Not One of Those People …

Madison Eklund doesn’t want to be one of those people. People like many of us, and she set out several weeks ago in her 17-foot kayak heading for an Arctic bay to prove that she isn’t.

On Monday she finished the “uphill” near fourth of the Eric Sevareid and Walter C. Port “Canoeing with the Cree” trip taken in the 1930s, starting at the mouth of the Minnesota River near Fort Snelling. It concludes some 1,700 miles later after paddling through the rapids-rich Hayes River into Hudson Bay at York Factory. If river lore and pieced together history is proven true, Eklund will be the third woman and apparently the first of either gender to complete a solo trip through the numerous rivers, lakes and the oft dangerous Lake Winnipeg to the bay. And, perhaps, the first kayaker.

On two of her last four days on this lower stretch she paddled her sea-worthy kayak 20 plus miles in white capped waves and high temperatures to conclude the Minnesota River portion of her voyage. That stretch included nearly 300 against-the-current miles from the start to the Churchill Dam at the foot of Lac qui Parle Lake. Up next is crossing the Continental Divide at Browns Valley, MN, to push off into Lake Traverse en route toward the Red River of the North and Lake Winnipeg before jutting off into the two river descent to York Factory.

Madison Eklund begins her 26 mile paddle up Big Stone Lake early Sunday morning in calm waters, and ended up several hours later paddling through rolling white caps to reach her access point.

Oh, and about “those people” … people like many of us … and her quest of a journey? “It seems I’m always running into people who say they wish they had done this or that in their life, and now have regrets they never followed through. Maybe it was a marriage or their job. Time. Whatever, and now they regret that time has passed them by; that now it’s perhaps too late. I didn’t want to be like that. Sure, I could be sitting in an office or working a job somewhere, but why? This is my goal and I plan on being done and in the Hudson Bay by mid-to late August,” she said.

For years she had an eye open for embarking on such a trip, yet didn’t know where or when. She was considering several options. Then one evening while talking to coworkers in Grand Forks, ND, where she now lives with her husband, Ryan, an Air Force pilot stationed there, it was mentioned that two women had paddled from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay a few years before.

That trip was 11 years ago now, and the paddlers were Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho, a trip that Warren documented in her book, “Hudson Bay Bound.” After a Google search Eklund connected with Warren, and through the connection learned about Servareid’s book. Then she read that Warren was doing a reading in the Twin Cities and drove down to connect with her. They’re still connected, and Eklund has sent texts to Warren on occasion during the trip to ask questions.

She packs economically, storing her gear in waterproof bags in the compartments, behind her seat and between her legs.

“It was through my connections with Natalie that I decided this was the trip I wanted to make,” she said. “Since I started, she continues to be a great help.”

Eklund claims she’s been a paddler most of her life while growing up in rural Eastern upstate New York near the Vermont border. A kayak paddler. “So when people ask why I’m using a kayak instead of a canoe, it’s because this is what I’m comfortable paddling,” she said. She somehow packs her supplies in waterproof bags that she stores in the portals, behind her seat and between her legs. She is an economical packer. 

Yes, she has a deadline of sorts, for Ryan is scheduled to be re-deployed in late August to Edwards Air Force base located in the western edge of the Mojave Desert just east of Los Angeles. This places her in a race against time since she lost two full weeks due to flooding and dangerous debris as well as her paddling against the heavy flood-stage currents of the Minnesota until she entered the “chain of lakes” along the Minnesota-South Dakota border.  

Madison with her flathead catfish, one she caught after being “inducted” into a catfish clan near Vicksburg County Park in Renville County.

Like some who have paddled the route before her, she has found a friendly community along this first fourth of her paddle. Folks she calls “river angels.” One was a family who adopted her for two weeks during the excessive high waters, the mother of whom shared the same dietary allergy as Eklund so there were no food issues. There was also a group of five fishermen who inducted her into the “clan” complete with a heavy river rod and a hook baited with a bullhead that led to her catching a 20 pound flathead catfish. So, yes, she has stories and nice remembrances of many she has met along the way.

It was actually through an old “river rat” community that led her to Listening Stones Farm last Saturday. I drove down with my canoe trailer to meet her at the foot of the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, then ferried her to her Big Stone Lake put-ins and take-outs starting around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, and an hour later on Monday … all part of a strategy to beat the heat and high wind warnings later in the mornings. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, for I also have a connection with Natalie Warren. Warren has stayed here at the farm in the past, and once even loaned me the paddle that was branded at York Factory at the conclusion of her trip with Raiho. Eklund plans on taking a wooden paddle for the very same reason.

Perhaps the most challenging aspects are behind her, although there remains some worrisome concerns. Among those numerous challenges are meeting up with her food supply along the way in quite remote outposts along with several paddling perils. Lake Winnipeg, for example, is as long as the Minnesota River and is much more temperamental than Big Stone Lake since it faces into the prevailing winds. Numerous rapids await on her final leg on the Hayes River. “I’ll need to often make split second decisions on whether to try to run it, line through it or portage,” she said. 

She chats with Big Stone Lake historian Judy Beckman at the foot of Big Stone Lake.

This doesn’t include polar bears that she might possibly meet once she begins the descent toward the Hudson Bay. She isn’t “carrying” either. “Where would I put a gun on a kayak?” she asked of the obvious. She added that her parents and others have concerns about her traveling alone as a woman, although she believes some of those worries have lessened the further she has traveled along with the experiences she’s faced so far. “I’ve met some good people along the way,” she said.

Much of her trip of a lifetime lies in front of her, and she says, “I’m so happy to have this lower portion of my trip behind me, and Big Stone Lake was the last of it. It wasn’t bad at all except for the heat. I grew up lake paddling, and after fighting the flooding and fast currents on the Minnesota, the lakes were relatively easy for me” even while facing white-capped waves on her first day on Big Stone Lake. “I’m ready for getting on the other side of the Continental Divide and having the currents in my favor.”

Taking “five” after her 20 miles of padding up Big Stone Lake on Sunday morning in 100 degree heat and white cap conditions.

Then there’s this … that move to the Mojave. “I’m a North Country girl used to blizzards and snow,” she said. “I mean, I grew up in upstate New York! And, I’ll be going from the cool Hudson Bay to the desert basically overnight.” That seemed to faze her even more that the nearly 1,200 miles remaining on her paddle to the Arctic. 

As Eklund paddles ever onward she’s proving, if she hasn’t done so already, she isn’t “one of those people.” “I’m living my dream,” is how she put it.  Nope, she’s not one of those people! 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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