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Expedition completed: Paddlers face challenges, wildlife encounters while crossing 900 miles of Canada on 8 river systems

Members of the 8 Rivers North Expedition guide their canoes over ledges on the Ferguson River in Canada’s Nunavut. In the foreground are Jake Bendel and Kari Smerud. With the second canoe are Tessa Olson and Adam Maxwell. (Photo courtesy of Alex Compton)1 / 4
Jake Bendel, a member of the 8 Rivers North Expedition, portages a portion of the Ferguson River in Canada’s Nunavut during a 900-mile canoe trip from Saskatchewan to Hudson Bay. (Photo courtesy of Jake Bendel) 2 / 4
Kari Smerud and Jake Bendel found this musk ox skull half-buried in a sand bar on their 8 Rivers North Expedition from Saskatchewan to Hudson Bay this summer. ( Sam Cook / / 4
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Sam Cook

The canoes have been left behind on Hudson Bay. The gear packs lie limp and empty somewhere. But the tans and the radiant grins on the faces of the paddlers remain as evidence of a remarkable journey.

Six young canoeists, most with ties to northern Minnesota, reached Whale Cove on the shores of Hudson Bay on Aug. 12. They had covered 900 miles over seven weeks on a system of eight rivers after starting at Waterbury Lake, Saskatchewan, on June 18. Their trip was dubbed the 8 Rivers North Expedition.

“It was phenomenal,” said Adam Maxwell, a University of Minnesota Duluth graduate.

On Sunday afternoon, the team members and their parents gathered on Park Point in Duluth for a final send-off before they headed off to jobs or college. After flying from Whale Cove to Churchill, Manitoba, they took the “Muskeg Express” train from Churchill to Winnipeg, where they were met by parents. They arrived in Duluth early Sunday morning.

Their 8 Rivers North route was chosen in part to allow the group to access their starting  point and return from Whale Cove without requiring costly charter air travel. These were college and post-college paddlers on a budget.

The team traveled through Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nunavut, passing through boreal forest, taiga and tundra. The rivers included the Waterfound, Fond du Lac, Chipman, Dubawnt, Nowleye, Kazan, Ferguson and Wilson.

Some of the paddlers had attended UMD, and three had had worked for Voyageur Canoe Outfitters at the tip of the Gunflint Trail. Team member Kari Smerud is from Finland, Minn.

The trip offered plenty of challenges. Long portages. Low water levels that required dragging loaded canoes. And, early on, the realization that two of the canoes were unreliable and would have to be replaced en route.

But those challenges were offset, the paddlers said, by witnessing a caribou migration, traveling on the tundra and watching Inuit hunters butcher whales in the village of Whale Cove. The paddlers, three with expedition experience and three without, handled all of the trip’s adversity and learned something about themselves in the process.

“It was life-affirming,” said Alex Compton of Skokie, Ill. “You get in the rhythm of the day. You know what you need to do. It was physically challenging, but every day you know you can get down the river.”

Maxwell, of Duluth, had made two previous canoe expeditions, one from Duluth to Hudson Bay.

“This one was more remote, more physically demanding,” he said, “with more portaging and less water.”

By less water, he meant tributaries that sometimes had just 4 inches of water. The team had to drag their canoes for a mile or more at a time.

“There are a lot of green rocks in the tundra now,” Maxwell said.

Early on, the paddlers had to make a 2½-mile portage when they still had a dozen food packs. Every member of the trip had to haul three loads over the portage, which made for more than 12 miles of walking including return trips.

“I’d say that was the most challenging and most rewarding thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Tessa Olson of Montgomery, Minn., who has spent summers working at Voyageur Canoe Outfitters.

The group realized, just a couple of weeks into the trip, that two of its three canoes essentially were falling apart under the rigors of the trail. The team stopped at a First Nation village, contacted an outfitter 500 miles away in Saskatchewan and bought two new canoes. Those canoes were shuttled to the village, and the team lost just two days of travel. The group went on to finish the trip on its original timetable.

Wildlife sightings were a highlight. The group saw two polar bears, white wolves, musk oxen, about 2,000 caribou in one glorious day, and a wolverine. Smerud and Jake Bendel of Lakeville, Minn., brought home a musk ox skull they found half-buried in a sand bar.

Team members had seen caribou sign, but no caribou until finishing a portage about two weeks before the end of the trip.

“We came over the hill, and there was a herd of thousands,” Olson said. “There were moms and calves, just coming back from their calving grounds. We got to see the migration.”

The team saw from a dozen to 60 caribou a day for the remainder of the trip.

Wind off Hudson Bay prevented the group from paddling the final 24 miles from the mouth of the Wilson River to Whale Cove.  And the team had a scheduled flight to catch from Whale Cove to Churchill. With a satellite phone and some parental participation, the team managed to arrange a boat ride with an Inuit couple. They were welcomed warmly in the village, where the residents had just killed and hauled ashore their first three beluga whales of the season, Smerud said. The paddlers got to sample the uncooked flesh of the whales.

“Rubbery and ishy,” Smerud said, assessing the meat.

All of the team members were taken by the tundra, they said.

“The Arctic is something else,” said team member Ryan Ritter of Owatonna, Minn. “You could climb a ridge and see 10 or 15 miles.”