Escape your living room for a canoe trip with the first women to paddle from the Twin Cities to Canada's Hudson Bay.
Hudson Bay Bound illustration
Credit: Angela Staehling

What did you do the year after you graduated college? Minnesotans Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho became the first women ever to take the 2,000-mile canoe trip from the Twin Cities to Canada’s Hudson Bay. The three-month journey—a summer trip inspired by Eric Sevareid’s 1935 classic, Canoeing with the Cree—tested their physical strength, their emotional will, their friendship and their appetite for pancake mix. Along the way, they met people who both aided and questioned their endeavor. (They also adopted a dog.) The following is an excerpt from the book Hudson Bay Bound, Warren’s account of the trip, to be published in February 2021.

In this chapter of the book, titled “Against the Wind,” paddlers Warren and Raiho are about four days and 75 miles into their trip, heading upstream from St. Paul on the Minnesota River, toward the town of Mankato.

Navigating rivers is fairly straightforward: Stick to the current. But due to the high water in 2011, the Minnesota River had sprawled out across the watershed like a wily, wayward hose. Ann and I avoided the side channels, which often ended up to be tributaries or small farm channels. But sometimes we would gamble on a shortcut to save time. One day we approached a mile-long curve that had a fairly strong current. River bends are like rubber bands. The current pushes them out, stretching farther and farther over time until the bend, now called an oxbow, looks like a big U from above. Then one day, usually during a flood event, the water rushes through, connecting the top ends of the U, snapping back to its most direct channel. The oxbow we were approaching was in flux—a rubber band about to snap back. The river flowed every which way across the U-shaped bend, through the woods, and across the mud and sand. We calculated that it would take about half an hour to paddle around the entire thing. Due to our shared passion for covering miles, Ann and I saw the flooded woods as an opportunity. “Time for a shortcut!” we agreed.

Hudson Bay Bound illustration
Credit: Angela Staehling

The dark woods felt like a gateway into another reality. The bright sounds of summer, the wind, birds and the constant rush of the river disappeared behind us as we entered the quiet flooded forest. Ann and I eased the canoe forward with caution; moving through the lagoon was like paddling through a maze. We diverted our path many times to avoid floating logs. Tent worms fell from the sky like soldiers parachuting from planes above. Our shortcut quickly became a nightmare of low-lying branches, spiders, cobwebs and frustrating dead ends. We spent half an hour trying to navigate the flooded woods until we finally emerged, back into the rushing current and summer light. After examining our location, we realized we were right back where we started.

Within that half hour, we could have paddled around the entire oxbow! We appreciated the bizarre side-adventure nonetheless. Small excursions and unexpected decisions often enriched our days with great memories. Paddling upstream is the slowest form of transportation that I have ever taken. On our way to Le Sueur, Minnesota, we paddled 15 miles in 10 hours. I appreciated that I could feel my arms and shoulders growing in strength every day. I enjoyed the pains of physical achievement. I flexed my muscles almost every night before falling asleep to celebrate my newly developed strength. I wanted to be a woman with strong arms, shoulders and thighs. I wanted to feel powerful and capable wherever I went.

The next morning, we left Le Sueur with our eyes set on St. Peter, Minnesota. Before our trip, we heard a lot about the wind and waves on Lake Winnipeg, winds “so strong that we could spend a day paddling only to find ourselves right where we started!” We knew that challenge waited for us farther north, but we never expected wind to be an issue in the sheltered Minnesota River valley. We were wrong.

The wind was against us on our paddle to St. Peter, with gusts over 35 mph. I did not speak to Ann for the last half of the day because the wind was so strong that we couldn’t hear each other. Each stroke barely nudged us forward.

After hours of battling the wind and current, the bridge at St. Peter finally came into view. I almost wished it hadn’t. On the last stretch of river leading to St. Peter, we hit a wind tunnel. Instead of the occasional strong gust, the wind here was unrelenting. My muscles tensed and shriveled up in protest. It felt like we were in some sort of slapstick comedy with a dangling carrot in front of a horse. I was convinced we could get there, but the more we tried, the farther away the bridge seemed.

Hudson Bay Bound illustration
Credit: Angela Staehling

It took us over an hour to paddle the mile into town. In retrospect, these were not the best conditions for a lightweight Kevlar canoe. Physically exhausted, we finally arrived at the boat landing and, in between heavy breathing, expressed our shared desire after our long day on the river: milkshakes. Glorious, creamy, cold milkshakes.

We left St. Peter in the early afternoon. The wind apologized for the previous day as it reversed and pushed us toward Mankato. One thing I appreciate about paddling a whole river is that you get to experience all of her moods and temperaments. Similar to living with another person, you get to witness the best and worst of another living entity. You begin to see and read the signs of distress and joy, and learn the difficult dance of living together harmoniously. In a way, the river cared for us too. She had expressed her power—her strong current, white-capped river waves, and sisterhood with the wind—on our paddle to St. Peter. But we had a pact. She would not be like that forever. It would not rain every day. There would not be a headwind for our entire expedition. Over our long journey, there would be one day of pure bliss and easy paddling to compensate for every day the wind whipped over the water and the rain poured down. Our paddle from St. Peter to Mankato felt like a reward, or perhaps an apology, for our hard work the day before.

Despite the beautiful weather and easy paddling that day, Ann and I managed to really get on each other’s nerves for the first time. Our moods shifted suddenly when I wanted to take out on the muddy shores of Land of Memories Park in Mankato to scope it out, and Ann wanted to find the boat launch. I noticed that this small disagreement sparked a resentful voice in my head. Memories of all of the times Ann made the final call flooded my mind. Perhaps Ann was also spinning memories of times I took the quickest route instead of the safest one. It was not just this disagreement that put me in a sour mood, but the accumulation of similar small arguments through our friendship, many of which had gone unaddressed. I didn’t know it at the time, but this thick history of shared experiences and closed perceptions of each other would eventually lead to a tipping point—right in the middle of one of the largest lakes in the world.

Hudson Bay Bound

A mix of outdoor adventure and memoir-like candor, Hudson Bay Bound documents the entire length of Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho’s historymaking canoe trip. Available now for preorder (University of Minnesota Press, $25).