By Conor Mihell
The final day of Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho's 85-day canoe trip from St. Paul, Minn. to Hudson Bay will be remembered in one way: "The overwhelming feeling was hunger," says Warren, 22. "For some reason we didn't eat… I don't know why."
It might have had something to do with the risk of encountering one of the many polar bears that cruise the tundra and tidal flats at the mouth of the Hayes River, or perhaps the threat of blinding fog that often reduces visibility to nil on the Hudson Bay coast. Whatever the rationale, Warren and Raiho, 21, awoke before dawn on the morning of August 25 and paddled 60 miles to York Factory, Manitoba, completing a 2,250-mile journey that began in the Twin Cities in early June. When they followed a centuries-old tradition and emblazoned their paddles with the York Factory brand, the recent graduates of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., became the first women to retrace Eric Sevareid and Walter Port's 1930 epic, as described in Sevareid's 1935 classic, Canoeing With the Cree.
Raiho says their arrival at the old fur trading post, which was established by the venerable Hudson Bay Company of Adventurers in 1684, and remained operational until 1957, was anticlimactic. "It was funny that this was such a big destination," says Raiho. "We paddled for 85 days to reach a building where three people live—and they only live there in the summer. It made us realize that the trip was all about the journey."
Today, York Factory is maintained by Parks Canada as a national historic site. Besides serving as a critical fur trading post, it also served as a gateway to new immigrants arriving from Europe via Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. "It was like the Ellis Island of the North," says Raino. "This was interesting to me because my family might've come through there. It was pretty overwhelming to realize how influential the place once was but now it's insignificant."
Warren's greatest memory of the expedition is how she and Raiho smoothly transitioned from college life to a summer in the wilderness. "In the beginning we talked about school and events, but in the second half we started talking about what was around us," she says. "We started to be really observant, and that was the focus of conversation." The Hayes River represented the wildest part of the expedition, with countless runnable rapids, spectacular waterfalls and the open water of Knee Lake. Below White Mud Falls the river became a float trip, enabling the pair to paddle 120 miles in their last two days, spotting wolves and caribou along the way.
With feelings of accomplishment came a sense of vindication. "We ran into a lot of people along the way and there was a feeling among them of being really concerned for us," says Warren. "There was a lot of doubt [that we could make it], especially near the end of the trip, and that was frustrating to a certain point. People wanted to protect us because they saw us as two women going into a dangerous wilderness. Once we finished we proved them wrong."
After negotiating a series of planes, trains and automobiles to get back to Minnesota, Warren and Raiho went into "recluse" at a family cabin in the Boundary Waters for a few days of decompression. When they emerge, they'll be faced with a new transition: For Raiho, this means starting graduate school at Colorado State University in January, while Warren plans to travel and find a job.
But first, the pair is planning a fundraising blitz to continue their expedition's support of YMCA Camp Menogyn, a Grand Marais, Minn.-based canoe-tripping camp for youth. They plan on auctioning off the 17-foot Langford Prospector they used for the trip, and sharing their inspiring story with whoever will listen. "I guess the significance of us being the first women to do it hasn't really hit me yet," says Warren. "Maybe I'll realize it when I talk to people and realize that we actually inspired people and made a difference."
See Warren and Raiho’s website here: hudsonbaybound.com.
Find previous C&K dispatches on Warren and Raiho here:
• May 5: To the Bay – After graduation, two women will attempt to retrace a historic canoe route to Hudson Bay
• Aug. 23: A Few Days to the Bay – Canoeists on homestretch of expedition from St. Paul, Minn. to Hudson Bay