Bound for Hudson Bay and Beyond
Natalie Warren ’11 and classmate Ann Raiho ’11 hold the distinction of being the first women to undertake a grueling 2,000-mile canoe route from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay. Warren’s account in Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic retraces their remarkable journey.
Camp Menogyn, the famed YMCA canoe camp on Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail, has been the start of many canoe trips over the years, but few so epic as that detailed in Natalie Warren’s Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). Warren and her trekking partner, Ann Raiho, didn’t set off from the canoe camp, however. Instead, they met there in 2007 as recent high school graduates — Raiho a Twin Cities native and Warren a Floridian inspired by a Miami friend to attend the camp.
After becoming fast friends at Menogyn, and further solidifying their bond at St. Olaf, the classmates decided to canoe from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, a trip inspired by broadcast journalist Eric Sevareid’s 1935 classic Canoeing with the Cree about a 2000-mile canoe trip Sevareid took with his friend Walter Port. (Having read the book as a senior, Raiho one day opened Warren’s dorm door, threw it at her, and said, “Read this. We should do it.”)
So it was that the longtime friends set out to follow Sevareid and Port’s lead — and become the first women to complete the expedition. Once they’d arranged to have a canoe and gear donated and had raised enough money to rent a floatplane, the two took off. They left Fort Snelling State Park on June 2, 2011 (despite Minnesota River flood warnings), determined to reach Hudson Bay before the cold weather set in.
Along the way, they encountered the ecological devastation wrought by farming and development along the Minnesota River, huge waves on Lake Winnipeg, whitewater rapids near a Red River dam, thunderstorms, black bears, and plenty of disbelieving men and pesky journalists. But the duo also enjoyed many wonders — moose and polar bear sightings, northern lights, pearly pink sunrises, and the wild, free-flowing rivers of the north country. By summer’s end, being back on land felt strange. As Warren put it, “The water was our true home.”
I recently spoke to Warren about her friendship with Raiho, what drew her to St. Olaf, the inspiration to write her book, and the joys and challenges of her canoeing adventure.
When did you first meet Ann?
We met during our last summer at Menogyn, when we were both part of a 50-day trip to Nunavik [in northern Quebec], which is complete tundra and a beautiful part of world. We hadn’t known each other before we shared a canoe, and then we discovered we were both headed to St. Olaf. That was especially amazing because I was the first person from my Miami arts high school to enroll there. Then we ended up living in the same dorm — so there were lots of forces pushing us together.
What drew you to Northfield?
Because I loved camp, I wanted to return to Minnesota for college. My camp friends were always my closest friends; we even share the same tattoo. And all of them were living in Minnesota. I was a serious saxophone player, so I applied to a few Midwestern colleges and was fortunate to receive a music scholarship from St. Olaf.
How did your friendship with Ann continue once you arrived at school?
College is such a difficult time — trying to figure out what you like and how you’re going to succeed after graduation. We always ended up in each other’s rooms, plotting trips. It was a coping mechanism for college angst, and it ended with us paddling to Hudson Bay. Whenever we had the chance, we would be booking it up north. And we were always trying to trick other people into going camping with us.
Your Hudson Bay trip took place a decade ago. What prompted you to start writing about the journey years later?
It’s a funny St. Olaf story actually. After a presentation I gave in 2014 at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, this old guy wearing a St. Olaf hat, pants, and sweatshirt came up to me. His name was John Sylwester, and he had graduated about 50 years before me. He was so excited to talk about our journey, and after that we became pen pals. It was in mailing letters to him, one story at a time, that I began writing about the trip. He would send back handwritten letters about his own trips, and over the years ours became this great intergenerational friendship. At some point, I realized I wanted to document our entire trip.
When did you sit down to finish the book?
I decided to write it in 2017, but I kept it private because everyone sort of says they are writing a book, so no one takes you seriously. I sent out a book proposal and got my fair share of rejections. I felt so lucky when the University of Minnesota contacted me. I was driving through Michigan, on assignment for Canoe and Kayak magazine, when they called to offer me a contract. When I signed the contract in 2018, it was a beautiful and terrifying moment. I had written only 30,000 words of the 80,000 I would need. Writing was a journey all its own. Some days I felt like I could write for hours, and other days I had to force myself. My editor helped by removing a lot of reflective sections that took the reader out of the canoe. Now I hope that readers feel as if they’re right there with us. [Hudson Bay Bound is already in its second printing.]
What drove you two to undertake such a challenging trip at age 22?
There’s something to be said for youthfulness. We felt strong and capable, and our social circle was made up of tough feminist outdoorswomen from Menogyn, so it didn’t seem that abnormal for us to try it. We were concerned about the challenges, but we talked over the tricky parts in a way that was surrounded by positivity and potential. And we trusted each other so much. Our strong relationship made it much easier to go ahead.
Were you surprised to learn you’d be the first women to complete the trip?
We were! We found a few groups who had completed it since Sevareid, but no documented accounts of women who had. When we needed an angle to help us raise money, we realized it was because we were women. It was a big deal, yet it was sad that in 2011 it was still such a big deal.
What would you consider some of the trip’s biggest challenges?
The journey to Hudson Bay is cool in that it includes paddling upstream, downstream, a massive lake, and an Arctic whitewater river. Each of those carries its own challenges. The 2011 Minnesota River flood was epic, and we departed at its peak, so we began our trip by paddling 300 miles at 1.5 miles an hours, which is slower than you could walk it. The Minnesota River was highly polluted — the buffer zones weren’t there, corn was planted all the way to the river, there were huge eroded banks. Later we paddled through huge algal blooms on Lake Winnipeg, formed by the tilling practices followed by farmers along the Red River. The algae have ruined the fishing economy and the livelihoods of many small towns. Digging our paddles into that stinky green carpet had an unforgettable impact on me.
Was it also challenging to write about conflicts you had with Ann?
[Editor’s note: Raiho angered Warren by insisting they take a detour on Lake Winnipeg to meet some Menongyn friends; later Warren angered Raiho by failing to put their safety first. The latter blowup led to several days when the two women communicated only by note.]
Yes, it was difficult to navigate those parts. I got to tell the story from my voice, and it was hard to stop positioning myself as the one who was always right. It was challenging to try to consider how Ann was feeling in those moments. Being with just one other person for 85 days straight taught me a lot of interpersonal skills I still use in my marriage.
What are you doing now?
Rivers have been the focus of everything I’ve done since that trip — leading river trips, doing environmental education, paddling the length of the Mississippi River while schoolchildren followed us online. My first “real” job was land protection work along the St. Croix River. Now I’m working on a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in communication studies, with a focus on environmental communication. My ultimate goal is to complete a thought project about what it would be like to free the Mississippi.
What is Ann doing today?
Ann has a Ph.D. from Notre Dame in ecology, lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and works for NASA doing statistical modeling for climate change. I couldn’t explain it if I tried! And she still has Meehan, the dog we picked up on our trip.
Have you continued to pursue music?
I continue to play sax regularly with my husband, John Synhavsky ’10, a drummer and producer. [The couple has a 7-month-old daughter.] But my biggest recent musical excitement was getting to sing and play sax with The Okee Dokee Brothers on a book promotional song we recorded called Roll on River. I’ve officially peaked!
Lynette Lamb P’22 is a Twin Cities writer and frequent contributor to St. Olaf Magazine. Her review of Hudson Bay Bound was first published special to the Minneapolis Star Tribune on January 22, 2021.