2,000 miles, 2 women and 1 canoe

Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho (Photo Courtesy of Jens and Barbara Johanson)

Facing the unknown with bravery and determination is a common theme among adventure stories. But sometimes knowing what’s coming can be just as daunting. 

In 2011, canoeists Ann Raiho and Natalie Warren paddled 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay along the route described in Eric Sevareid’s 1935 book, 

“Canoeing with the Cree.” They were the first two women to accomplish this feat, and their trip was nominated for Canoe & Kayak magazine’s Expedition of the Year in 2012. 

Raiho, of Inver Grove Heights, and Warren, of Miami, Fla., met as teenagers on a 50-day summer canoe trip with YMCA Camp Menogyn in 2007. They started that fall at St. Olaf College in Northfield, where they ended up in the same freshman dorm. 

“Whether or not we liked each other, we were destined to be best friends,” Warren joked. 

The idea for the trip came in January 2011. Raiho had reread “Canoeing with the Cree” over winter break and told Warren, “I think we should do this.” College graduation was drawing near, and Warren’s job search had been futile. The time seemed right, so they began to make plans. 

Other people became excited about their trip. Their canoe, gear and food were all sponsored. But there was some skepticism, Raiho and Warren said. Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg, a 270-mile-long, shallow lake famous for giant waves, was way too difficult, many people told them. (Even Sevareid and his partner didn’t paddle the whole thing.) 

Upstream surprises

Undaunted, the two took off on the Minnesota River on June 2, paddling upstream on the swollen waterway. They arrived in York Factory on Hudson Bay on Aug. 25. Their 85-day journey took them on the Minnesota, Red, Nelson and Hayes rivers, Lake Winnipeg and other small waterways. 

Along the way they stopped to engage with the many riverside communities, including Cree communities. 

“We didn’t expect to meet people,” Warren said, but residents were excited about their trip, sometimes even calling ahead to the next town to share the news. “People were amazed by us.” 

Even more surprising was the outpouring of help and support from these strangers. “People will take care of you. They’re more than willing to support you,” Warren said. 

The women were shocked at how carelessly people treated the Minnesota River, however, from improper farming practices to people tossing trash off bridges, Warren said. Warren said she hoped that highlighting the river’s beauty and recreational benefits on their blog would prompt people to elevate it beyond a dumping ground. 

Personal discoveries

The women learned about relationships on the journey, discovering how well their personalities complemented each other. Warren is outgoing, creative and bold. Raiho is quieter, practical and organized. Both believe that kept them in balance and added meaning to their trip. 

Raiho said that had she traveled with another practical person, she might have missed out on “the extra stuff.” Warren pushed her to take time to meet people and interact with communities along the way. They made all decisions together and divided up work based on their skills. Only a few situations led to disputes. 

“It was very interesting to have to work with one other person,” Warren said. “To understand how you can contribute to the group, what your flaws are and also what your strengths are. And learning to compromise is huge.” 

The women also learned about themselves. For Raiho, paddling across Lake Winnipeg taught her she “wasn’t very invincible.” 

For Warren, the trip built confidence: “I realized my physical strength as a woman. I just realized how strong I am and how far I can push my body.”

Continuing influence

Though they’ve taken different paths since their journey, both see its influence on their lives today. 

Raiho is working toward her master’s degree in ecology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Her project involves studying and modeling deer populations. She also continues to work as a guide for Camp Menogyn. 

Warren has started a nonprofit organization. Wild River Academy provides experiential learning opportunities to high school students, as well as adults and families, through canoe trips on the Minnesota River. 

“When you do something, it becomes a story you can tell and you always remember that,” Warren said. 

She hopes teens, especially, come away with a realization of their own strength, a better understanding of communities along the river and the ability to have meaningful conversations. Being in a boat with one other person “forces people to talk about things” beyond light chitchat, she said. 

She also is organizing Paddle for Change, a trip along the entire length of the Mississippi River with a focus on climate change and energy options in the U.S. The team of seven will launch from Lake Itasca in September. 

‘Proved them wrong’

Both Raiho and Warren recognize the importance of their expedition in the canoeing world. It’s a world mostly populated with older white men, Warren said. 

“It’s been great to be a young female voice within that community,” she said. 

In the end, it was a triumph over the naysayers and their own fears. 

“When we finished Lake Winnipeg, it was hard to forget that we were the first two women to paddle this route because it was something that people told us we weren’t going to be able to do,” Raiho said. “Kinda proved them wrong, and it sort of made the story more complete.”