by Warren, who dramatizes the day-by-day adventures with a keen sense of humor and the introspection of a young woman set out to prove herself as capable and persevering while also questioning what she knows of the world and what she might do with her after-college life. She brings into focus northern issues familiar to Alaskans, including pollution and environmental degradation, Indigenous rights, the legacy of colonialism, the de-peopling of rural areas, and the value of rivers and wild places.

An afterword, written in alternating sections by the two friends 10 years after their expedition, makes a satisfying coda. Natalie went on to canoe more rivers, to lead trips for young people, to advocate for rivers and clean water, and to build a career out of environmental communication. Ann went on to earn advanced degrees and now does ecological modeling; she still paddles competitively — and still has the dog.

Although the author very occasionally references the Sevareid route being retraced, she seldom compares the two adventures or remarks on what has changed since 1930, and she never quotes from “Canoeing with the Cree.” It may be that copyright protections disallow direct quotations, but a reader expecting specific contrasts and hoping for a depth of historical and cultural meaning will be disappointed.

A further deficiency of the book is its lack of maps detailed enough to follow the narrative. The one map of the entire route requires a magnifier to read the river names, and locations other than major communities are missing.

Still, the story takes readers on an engaging, fast-paced journey through both a physical space of interest and the lives of its young adventurers. The descriptions of gear, technique, and hazards should be understandable to those who’ve never held a canoe paddle while also informing those who might want to undertake a similar journey of their own.

Readers inspired by Warren’s story may wish to also read Sevareid’s “Canoeing with the Cree” (still in print) or some equally inspiring long-journey narratives by Alaska adventurers—Constance Helmericks’s classic “Down the Wild River North” (in which she and two young daughters canoed 2,500 miles down Canadian rivers to the Arctic in the 1960s) or, more recently, Caroline Van Hemert’s “The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaska Wilds,” Erin McKittrick’s “A Long Way Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski,” Jill Fredston’s “Rowing to Latitude,” or Karsten Heuer’s “Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd.”

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