Duo retraces a classic canoe trip and makes it their own

A woman in a canoe
Natalie Warren (pictured) and her best friend Ann Raiho canoed from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay in Canada in 2011. The paddled 2,000 miles in 85 days. Warren recently wrote a book about their adventures.
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

If you want to know what it's like to canoe to Canada, just ask Natalie Warren. She and her friend Ann Raiho paddled from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay — the first two women to ever make that 2,000-mile trip.

A woman in a canoe
“Hudson Bay Bound” by Natalie Warren
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

Now, Warren is celebrating the trip with the publication of her book "Hudson Bay Bound." It's about a lot more than just paddling.

The trip began with a book thrown across a college dorm room. “Sometimes a great adventure lands in your lap,” Warren writes in the book.

The book launcher was her best friend Raiho. The lap was Warren’s.

"Read this," Raiho said. "We should do it."

The book was "Canoeing with the Cree," journalist Eric Severeid's account of a trip he took with a friend in 1935. Setting off from Minneapolis, they paddled up the Minnesota River, traversed the Bois de Sioux to the Red River, which rolls north into Canada. They continued through Lake Winnipeg, on to the Hayes River and finally Hudson Bay. 

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Warren read the book into the night. The next morning she threw it back to Raiho and said "I'm in."

Warren and Raiho had taken long trips together before, including a canoe trip into the Arctic Circle. But this trip posed some special challenges. In a video they made before their departure, Raiho talked about preparing for the first long haul against the current of the Minnesota River. 

"We are mostly focusing on practicing paddling upstream," she says. "So we go out on the Cannon (River) and go upstream and a couple of miles and come back down."

"And go back up and come back down," Warren adds with a laugh.

Warren now admits the reality of the Minnesota River was no laughing matter.

"It's a huge mental game, because you are moving at 1.5 mph for 330 miles and so you have to manage your expectations there," she said. 

They set off on June 2, 2011, in a heavily laden canoe. They carried a gun in case of polar bears near Hudson Bay. Some days they paddled 15 hours. But Warren says, that was to help later on the final dangerous leg of the trip.  

"The muscle that we built on the Minnesota River prepared us for the whitewater that we would run on the Hayes River," she said.   

As they paddled they saw how much the landscape had changed since Severeid's trip in 1935, reshaped by modern agricultural practices and by the Army Corps of Engineers. They experienced farming's adverse impact on the water quality in the Minnesota River and witnessed how development engulfed long stretches of riverfront.

They met a lot of people, including some openly skeptical that two women were physically up to the trip. That made them more determined.  They passed through First Nations communities in Canada and saw the harsh realities facing the people who lived there.   

Warren said some days were physically tough. And there was still that mental game.

"Doing this trip with one other person was probably the biggest challenge of the expedition because we had to operate as one person for 100 days," she said. 

Natalie Warren reads the prologue of Hudson Bay Bound

One canoe, two paddlers working together. Warren and Raiho did it well — until one day they didn't. They had a huge fight in the middle of nowhere as the northern lights played across the sky. 

"It was one of the strangest moments of my life because we were on this massive lake at night and we were just yelling at each other," Warren said.

They were both so angry they stopped talking to each other. Eventually Warren, worried she wouldn’t be able to properly articulate aloud how bad she felt, wrote Raiho a letter and gave it to her. Her friend read it and then asked Warren if she wanted to play cribbage.

They patched things up, and finished strong, pulling into York Factory, Manitoba. They'd done 2,000 miles in 85 days.

That was almost 10 years ago. Warren says that decade of perspective helped her write "Hudson Bay Bound." She'll do a virtual reading Tuesday at 7 p.m. through Magers and Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis. She said back then she assumed she'd just keep having big adventures. She did take more long trips. But now, with an infant at home, she's redefined things. 

"I can have a sense of adventure putting my canoe into the Mississippi 2 miles from my house and do that for two to three hours and watch the sunset," she said. 

Warren said she sees how privileged she was to be able to take these trips. She hopes the book will encourage young people, particularly girls, to find ways to go on trips of their own.