July 3, 2012

Two Friends Paddle to Hudson Bay: 2,250 Miles, Four Months, One Fight

WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE: Natalie Warren and her friend Ann Raiho are believed to be the first women to have made the 2,250 trek from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay that newsman Eric Sevareid famously chronicled in his 1935 book “Canoeing with the Cree.” Ms. Warren, a recent graduate of St. Olaf’s College, will give a talk about her trip Thursday, July 5 at 7 p.m. at Princeton Public Library.

In 1935, Eric Sevareid wrote the book Canoeing with the Cree, an account of a paddling trip he made from Minnesota to Canada with a high school classmate. Mr. Sevareid, who became a famous television news reporter, started the trip with his friend Walter Port in the Minnesota River, and finished four months later at Hudson Bay, The book’s title comes from the Cree nation in Lake Winnipeg, which they encountered along the way.

Nearly eight decades later, two college classmates decided to attempt the same trip. They were not the first to be inspired to follow Mr. Sevareid’s lead. But the fact that they are female gives them a certain distinction. “As far as we know, we are the only two women to have made this trip,” says Natalie Warren, who will speak at Princeton Public Library at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 5, about the trip. Ms. Warren, who lives in Washington, D.C., and her expedition partner, Ann Raiho, who is in Colorado, are writing a book about their experience, tentatively titled Hudson Bay Bound.

While they closely followed the route taken by Mr. Sevareid and Mr. Port, Ms. Warren acknowledges that modern technology made their trip a bit less arduous. Canoeing with the Cree details the blistering heat, freezing temperatures, clouds of insects and shortage of food that the young men encountered. The young women were more prepared.

“We definitely had the right gear, which changed things a lot,” she says, speaking in a telephone interview from her home in Washington, D.C. “When you’re freezing cold and have nowhere to go inside, it’s rough. But it was rougher for them.”

The two women, who first met at a summer camp in Minnesota, were not only prepared with modern gear, they were experienced paddlers. Mr. Sevareid and Mr. Port were not. Camp Menogyn, a YMCA camp, was the Miami-bred Ms. Warren’s introduction to the midwest. Over several summers, she and Ms. Raiho did 15-day, 30-day, and later 50-day whitewater trips. “We were trained. We definitely wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t have some whitewater background,” she says.

It was Ms. Raiho who first suggested the 2,250-mile trip. “I thought it would be awesome,” Ms. Warren recalls. “We were both at the stage when you’re applying for jobs, in your senior year at college, but nothing is happening. A lot of friends were going to graduate school or going home. So we thought, we’ll just put looking for jobs on hold. We thought it would just be a kink in our resumes, but we didn’t realize how big of a project it would become.”

Mr. Sevareid and Mr. Port were sponsored by a Minneapolis newspaper. The women took the same route, securing sponsorships from different sources and establishing a website. They raised $2,000 for Camp Menogyn, to help fund canoe and kayak trips for girls.

They embarked on June 2, 2011. “The first part of the trip was upstream on the Minnesota River, and we left during a flood,” Ms. Warren recalls. “People kept saying you can’t do this and you can’t do that, and leaving during a flood was a big thing we were warned about. But we thought we’d be fine. And we were.”

The island from which Mr. Sevareid and Mr. Port left was underwater, so the women had to have a different starting point. Once they hit the current, they paddled 1.5 miles per hour, 12 hours a day, for 18 days. “It was really slow, the slowest you can move ever,” says Ms. Warren. “You can walk faster than that. But it was good that we had it at the beginning of our trip.”

Spending 90 days together was a true test of the women’s friendship, and there were difficult moments. “There was never a point where we weren’t inside of each other. There was no going to another room,” Ms. Warren says. “We only got into one big fight, in which I was concerned that Ann was over-thinking a lot of things and freaking out about small things, and she was concerned that I was too relaxed.”

The disagreement happened to occur on one of the most spectacular nights of the trip, which Ms. Warren finds somewhat ironic. “We were doing a night paddle on Lake Winnipeg. It was a gorgeous night, with the stars reflecting onto the lake,” she says. “The northern lights came out. We saw a giant bull moose on the shore. We weren’t talking to each other, but it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.”

The friends made up, and all was well.

Some of the scenery they encountered was less inspiring. The women discovered that many of the corn and soybean farms lining the Minnesota River do not have buffer zones, which means that nitrogen and phosphorus go straight into the water. “We paddled past power plants, so it was not always the romantic canoe trip one would imagine,” Ms. Warren says.

An environmental studies major focused on sustainable agriculture, she learned a lot from the trip. “Some of the farms we went by had no filtration systems, which was partly due to the flooding,” she says. “It was interesting to paddle by water gushing out and know it was extremely toxic.”

The women ended up getting lost in the same places that Mr. Sevareid and Mr. Port got lost, at the end of a marsh lake. “You can’t tell where the river starts up again,” Ms. Warren said. “You’re just paddling through reeds, trying to find the inlet, back and forth. Finally, we found our way back. And that’s exactly what happened to them.”

Since the trip ended, the two women have spoken at conferences and in different communities. They are working on their book, which is based on a daily journal they kept. “I think it will be great, because we’re both writing it,” Ms. Warren says. “Just like we have different personalities, we have different writing styles. Once we put our parts together and have people doing some editing, I think it will actually be a good read.”