In 2011 Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho canoed 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay. They were the first women to take on the route made famous by the book Canoeing with the Cree by the late journalist, Eric Sevareid.
Natalie has since written her own book about her and Ann’s trip called Hudson Bay Bound, published in 2021.
We asked her to tell us more about their trip, its challenges and joys, and what she learned along the way. Here’s our interview with Natalie Warren:
BENDING BRANCHES: Tell us about your canoeing background.
NATALIE: I’m from Miami, Florida, and didn’t grow up doing any camping. But when I was a sophomore in high school I signed up for a wilderness canoe trip through YMCA Camp Menogyn [in northeast Minnesota].
The next few summers I went on a progression of their trips. It started with my very first overnight camping trip—two weeks in the Boundary Waters. Then I did a 30-day trip, then a 50-day trip up in the Arctic.
So the YMCA Camps really taught me technical skills like how to pack out and how many pounds of gear per person per day. They make all their campers learn that stuff so they can then go off anywhere and do anything—which a lot of us do!
I met Ann on our long trip through Menogyn. It was the summer before college—I was 18, she was 17. We were paddling in the Arctic in Nunavut, Canada and were assigned as paddling partners on the first day.
Natalie and Ann on-trail
We were just making small talk and found out we were both going to the same college in the fall. So it was fate, in a way. We were scheming for four years, and two days after we graduated we left on our trip.
BRANCHES: Describe your route for us.
NATALIE: I live right off the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, and I could do this route tomorrow just by putting a canoe in the river. [The Mississippi/Minnesota River confluence is right in the city] The Minnesota River is really cool, and underutilized for recreation. It has over 200 miles of free-flowing river up until the first dam in Granite Falls.
From there you reach the headwaters, a series of lakes that is now a channelized river. That meets up with the Ottertail, then you’re on the Red River. From there, you go on to paddle Lake Winnipeg and Hayes River. The longest portage we had was a mile long. Across 2,000 miles we had less than 10 portages. It’s truly amazing how all this water is connected.
Their 2,000-mile canoe route from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay
BRANCHES: How did you prep to tackle a canoe trip of this magnitude?
NATALIE: A lot of the hard skills we needed for this trip—like whitewater canoeing—we learned throughout several years of camp. From those trips, too, we learned soft skills like problem-solving—we don’t have a tent pole so let’s carve a stick. We learned to think creatively about our environment—what we can use to support our goals for a trip.
We were both active people in our younger twenties—and we were in our younger twenties. It’s amazing what you can physically do to your body when you’re that age. So we didn’t do a lot of training, to be honest. Our first 300 miles were paddling upstream during a flood. We just built the muscles as we went.
If I were to do that same trip now I’d have to really think about training, stretching and warming up my body to be able to paddle 12 hours a day.
More on soft skills—you can’t just ignore issues or repress things. You’re together for a really long time and things are going to come up. You have to talk about it. You have to figure out how to be together because you can’t survive or move forward without the other person.
I learned a lot of conflict management and relational skills. I learned about myself and how to be supportive of someone else when on a challenging expedition like that.
What I’ve heard from people that’s different about my book [Hudson Bay Bound vs Canoeing with the Cree] is that I talk more about the emotional aspects of what it’s like to paddle for 2,000 miles with one other person.
On their way
BRANCHES: What surprised you the most about your trip?
NATALIE: Ann and I had done a lot of wilderness expeditions before where we were really isolated. This shouldn’t have surprised us, but it did:
We planned to put our blinders on and paddle these rivers. But we’re paddling through Mankato, we’re paddling through Fargo. I think what surprised us was that while we knew we were going to go through these places, we didn’t expect people would be so excited about our expedition.
They would invite us for dinner and bring us cupcakes on the river. People shared their stories with us and about how much they love the river. The community aspect of the trip was a huge surprise.
Also, we realized early on that the value of this expedition wasn’t just the paddling, but learning about the landscape and the water, and how people have related to these natural resources over time.
You start to hear social and environmental themes over and over and over again as you move through the landscape. We paddled the Red River for 500 miles then got to Lake Winnipeg and paddled over algal blooms that were the result of agricultural runoff from your last three weeks of paddling.
The stories come together, the land comes together and everything clicks in a really cool way. We didn’t expect that at all. It was way more educational than I thought it would be.
BRANCHES: What were your joys along the way?
NATALIE: The joy of this trip was I’m such a busybody, and it required slow movement. Canoeing. You feel like you’re doing something epic, but really what you’re doing is slowly paddling for lots of hours and staring at trees! So it’s like a meditation.
I remember in June paddling the Minnesota River. We couldn’t stop paddling or our canoe would move backwards. We would pull over and hold onto these huge cottonwood trees and just look up on these hot summer days with the blue sky, wind blowing and leaves moving. Just those moments when you open your eyes and think, “This is beautiful!”
So a really big joy was just appreciating the landscape and all of its intricacies.
There was a point on Lake Winnipeg where we were windbound for three days straight. At first, we were really mad about it because you want to be able to do what you’re there to do. You want to paddle and keep moving, but you can’t because the waves and wind are too strong.
By the third day, we woke up and I tried to whittle a recorder out of a stick. And Ann started making sand art. It forced slowness in a way that’s hard to recreate. And also just being on the water. Water is, to me, very therapeutic.
BRANCHES: What were your biggest challenges?
NATALIE: The challenges were different for each section. The trip is really four different trips. In one, you’re paddling upstream on an agricultural river. Then you’re paddling downstream on an agricultural river. Then you’re paddling the 11th largest lake in the world. And then you’re paddling pretty intense whitewater on a very fast Arctic river. So the challenges for each of those sections are really different.
And beyond the built-in challenges of upstream, downstream, big waves and whitewater sets was this big challenge of: What does it mean to travel thousands of miles with one other person? How do you figure out how to work together?
Natalie with her trusty Branches paddle and the dog she and Ann adopted along the way
A big challenge was you lose all of your independence in a way. Everything you do is a decision made with another person. Even in my marriage, we can do our own thing sometimes. But you can’t do that on a trip like this. It’s a mental game where you sort of lose your individual identity.
It’s both challenging and extremely rewarding and character-building to have to figure out how to operate not just for yourself.
BRANCHES: Tell us about your canoe, paddles and other gear.
NATALIE: We used a Langford Kevlar canoe, 17.4 feet and we used Bending Branches paddles. In fact, I used my same Branches paddle on my long trip with Menogyn up in the Arctic, then all the way to Hudson Bay, and I paddled the length of the Mississippi with it. That’s a lot of miles! It’s still in my garage.
When you’re on a canoe expedition, dry bags are your lifeline. No matter what the weather is, if you can set up a tent and get dry clothes on you’re going to be OK.
We went through hailstorms, we went through a tornado warning, we went through some really severe weather. But I can’t imagine the difference doing this expedition in 1930 [when Sevareid’s trip took place]—if you couldn’t get your clothes dry. It was a totally different experience for us—rocking our Muck boots and our rain gear. We had dry bags in dry bags.
On the shore of Hudson Bay
BRANCHES: Any last words?
NATALIE: The biggest takeaway from this expedition for me is less the physical component. It’s the learning experience. The canoeing and traveling with water is how I learned to understand the world. The witnessing of what’s happening around us and having the time to connect the dots while you’re sitting in a canoe.
There are social and environmental components to paddling that are extremely eye-opening in terms of how we think and use spaces. That perspective from the water is really unique.
And I can’t recommend Camp Menogyn enough. My life was completely transformed by doing those expeditions, as a woman, specifically. It taught me how to be comfortable in my body. How to be strong and not be ashamed of how strong I felt in those spaces.
Natalie and Ann sign Hudson Bay Bound books at a local retailer
The skills I learned are applicable to anything else I do. To be able to manage my time, manage other people, work collaboratively, problem-solve, reach a goal and understand the slow steps it takes to get there. It’s all those life skills while you’re just having fun in a canoe!
A big thanks to Natalie for taking time with us! Learn more about her and her book, Hudson Bay Bound on her website. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
All photos courtesy of Natalie Warren.
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