En Route: Rails to Whales

Over 1,800 miles from Jasper, Alberta, to Hudson Bay

The Rails to Whales crew on some portage rails.


By Greg Petry

Adam Maxwell, 24; Jake Bendal, 21; and Ryan Ritter, 23, are currently paddling over 1,800 miles from Jasper, Alberta, to Hudson Bay at Churchill, Manitoba, on the thrift. You might not think an 80-day, 1,800 mile paddling trip would be inexpensive, but it is if you’re doing it the way The Rails to Whales 2012 Expedition team is: They took the train.

The expedition started on May 13th when the team drove from Duluth, Minnesota to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where they took a train to Jasper, Alberta. That’s the “rails” part. Their plan: Paddle 1,873 miles via the Athabasca, La Biche, Beaver and Churchill rivers to “the polar bear capitol of the world” Churchill, Manitoba. By estimate, they have about 20 more days on the water until they reach the Hudson Bay.

Team Rails to Whales formed originally as Adam, and Ryan, who wanted to plan an economically feasible canoe trip into wild country. Jake jumped on board a couple days after meeting Adam, and is the sole kayaker.

“I wanted to get up into the tundra, but I wanted to keep it affordable. That was the idea behind this trip. Train in. Train out. No plane tickets to buy,” says Adam. “It’s significantly cheaper than flying.”

As carry-ons , they had one 18-foot Wenonah Champlain canoe, a 14-foot Prijon kayak, and three 85-110 lbs. Duluth packs. Once their gear was off the train in Jasper, they had a river to find. “We knew it flowed through Jasper,” says Adam. “But we didn’t know exactly where.”

The Athabasca River’s source is glacial melt water from the Columbia Glacier in Jasper National Park. The team put in and took her currents 450 miles down river then labored upriver on the La Biche River. “We were maybe able to paddle a mile and a half an hour,” Adam says. “Then we got into Lac La Biche, [and] then we got onto the Beaver River—basically 360 miles of free-range cattle country. Not a premier canoe river…”

The trip has gone pretty smoothly so far. “The toughest part was the Beaver, because it was so easy, such mundane paddling. It’s been really, really nice on the Churchill, and the river’s really wild,” Adam says.

They’ve been on the Churchill for over a month. In the first 20 days of their adventure they logged 1000 miles. “Now we’re taking our time a little bit more and really enjoying what it has to offer,” Adam says. “The first couple weeks were 14 hour days.”

When asked about paddling with mixed watercraft Adam noted, “The canoe and kayak are pretty comparable. The kayak does better in the wind. Group dynamics have been nice too…decision-making is much easier with an odd number. It’s always 2 against 1.”

Keep up with the Rails to Whales crew and view a slideshow on their website, canoe2012.wix.com.

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  • Matt S.

    I just tried doing a Google maps directions between the staring point and ending point, to see if it would offer up the bird-flight mileage. Nope. Did not compute. In other words, you can’t get there from here.

    It’s nice to get off the grid.

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