Northland group heads north for 900-mile canoe adventure

Gear was spread all over Adam Maxwell's tiny backyard in Duluth's Hillside. Canoes. Nine bulging food packs. Tents. Fuel bottles. Hanks of rope. Map cases. Bear sirens. A solar battery charger.

Members of the 8 Rivers North Expedition
Members of the 8 Rivers North Expedition took a short break in Adam Maxwell’s yard Tuesday afternoon for a team photo. From left are Alex Compton, Kari Smerud, Jake Bendel, Ryan Ritter, Tessa Olson and Adam Maxwell. (Steve Kuchera /

Gear was spread all over Adam Maxwell’s tiny backyard in Duluth’s Hillside. Canoes. Nine bulging food packs. Tents. Fuel bottles. Hanks of rope. Map cases. Bear sirens. A solar battery charger.
Tuesday was gear shakedown day for Maxwell and five companions who plan to paddle and portage 900 miles across Canada this summer on a trip they’ve dubbed the 8 Rivers North Expedition.
They aren’t doing this for science or notoriety. They’re just young and want to paddle some wild country. If they can inspire young people to dream big and venture into the wilderness, so much the better.
UMD graduate Maxwell, 26, tried to explain the lure of such an expedition.
“It’s just the sense of wilderness that you don’t necessarily get without going farther north,” Maxwell said. “It’s so much more remote, a place where you can paddle for weeks without seeing anybody.”
Three of the gang are or were University of Minnesota Duluth students. Three have worked summers at Voyageur Canoe Outfitters at the tip of the Gunflint Trail. A couple have worked at Wolf Ridge Environmental  Learning Center near Finland.
They’ll leave Duluth on Monday and drive to their put-in near Waterbury Lake, Saskatchewan. They’ll paddle a combination of eight rivers and interconnected lakes north and east for about 50 days to the hamlet of Whales Cove on Hudson Bay well north of Churchill, Manitoba. They’ll take a scheduled flight south to Churchill and ride the train back to Winnipeg.
“This is the epitome of all that’s great in tripping,” said Kari Smerud of Finland.
While three members of the group have big trips under their belts, this will be the first Far North expedition for Smerud, Tessa Olson of Finland and DePaul University student Alex Compton.
“The Boundary Waters and Quetico (Provincial Park, Ontario) are great to do every year,” Smerud said, “but I’ve always thought of this as the Holy Grail.”
Much the same is true for Olson, a naturalist and environmental educator at Wolf Ridge.
“I fell in love with the wilderness in the Boundary Waters,” Olson said. “That became a gateway to the North and kind of an addiction.”
Maxwell, UMD graduate Ryan Ritter and University of Minnesota grad Jake Bendel made an 1,870-mile canoe and kayak trip from Jasper, Alberta, to Churchill in 2012. Maxwell also made a 1,400-mile canoe trip from Grand Portage to Hudson Bay in 2011. They’ve had some polar bear encounters. They’ve paddled with beluga whales on Hudson Bay. On the 2012 trip, the three paddlers went 28 days without seeing another person.
“It’s the ultimate sense of freedom to be able to move around and travel as you please without the distractions of everyday life,” Maxwell said. “There’s a sense of getting in this amazing, beautiful landscape and realizing you have it all to yourself.”
Extended wilderness travel is not the thrill-seeking rush of paddling big rapids on rivers in more-populated areas where rescue is handy, he said.
“Your behavior is not like adrenaline junkies running rapids,” Maxwell said. “We’re very cautious in all the risks we take. We have to be very aware of what’s potentially dangerous and completely remove yourself from it. You have to be really conscious, slow down and think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
The crew’s members have had some strong role models and, in a few cases, college-level training in wilderness travel. They’ve thought about the value of extended and remote travel.
“It pushes you toward perseverance and problem-solving,” Olson said. “It helps you develop character and grit.”
“You remove all of the other distractions, and you see what you value and what’s important to you,” Smerud said.
Maxwell researched the route, which includes some well-known and some less well-known rivers - the Waterfound, Fond du Lac, Chipman, Dubawnt, Nowleye, Kazan, Ferguson and Wilson. The route will take the paddlers from the boreal forest to the tundra, before ending with a 30-mile paddle along the tidal flats of Hudson Bay.
A priority was finding a route that wouldn’t require expensive charter bush flights, Maxwell said. This route includes a drive-to start, a scheduled flight from Whales Cove to Churchill and the relatively inexpensive train trip from Churchill to Winnipeg. The group will sell or leave its canoes in Whales Cove.
Still, such a trip isn’t cheap, about $2,500 per person, mainly for food and transportation costs, Maxwell said.
The team saved money on the canoes’ spray covers, designed to keep waves from filling the canoes in rapids. Smerud’s mom sewed all of them.
Smerud and Olson were checking out the canoes on Tuesday when Smerud noticed a short length of red nylon webbing tied under a gunwale. Something was written on it.
“With love,” it said.
It was signed by her dad, Peter Smerud.

For details

For more information on the 8 Rivers North Expedition, go to the group’s website at . Follow the expedition on the website. The team will send back updates on its position transmitted through a GPS tracking device.

8 Rivers North Expedition route

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at
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