By Canoe & Kayak’s Conor Mihell
Speaking by cellphone from the native community of Oxford House in northern Manitoba last week, Natalie Warren enthusiastically riffs about the 76 days she’s spent so far on a 2,250-mile canoe expedition from St. Paul, Minn., to Hudson Bay.
The breathless rundown details close encounters with bears, furious high water, tent-flattening winds and the dozens of friendly people she’s met. And it’s all punctuated by shouted reminders from her paddling partner, Ann Raiho, in the background.
Since the beginning of June, Warren, 23, and Raiho, 22, have been attempting to become the first women to paddle a challenging route made famous by longtime CBS journalist Eric Severeid in his 1935 canoe-lit classic, Canoeing with the Cree. From Oxford House, a remote Cree town (pop. 3,000), Warren estimates that they could reach York Factory, a historic fur trading post on Hudson Bay, later this week. Best of all, she says the downstream route they’ve been paddling on the wild Hayes River has been the scenic highlight of the trip.
“We’re calling it Hudson Bay Bound’s ‘spring break,’” laughs Warren. “We’ve been running some huge whitewater and the river is so beautiful with granite gorges and mosses on the banks.”
Warren says the expedition has been nothing like they like expected.
“We thought it would be a wilderness trip but it has transformed into learning about social and historical aspects of the route,” says Warren. For instance, the pair spent three days in the remote native village of Norway House, partaking in the Cree community days, adopting a stray puppy and talking “late into the night” with locals about aboriginal rights and the challenges and rewards of living in the isolation of northern Canada. “It’s the best extension of our college education,” says Warren.
Conceived as a celebration of the pair’s May 2011 graduation from Northfield, Minn.’s St. Olaf College, the Hudson Bay Bound trip is also raising money for YMCA Camp Menogyn, the Grand Marais, Minn. summer camp where Warren and Raiho first met and honed their canoe-tripping skills.
Now, at the height of the downriver portion of their expedition, the toil of battling floodwaters on the Minnesota River in June is scarcely a memory. A “good day” on the Minnesota meant gaining 15 miles in 10 to 12 hours of exhausting paddling. “It was a good thing it was early in the trip because we were so motivated and ambitious,” says Warren. “On days when it rained the water levels would rise overnight and you couldn’t catch a break. At times we were paddling over cornfields.”
Tracing the notoriously volatile waters of Lake Winnipeg to reach the Nelson and Hayes Rivers was “hard and nerve-wracking,” Warren says, adding that they were windbound a full seven days while gales whipped the relatively shallow, 250-mile-long lake into a fury and pinned them down in the dubious shelter of their tent.
The remaining section of the Hayes below Oxford House contains dozens of rapids, waterfalls and 40-mile-long Knee Lake. After that, the final 100 miles of the trip will be “like a giant waterslide,” says Warren—albeit through an area that’s patrolled by polar bears and infamous for strong winds and blinding fog.
Warren says she isn’t worried about filling the void after the three-month expedition wraps up at Hudson Bay. Post-trip plans include auctioning off their 17-foot Langford canoe in a second fundraising push for Camp Menogyn and possibly collaborating on a book. “I don’t know what it’s going to feel like to finish,” she says, “but I know the adventure will live on.”