Unrelenting winds, carnivorous polar bears, snake nests, sweltering heat, and constant hunger— those are a few of the hurdles overcome by Natalie Warren and paddling partner Ann Raiho on their 2,000-mile canoe trip from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, following the 2,000-mile route made famous by Eric Sevareid in his 1935 classic Canoeing with the Cree.
En route they interacted with people who live and work on the waterways, including a solitary resident in the wilderness who helps plug a leak; and the people of the Cree First Nation at Norway House, where the canoeists acquire a furry companion. For the two friends—the first women to make this expedition—the trip also tested their character and friendship. While Warren’s account retraces the women’s journey from inspiration to Arctic waters, it also describes the tensions that erupt between them (at one point they communicate with each other only by note). Throughout, Warren brings readers into her experience, as they recreate this historic trip, including the pleasures and perils, the sexism, the social and environmental implications, and the enduring wonder of the wilderness.
Paddling Life catches up with Warren for a more in-depth look at the journey and her book…
PL: What made you want to do it? This expedition was inspired by Eric Sevareid’s book Canoeing With the Cree, about two men who paddled from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay in 1930. Ann and I were the first two women to complete the route. We went wilderness tripping through YMCA Camp Menogyn as teenagers before attending St. Olaf College. We were gearing up to graduate and “become real people” with jobs and everything we were told we were supposed to do after school, but it was 2011 and the economy was recovering from the 2008 recession. No one was hearing back from potential employers, so Ann and I said, “Screw it let’s live in a canoe for three months.” I was worried it would be a huge gap in our resumes, when in fact this expedition really helped launch our careers.
We wanted to do this trip for several reasons, but I think we both felt frustrated with the life path we were told we were supposed to have. Patriarchal cultural norms felt cold, rigid, and unfulfilling to us (and still do). We wanted to break out of that and do something different with our lives — to breathe fresh air, drink clean water straight from the river, and just worry about what to eat and where to camp.
What was the hardest part? I love this route because it is really four trips in one: paddling upstream on the Minnesota River, cruising downstream on the Red River, traversing the waves on Lake Winnipeg (the 11th largest lake in the world), and maneuvering the whitewater on the pristine Arctic Hayes River. Each section came with its own joys and challenges — physical and emotional. But, honestly, I think the hardest part was deciding to do the trip and going against what we were told we were supposed to do as two women in their younger 20s. We encountered a lot of people who outright told us we couldn’t do the trip, or that it would take us way longer than we expected, or would quiz us on whether or not we were actually prepared. I didn’t expect to encounter such direct sexism (beyond the more subtle interactions and barriers all women face). Looking back now, I’m not surprised. Really those were the most challenging moments, but they were fuel to continue on and prove that we could be the first two women to do this route. I talk about a guy in the book who laughed at us when we told him where we were going. He said we wouldn’t make it to Hudson Bay until October, if we made it at all. He even promised to send us a keg of beer if we actually finished. When we got there in August we gave him a call and he didn’t even remember who we were.
Have any close calls? Definitely. We were both trained in whitewater and had been on 50+ day expeditions before going on this trip, but no matter how prepared you are some things always go awry on a long expedition. A few close calls come to mind on the Hayes River while paddling larger rapid sets. Once we lost track on the map and almost went over a Class V ledge. But the biggest close call was when we were paddling 280-miles up the east shore of Lake Winnipeg. It is a shallow lake and when the wind blows the waves quickly become dangerous to paddle. One time we were navigating a huge tailwind and a wave picked us up on its crest. Right below us two huge boulders emerged from beneath the water. The wave dropped us exactly in between them. If we had been a foot in either direction our Kevlar boat would have slammed against the hard rock, and we might have been lost to the lake. We were in such shock that we stopped paddling for the day and just sat on shore looking out at the water, unable to speak.
Were you two compatible the whole time? Ann and I were together for about 100 days. There is something beautiful and terrifying about traversing the world in a tandem canoe. The structure of the canoe itself requires two people to become one entity. The positioning of the paddlers tasked with different responsibilities — one concerned with direction and the other with speed — puts the canoeists in verbal and nonverbal conversation with each other. It is a delicate dance of power, judgment, and control. It is a place where our histories and identities emerge through the simple sway of the bow. Ann and I were and still are a great duo. But, to oversimplify, I am a little more relaxed about things and Ann was a little more concerned about our safety. This all culminated in a large fight during a night paddle on Lake Winnipeg. The stars and Milky Way reflected on the mirror-like surface of the lake. It looked like we were padding through space. I was in the stern, and felt very comfortable directing us on the fastest route across the miraculously smooth water to take advantage of perfect paddling conditions. Ann felt like we had strayed too far from shore, so she spoke up about it. I initially turned closer to shore, but with time the bow betrayed me, and pointed back to its original destination across the large bay. This simple act, a bow turned too far to the left, sparked the largest fight of our entire expedition. Ann snapped. We started yelling at each other. Our voices echoed far and wide, yet remained unheard; consumed by the dark expanse of water. The northern lights came out and danced around the sky to see what all the excitement was about. Soon we were paddling in silence, in awe at the scenic beauty in front of us, but too angry to speak to each other. We only conversed one more time that night as we shone a light toward shore to check our distance. We were surprised to find the same green flare from the sky above staring back at us from a Bull Moose, not 100-yards away. After a day of exchanging hand-written letters (even though we were always in sight of each other) we made up and our partnership thrived for the remainder of the expedition and beyond.
Would you do it again? Yes, but for different reasons. I’ve paddled the Kazan and Kunwak Inuit Heritage Rivers, the length of the Mississippi River, a large chunk of the Yukon River, and, of course, this route to Hudson Bay. Each trip has taught me something different about myself and the world around me. This trip in particular represents a point in time. I was 22 and I didn’t live anywhere. I wasn’t tied to anyone and didn’t even have a phone with me. It was pure adventure, contemplation, and observation.
This expedition was a coming-of-age journey that became so much more than just two strong women exploring the wilderness and living simply. The scars on the landscape unfolded before our eyes as we paddled north. The harm done by industry and agriculture and the injustices done to First Nation communities were impossible to ignore as we moved with the land and water. I can still feel those visceral moments of standing in a corn field and being in a food desert, meeting farmers who could barely feed themselves, paddling over toxic algal blooms on Lake Winnipeg caused by agricultural runoff, and watching a First Nation community line up to receive their annual five dollars from the government as compensation for stolen land and generations of injustice. Those moments really impacted who I am today and how I perceive political and cultural systems.
I would do this trip again but for different reasons. I would go as a storyteller and communicator to see how the environmental and social issues we encountered have evolved and changed over the last decade. I also think that, as I’ve gotten older, compounding responsibilities present new barriers to long expeditions. Would I leave my daughter for three months? Better yet — when is she going to leave me for three months?
What’s next? Writing the book and getting published was really empowering. Even though I’ve paddled over 7,000 miles in a canoe and have been on several bike-packing and backpacking trips I don’t necessarily see myself as an expeditioner looking to conquer anything. I view outdoor expeditions as beautiful opportunities to learn about people and place. I’m so thankful for the experiences I’ve had in the outdoors (and continue to have, in smaller doses). They gave me the confidence to pursue hard things, like writing a book. Those trips also opened my eyes to social and environmental issues, and the importance of exploring land and water; of living together on this earth. Now I find myself thinking about how to share those teachings as a writer and public speaker. How can I give back? How can I pass it on? I’m scheming up my next river-centric book, working on a PhD in Environmental Communication, and trying to instill a love for the outdoors and the wonder of the wilderness in my daughter. But at my core I’m an opportunist, so who knows what grand things wait around the river bend!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Natalie Warren is a Minneapolis-based author, scholar, and public speaker on environmental issues. A lifelong paddler and river lover, she canoed the length of the Mississippi River and won first place in the Yukon River Quest in the women’s voyageur division, paddling 450 miles in fifty-three hours. A contributing writer to outdoor publications, she has worked with Bancroft Arnesen Explore, St. Croix River Association, and River Management Society, and she started a nonprofit to present urban rivers as natural, dynamic classrooms for youth.
HUDSON BAY BOUND: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic
By Natalie Warren, Foreword by Ann Bancroft; University of Minnesota Press | 248 pages | February 2, 2021 | hardcover/jacket | $24.95
PRAISE FOR HUDSON BAY BOUND:
“Ann and Natalie would be heralded for showing that adventure can still be had in a changing environment, and that women have not only a place in the landscape of adventure, but an important voice that needs to be heard. [Their] journey illuminates the physical landscapes, hardships, and human encounters; it also uncovers the heart of any good journey, the human spirit.” —Ann Bancroft, from the Foreword
“Hudson Bay Bound is a story of friendship forged on the river as two young women paddle 2,000 miles to the Arctic. With the candor and enthusiasm of a first grand adventure, Natalie Warren shares the joys and trials of living by water, propelled northward by muscle power and the belief that anything is possible.” —Caroline Van Hemert, author of The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000–Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
“Natalie Warren’s Hudson Bay Bound is part adventure-memoir, part nontraditional love story. Her adoration for the water and deep respect for the history of the land it weaves through is clear throughout the journey. Complemented by the intimacy of a friendship cultivated in motion, this is a refreshing, fun, and thoughtful read.” —Gale Straub, author of She Explores: Stories of Life-Changing Adventures on the Road and in the Wild
“Natalie and Ann’s story is classic example of how the exuberance of youth and a healthy dose of grit make any dream possible. From the foggy swirl of excitement as they launched their canoe into the flooded Minnesota River to their final paddle strokes down the Hayes River, Hudson Bay Bound provides a vivid account of an awesome adventure that we couldn’t put down.” —Amy and Dave Freeman, authors of A Year in the Wilderness: Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters