College grads paddle from Minnesota to Hudson Bay

Long, strange trip

Posted: Friday, September 12, 2003

ST. PAUL (AP) Three male college graduates. A summer to kill. A yen for adventure.

It might sound like the seeds for a beery, post-graduation road trip, but St. Paul residents Christopher ''Kip'' Barrett and Kees van der Wege had a different sort of trek on their minds when they graduated from the University of Wisconsin last spring.

They were dreaming about cases of oatmeal. Canoe paddles. Hudson Bay.

This summer, Barrett and van der Wege, along with college buddy Chris Gorton of Harrington Park, N.J., paddled from Grand Portage to Hudson Bay in Canada, a distance of more than 1,300 miles.

They did it in just 68 days, using a tandem, 18-foot Winonah canoe and a 16-foot Prijon sea kayak.

Theirs was the ultimate in canoe expeditions, following a route of interconnected lakes, rivers and portages that provided the original overland passage for fur traders from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay.

Barrett and van der Wege also joined a list of adventure-seeking Minnesotans who have made the same trip, albeit using variations of the route. In 1930, 17-year-old Eric Sevareid (the future newsman) and friend Walter Port canoed up the Minnesota River from Minneapolis, down the Red River and ended up at Hudson Bay.

For some reason, Hudson Bay burns in the heart of many Minnesota canoeists, who lead the nation in canoe ownership.

It's also a trip attempted by only a handful of canoeists or kayakers every decade or so.

''It's not an unprecedented trip, but it's certainly unique and worthy of note,'' said Al Gustaveson, owner of the Northwest Canoe Company in St. Paul and a longtime member of the Minnesota canoe community.

Gustaveson once canoed from northern Minnesota to Norway House, a community on the north end of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, but not quite as far as Hudson Bay. He knows firsthand that such expeditions take lots of planning, physical stamina and nerve.

For Barrett, 23, and van der Wege, 24, the trip was fulfillment of a dream they've had since they were 15. Growing up together in the Como neighborhood of St. Paul, the boys learned canoeing at an early age from their parents.

Chris Gorton, however, grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. He had not been on a canoe trip in his life before the Hudson Bay adventure.

''The other two guys grew up camping their whole lives, but I had barely slept in a tent before,'' said Gorton, who's 23. ''But I got used to it.''

The three men spent their last year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison planning the trip. They pored over maps and compiled a mammoth food inventory. Their staples consisted of oatmeal for breakfast, sausage, beef jerky and peanut butter for lunch, and dehydrated chili, rice and beans and spaghetti for dinner.

They started with 90 pounds of food. They were resupplied with an additional 100 pounds in the town of Atikokan in central Ontario, and then resupplied with an additional 100 pounds in the town of Red Lake in northern Ontario. Their final food resupply occurred at Norway House in northern Manitoba. They shipped the food by mail to predetermined spots.

Their first hardship was carrying their supplies up the 8 1/2-mile Grand Portage trail. From there, they traveled briefly along the Minnesota border before cutting through Quetico Provincial Park and heading for Atikokan. They used lakes and rivers to get to the town of Sioux Lookout and Lac Seul Lake. They rode the Chukuni River to the town of Red Lake, eventually connecting with the Bloodvein River in Manitoba and taking that river to Lake Winnipeg.

They spent several harrowing days paddling north on Lake Winnipeg (and nearly getting swept away in a tornado) and worked their way to Playgreen Lake and the town of Norway House. From there, they traveled down the Echimamish River to the Hayes River, which they followed through Knee Lake, Oxford House and eventually to York Factory on Hudson Bay.

They once wiped out in rapids and the canoe wrapped around a rock.

''Yep, it was bent and wrapped around the rock,'' Barrett said. ''We honestly thought the trip was over, but it (the canoe) just bounced right back into shape.''

They survived going over an unexpected ''ledge,'' a dangerous sudden waterfall created by a rock, and were surrounded by forest fires on the Hayes River in Manitoba.

''Trees were exploding into fire around us,'' said van der Wege. ''It didn't look like we could paddle down the river because of the smoke.''

That was the one time they used their satellite phone, which allowed them to contact Manitoba authorities to see if the forest fire was too dangerous to paddle through. It wasn't, and they were able to finish the last 21 miles of their trip.

Fortunately, they didn't have to use their rifle, which accompanied them on the last half of the trip to protect against polar bears.

The real world jobs, bills, responsibilities still haven't caught up with the three college grads. There might be a book in their future, with chapters compiled from each person's journal.

But for now, they're savoring memories of the trip and getting back into the swing of modern life.

''The sky doesn't look the same in New Jersey,'' Gorton said. ''Up north, it's big, beautiful and blue. It makes me smile thinking about it.''

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