The most inspiring among us don’t seek accolades or recognition; they simply follow their passion for paddling.

The Bayes and their lifetime of memorable trips. | PHOTO BY DAN BARHAM

The Bayes and their lifetime of memorable trips. | PHOTO BY DAN BARHAM

Story by Ryan Stuart

Go ahead and ask Loretta and Dalen Bayes to recommend their favorite northern river. Just don't expect an answer. It's not that they're keeping secrets. It's just that after 40 years of exploring from Saskatchewan to the Arctic Circle they can't come up with just one.

"They're all so different you can't just pick one," Dalen says, as Loretta lists the names of rivers they've run: Thelon, Nahanni, Burnside. Since the summer of 1970 the Bayes have paddled and portaged their way down almost 40 northern rivers, including historic trade routes like the Churchill and Slave. They paddled the classics and rivers that no one had ever run, among them the Taltson and D&L Creek. They did all of them for their own reasons. No sponsorships. No guiding fees. No articles.

"We just love to explore," Loretta says, "and we fell in love with the North." Fulltime jobs. Tight finances. Kids. Nothing kept the Bayes from their summers up north. The couple started paddling in 1965, after Dalen read a book on canoeing. "He figured we could do it," Loretta remembers. So, on their second wedding anniversary Dalen brought home a canoe. The next day they were paddling in circles on a lake in their hometown of Bellingham, Wash. They joined a paddling club, knocked off a few local rivers and short trips in Washington and southern British Columbia. Five years later they took off alone on their first northern trip down the Reindeer and Churchill rivers.

Their lives began to move in rhythm with the rivers. For 11 months of the year they would work—Loretta as a nurse, Dalen as a geologist and at a pulp mill—banking sick days and vacation. Then, sometime around the end of July, they would drive north and then steer their canoe into the wilderness for two to four weeks at a time. Often it was just the two of them running rapids and humping loads across the tundra. Other years, family and friends joined in. By the time their boys were 5 and 6 they went north as well. Whoever was on board, the Bayes never shied from hard work. "We did a lot of portages, going from one river overland to another," Loretta says.

"It's not a canoe trip without a portage," adds Dalen with a laugh.

Lately the portages have been fewer. Age has forced Dalen and Loretta to move a bit slower, and break up the loads. Health issues have kept them out of the North four of the last five years. Loretta, 72, can't bend over to pack a canoe anymore, while Dalen, 73, has a bad back and an incurable, but treatable form of cancer. Regardless, they plan to run a few more big trips, dragging their grown boys along to do the heavy lifting. Says Dalen: "As long as water flows downhill and they can get me in a canoe, we'll keep paddling."


Scott Gerber Scott Gerber


Scott Gerber had just learned how to execute an extended paddle roll—a state-of-the-art skill in 1973—and he'd grown frustrated with the homemade fiberglass boat in which he'd learned the contorted pry stroke.


Mary Kurt-Mason Mary Kurt-Mason


Mary Kurt-Mason is the first to admit that some rapids terrify her.


Mark Divittorio Mark Divittorio


Kayaker Mark Divittorio calls the euphoric sensation of finishing a run on a favorite river "that takeout


Doug Green Doug Green


"Since the age of 13, when I was first introduced to wilderness canoe tripping at Camp Kooch-I-Ching in northern Minnesota, I knew it was something I had to do," says Green.