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Hudson Bay Bound: Upstream paddle on Minnesota River intended to inspire others

Natalie Warren, left, and Ann Raiho look over a Minnesota River map as they prepare Friday morning to portage around the Granite Falls dam. The two have been paddling upstream for 17 days but today are enjoying a break in Montevideo. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

GRANITE FALLS -- Paddling the Mississippi River to prepare for their adventure, they were warned: "The Minnesota River is like chocolate milk.''

They got the color right, and there's been plenty of mud, but the Minnesota River has more than made up for it by the scenery, wildlife and wilderness-like feel it has offered them.

"It's so much more beautiful than we thought it was going to be,'' said Natalie Warren.

Warren and her friend Ann Raiho know of what they speak. Seventeen days ago they launched their canoes at Fort Snelling to be the first women to re-create Eric Sevareid and Walter Port's epic 2,200-mile adventure of paddling to York Factory on Hudson Bay in 1930.

The two recent St. Olaf graduates have now put more than 270 river miles behind them. Friday evening they reached Montevideo, where Ann's parents met them and they were to participate in the community's Fiesta Days celebration today.

It's a well-earned break. All of their paddling has been upstream against high waters on the Minnesota. They have endured two days of record-popping heat, heavy downbursts of rain, and just plain, long days of hard paddling.

"Every challenge is a little different,'' said Warren when asked what has been the hardest to date.

Like marathon runners, they seem to thrive on the challenge. "I realize the purpose of the trip more every day, if that makes sense,'' Warren said.

They want to inspire other young people to enjoy their own wilderness adventures, especially women.

The two women discovered their passion for wilderness adventure through canoe trips offered by Camp Menogyn in northern Minnesota.

Warren grew up in Miami, Fla., and Raiho is a native of Inver Grove Heights.

They met each other -- and discovered they were both headed to St. Olaf in the fall -- when they were assigned to lead a seven-week wilderness adventure for Camp Menogyn in northern Canada.

All of the funds they raise above the $2,500 cost of this trip will be donated to Camp Menogyn for scholarships to allow other young people the same opportunity. At this point they have raised $5,000.

Raiho and Warren said they had often discussed the possibility of a summer-long paddling adventure. In February Raiho reread Severeid's famous account of the 1930 trip, "Canoeing with the Cree.''

"She threw it at me and said we're gonna do this,'' Warren said.

They started sending out emails and made personal inquiries to potential sponsors, and struck a chord. Ann Bancroft, Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen are among the polar explorers they have met and who have offered them encouragement, they said.

All of their gear, from the Langford Prospector Canoe they paddle to the Sierra Design tent they erect each night, has been donated by sponsors. So too has been all the granola, pasta and rice they carry along for meals in a bear-proof barrel.

Their days on the Minnesota River are quiet: Only occasionally do they come across anglers or people along the river, they said. Instead, they startle otters, turtles, eagles and other wildlife as they round each bend.

And sometimes, it's the wildlife that startles them. More than a few nights' quiet slumber have been interrupted when, as if someone unexpectedly clashed cymbals over their heads, a beaver wallops the quiet waters of the river with its tail.

They are looking forward to reaching the Red River and enjoying the downstream ride all the way to Lake Winnipeg.

They will be taking a few days' break somewhere around Fargo, N.D.

Warren is the maid of honor for her sister's wedding in Philadelphia. Her mother and father made one thing clear when she announced plans for this trip: She was going to be hopping on an airplane and showing up for the big event.

Raiho will wait in Fargo for Warren's return and the resumption of their trip.

They have no set date that they must reach Hudson Bay. Once there, they will climb aboard a float plane and later, a train to carry them to Winnipeg.

Raiho will be returning to school for a master's degree in environmental studies next year at Colorado State University, Fort Collins.

Warren is planning to return to school as well, but is undecided as to where. She is interested in environmental journalism.

Follow their trip on the web:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335