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Colton Witte, left, and Sean Bloomfield carry water bottles back to their canoe during a stop on their way to Hudson Bay last summer. Submitted photo

Ready for a North Country canoeing encore

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West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

MONTEVIDEO -- What do you do for an encore after paddling 2,250 miles from Chaska to Hudson Bay in a record-setting 49 days?

The Yukon 1,000, billed as the longest canoe and kayak race in the world.

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That's the plan for Sean Bloomfield and Colton Witte, who captured statewide attention last summer when they paddled up the Minnesota River from their homes in Chaska to York Factory on Hudson Bay.

Their 1,000-mile race down the Yukon River starts July 20.

Bloomfield and Witte told of their plans and related tales from their endurance run while in Montevideo last Thursday at the invitation of Clean up our River Environment.

Knowing what they do now, the two friends said they would do the same 2,250-mile trip only if it were for the first time.

And if they were to do it again, they would make one big change: They'd pack more warm clothes.

Although the trip had been in their plans for about five years, they basically packed for it the night before launching. The two 18-year-olds graduated early from the Chaska High School for the opportunity.

They lived mainly on Rice-a-Roni, canned chicken wrapped in tortillas, pancakes, energy bars and the four cold and eventually moldy pizzas they carefully rationed after saying goodbye to civilization in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

The first and last weeks of the trip were the toughest, they said. They launched April 27 in 25-degree weather and a freezing drizzle, and basically caught up with very much the same weather before they reached Hudson Bay on June 15.

"This is your fault,'' Witte said he told Bloomfield as they endured the miserable conditions on the final leg of the trip.

The line came directly from "Canoeing with the Cree,'' Eric Sevareid's account of his 98-day journey with Walter Port to Hudson Bay in 1930.

The late newsman's book inspired their trip, but their fathers deserve the credit for instilling in them a love for adventure. Their fathers introduced them to wilderness trekking and paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness when they were fourth graders.

They're college students today at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and far from the limelight that was focused on them during their trip.

Witte said the thought of quitting came to him only during the first week. He was stricken with food poisoning and hospitalized for dehydration.

They were paddling upstream against a flooded Minnesota River. "Like running up a down escalator,'' he said, repeating a line he had made when they reached the Granite Falls and Montevideo portion of the river in mid-May.

By this point they were already determined to make it to Hudson Bay faster than anyone before them. "I wanted to go faster because I wanted to go home to my girlfriend,'' said Witte.

Witte said this line of "bone headed'' thinking on his part led them to paddle in 12-hour shifts on the Red River, with one sleeping as the other kept their canoe moving north.

They returned to tandem paddling as they made their way up the great expanse of windy Lake Winnipeg.

They crossed the big lake faster than they expected, and without mishap.

It was still waiting for them as they took on the challenges of wild rapids and constant headwinds, and that can of bear repellant that exploded in their Duluth pack.

Far from civilization or help, they found themselves with swollen throats, skin rashes and chili pepper-hot pancakes for breakfast every day. The pepper oils in the repellent had gotten on everything, couldn't be washed away, and had a half-life longer than uranium. The oil-coated spatula delivered searing hot pancakes for days and days.

They kept going, convinced: "It's going to hurt us a while, but it (the pepper oils) won't cause any permanent damage,'' said Bloomfield.

The oils got into their leather gloves too. That proved to the worst, because they couldn't wear them when they needed them most. Their hands were so cold each morning of the last week that "it was a nice feeling when they got numb so you couldn't feel them,'' said Witte.

They felt "overwhelmed'' when they reached their destination.

They reached York Factory so early in the season that no one was there yet, not even the polar bears. All they could do was punch a button again and again to send a satellite signal to summon their plane ride home.

It came late due to bad weather, and they had all of 10 minutes to load up and get on their way back.

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