Ten years ago this spring, in the midst of the worst flooding in a generation, Natalie Warren paddled from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay with her best friend, Ann Raiho.
Twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, they became the first women to complete a route made popular by journalist Eric Sevareid’s classic coming-of-age memoir Canoeing With the Cree.
Warren’s new book about the adventure, Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic ($25, University of Minnesota Press, 2021 available from Magers & Quinn), describes a trip full of exuberance, discovery and unexpected trials. The journey spanned 85 days from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, much of it through the sublime wilderness of the Canadian Shield, but the stretch that affected Warren most profoundly was on the hard-working agricultural rivers closer to home.
“Standing in a cornfield and realizing I was in a food desert was such an awakening,” says Warren, who was spoiled for a conventional career. “After the trip, I actually worked at Starbucks for a good six months. And then I was like, Screw this. I’m going to lead canoe trips on the Minnesota River.”
She started a nonprofit, worked for polar explorer Ann Bancroft (who penned the forward to her book), started a PhD in environmental communication, and finally wove the trip that stared it all into a wonderful tale of adventure, friendship, and changing landscapes. “My ideal audience is sort of ruining young women,” she says, “and getting them to scheme these larger things.”
Adventure Journal: How did you get the canoeing bug?
Natalie Warren: I grew up in Miami and went to an art school for saxophone performance. Some of my peers went on to play with Pitbull and Lenny Kravitz, but when I was 15, I realized that was probably not going to be me and I needed to figure out what else I was interested in.
I got wind of this wilderness camp up in northern Minnesota. I’m the youngest of three kids. I love doing a lot of dramatic things to get attention, and so I came home one day and boldly told my mother I was going to Minnesota. That summer I went on a two-week canoe trip through the Boundary Waters and it just blew my mind.
It was a completely different landscape than I had ever experienced before, being able to move and carry everything with you and just be with a wonderful group of people. I felt like I had finally come into my stride, and that’s where I gained my confidence as a woman and found I was really good at being uncomfortable which is a wonderful trait for doing outdoor things.
So then you went back to Camp Menogyn for two more years and progressed to a 50-day Nunavut trip where you met Ann Raiho.
That’s right. Ann and I were assigned as paddling partners on that trip, which is still one of the coolest expeditions I’ve ever done because you are in complete Arctic tundra with migrating caribou, musk oxen, Arctic wolves, all these things. We paddled all the whitewater sets together and became a really good team. And then we ended up going to the same college that fall and we were in the same freshman dorm.
College is a weird time and whenever something would go wrong or we weren’t feeling great about what our futures looked like we would just say, Okay, where can we go? What’s the next big chapter?
You had a virtual book launch because of Covid, and in it Ann said something that really struck me. Someone asked what you learned from the trip and she answered, ‘Not to listen to the naysayers.’
That’s so true. People told us you can’t paddle upstream, you can’t paddle Lake Winnipeg, the whitewater is too dangerous and by the way, don’t stop at the Native communities because they’ll steal your stuff. But it’s more dangerous to drive your car than it is to canoe to Canada.
It’s just not normal in terms of what we’re told we’re supposed to do, especially for two women. People told me I couldn’t write a book too. It’s just a constant banter that I’ve learned to ignore, starting with that trip.
So you ignored all the naysayers and put on in the midst of an historic flood. The Red River, which was your main route going north toward Lake Winnipeg, was out of its banks for weeks.
People still talk about that flood of 2011, and it was just this monumental thing especially for people who live along the Red River. But we were cruising by the time we got to the Red River and started going downstream. It’s not that it wasn’t dangerous, but it was possible to do very conservatively. But paddling upstream [on the Minnesota River] presented a much larger challenge because the current was so strong and we were just barely inching along.
Were you able to work the eddys and backwaters, paddling through the forests and fields to get out of the main current?
We tried to sometimes, and I tell a story on the Minnesota River where we tried to cut through the woods and we get lost in this sort of creepy wooded area, spider webs everywhere. We kept turning around and hitting logs and finally we ended up back at the river exactly where we had gone into the forest.
But on the Red River we were actually able to paddle straight over cornfields sometimes, and because the river snakes around so much it was great to cut off those corners. But at the same time I started to reflect more on those agricultural things, like why am I paddling right over cornfields that I know have all these toxic chemicals on them?
The book really gives a sense of how these watersheds changed as you travel 2,000 miles from the Minnesota River, which you liken to paddling through chocolate milk, and then by the time you get to the Hayes you’re drinking the water straight out of the river.
I think that’s what I loved so much about this trip. I’ve done a lot of other trips, but I really wanted to talk the most and write about this trip because you were actually able to see the impact that each water body has on not only the communities, but the next one—to paddle over cornfields on the Red River, and then through the algal blooms on Lake Winnipeg caused by the fertilizer runoff.
And then to paddle the Hayes River, which flows freely over the landscape, which is really rare for a lot of rivers these days. To be able to drink straight from the river when just a month before we’d had to carry four days of water because we couldn’t even filter—it was a really cool journey.
And you started basically from your front doorstep.
People told us before we left on the trip, ‘Why are you doing the Minnesota River?’ Why don’t you just go somewhere more beautiful?’ And even a week ago someone emailed me and said, ‘I have to ask, there are all these other more scenic routes to get to where you were going. Why did you choose this sort of ugly, muddy one?’ And you start to understand people’s perceptions of where you should go for recreation, and what rivers are worth visiting.
But the Minnesota River and the Red River were some of the most impactful waterways I’ve ever paddled. We learn the most about the world and our impact on it from those spaces that we’re not technically supposed to even see.
I use paddling as a way to learn about people and place more than as a physical endeavor, and I think that’s reflected in my in my writing. When I think back to that first big Arctic trip, it was 50 days but I couldn’t write a book about it because it was just awesome all the time.
There’s something about the act of canoeing that actually allows you time to think and digest the things you see and conversations you have with people you meet. For me, this was the first trip where I started to think more critically about interconnected systems, and that involves far more than just the wilderness.
You mention the people you met. Without spoiling the book, can you share some of those interactions that stuck with you?
Two come to mind in terms of positive interactions. The most impactful was our stay at Norway House with the Muswagon family and the Cree first nation, because as a 22-year-old, I had yet to learn really about the injustices of first nation communities and what colonization has done. And I just remember Mike and Janice being like, we don’t even own our house. Like, we can only afford junk food and now there are all these illnesses that never used to be in the community. And even the grocery store is an outpost from a company in Winnipeg. So there’s no local flow of money coming in.
And the other relationship that I reflect on is our brief time in Princess Harbour, which used to be a thriving fishing community on Lake Winnipeg but when we were there the population was eight people and six of them were over the age of 80. And now, 10 years later, no one lives there anymore. So it felt like we were sort of experiencing this end of an era in what used to be a booming fishing industry which has been greatly impacted by the algal blooms from the Red River. We saw that a lot on the trip, all these things piecing together in different ways.
We met this old guy named Frank, and his hobby was making wooden models of every steamship that had ever been on Lake Winnipeg. He showed us all of those and told us the history, and then—and I’m looking at it right now by my bedside—he carved these birds and gave one to me and one to Ann. It’s just a beautiful reminder of this sort of moment.
You talked about positive interactions. Were there some that weren’t quite so upbeat?
When we were on Lake Winnipeg, we took a little detour to the West Shore. And this is a longer story that’s in the book, but we ended up crashing at this resort. I can only imagine now, you pay money to go stay at this nice resort on a lake and these two dirty people show up and just set up a tent.
Now I look back and realize that that’s not necessarily a normal thing to do, but the owner at the inn was . . . not nice. He was the one person on our trip who told us we couldn’t do it. He actually laughed at us.
We said we’re going to Hudson Bay and we’re hoping to be there by September, and he thought that was hilarious. He said, ‘I bet you a keg of Bud Light Lime that you won’t make it there by October.’
So he became sort of this fuel, this fire. When moments got challenging, we would use him as motivation, like we have to prove him wrong. We can do this because he said we couldn’t.
And so when we finished the trip we called him, basically as a fuck you. We said we made it and it’s August, and you owe us a keg of beer.
So was there a big celebration overflowing with Bud Light Lime?
No, he said, ‘I don’t actually think that I can ship that to you.’
I don’t want to give away too much of the book, but you have a wonderful passage about paddling at night under the Milky Way and the Northern Lights, and the two of you were having this massive blow up.
That’s right. I don’t know that I could have done this trip with anyone else. This expedition has ruined relationships before, and Ann and I were a great duo because she was very conservative about decision-making and I was sort of the opposite.
Both of those by themselves are not great mindsets to have during an expedition, but combined they made for a really good expedition team because we balanced each other. But sometimes that balance would get out of whack.
It came to a tipping point on like Winnipeg when we were doing a night paddle to avoid waves and wind. It was gorgeous, a perfectly flat lake with the Milky Way reflecting on the water and it felt like we were paddling through space. I was in the stern and took us a little too far from shore, which kind of brought up these issues between us. And so everything welled up and while we’re yelling at each other about all sorts of things the Northern Lights started coming out and it was my first time seeing them. It was just this beautiful moment with the lights starting to expand and dance in the sky with this massive wave of light reflecting on the water. I wanted so badly to just express to Ann the beauty of the moment, but we weren’t talking to each other.
So for a while you communicated only with notes?
Yes, and I wrote one note that I never gave to her, and I found it later when I started writing the book, and sent it to her. She was like, ‘This is a great note, you should have given it to me.’
But the note I did give her was the morning after our night paddle ended. It was too windy to paddle, so we were just sort of hanging out in the tent, not talking. So I took that time to just write out how I was feeling, how I viewed Ann as my sister, and it’s normal to fight with people you love and it doesn’t mean that your friendship is over.
She read it and then asked if I wanted to play cribbage, which was Ann’s way of basically saying I love you too.
You got a dog together at Norway House, which is the Cree community at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg. And you have a wonderful quote in the book from your host Mike, who said you needed a dog so that when you encounter a polar bear it will eat the dog first and that will give you enough time to load your gun.
Yep, verbatim. And now looking back, I think he was really nervous that we were two women going into this rugged wilderness that he’d heard a lot of things about.
Getting a dog was really kind of crazy. We didn’t live anywhere, we didn’t have any money. And somehow I think that’s the beautiful thing about traveling in a small group where you’re able to make these really ridiculous decisions together and you decide to get a dog and throw her in the canoe. It’s such a risk to think this dog is going to be fine in a canoe on an Arctic whitewater river. But she was awesome, and it became this beautiful thing in our relationship
Did you ever run into a polar bear and have to test Mike’s theory?
We got to see a polar bear from the best-case scenario. We had just arrived at York Factory and we’re eating this massive meal of hash browns and beans, when a polar bear comes moseying along the shore. The caretaker, William, sort of suggested that we move indoors and we were able to watch this polar bear in the wild through the window of a house.
What do you hope people will take from Hudson Bay Bound?
I hope it plants a seed of adventure.
Part of why canoe trips have been so life changing for me is because I grew up in Miami and I just didn’t do this sort of thing at all. So when I finally did it, it blew my mind.
This trip really changed me and I wanted to be able to pass it along. After the trip, I worked at Starbucks for a good six months. And then I was like, ‘Screw this.’ I’m going to lead canoe trips on the Minnesota River. So I came back to Minnesota and started a nonprofit to guide trips for mostly underserved youth.
I did that for several years and in the fall we would do a longer expedition. So I paddled the Mississippi River with a group of people and we did the sort of adventure learning model where we had schools following us across the nation. So I’m constantly trying to go back and use the river as a way to learn about place and people and history.
I try not to think too far in advance because I’ve been very lucky to be able to sort of tug on the thread of life and end up in cool places. But I am writing about the Mississippi, working on this thought project of what it would be like to free the Mississippi River. So I’m already sort of scheming my next book.
Top Illustration by Angela Staehling @angelastaehling