Adventure starts right at home
Madison (Eklund) Williams is believed to be the first woman to paddle solo in a kayak from Fort Snelling on the Minnesota River to York Factory on Hudson Bay.
YORK FACTORY, Manitoba, Canada — She’ll remember the Minnesota River for the early season thunderstorms and flooding that kept her off the water for nearly as many days as she was on it.
The Red River meant long, arduous days of paddling just to reach landing spots where the mud didn’t suck you up like quicksand.
And then came Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, with waves and winds that forced her to rise at 3 a.m. to paddle in the calm waters found in the pre-dawn hours. There were 43 sets of rapids to navigate on the Hayes River, and the sluggish Echimamish River meant pulling over countless beaver dams and contending with the Mother of All Thunderstorms.
“I am not a religious person, but that storm put the fear of God in me,” said Madison (Eklund) Williams. “When it gets close enough, did you know you can smell lightning?”
She is believed to be the first woman to travel solo and by kayak the route made famous by Eric Sevareid and Walter Port.
She launched her 17-foot, 57-pound Wilderness Systems Tempest 170 kayak at Fort Snelling on the Minnesota River on May 7 and the paddler and boat reached York Factory on Hudson Bay on Aug. 25.
She arrived at the saltwater at the end of a day that started by shaking the frost off her sleeping bag and tent.
She had long thought that she’d be in tears when she reached the stairs leading from the water to the grounds of the historic site. ”Then I got there,” said Williams. There was no time for tears. The sun was setting, and she was in polar bear country. “It was go time,” she said.
Now living with her husband in their new home in California, Williams is preparing to pen a book about her adventure, just like Sevareid did when he made the route famous with “Canoeing with the Cree,” originally published in 1935.
Williams said she can confirm what Sevareid claimed all those years ago: A grand adventure can start at your back door. “Absolutely,” she said, pointing out that at one point in her adventure she was literally within walking distance of her apartment. Williams and her husband had been living in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when she began planning this adventure four years ago.
She is a native of the Adirondacks in New York state, and it’s there that her love for the outdoors was fostered. Her husband is with the U.S. Air Force. His service brought the couple to the Midwest. “The Midwest is not really known for crazy outdoor recreation,” she said, while pointing out that she found it nonetheless.
She didn’t intend to make this trip solo. When she could not line up any friends able to make the trip with her, she decided to go ahead all the same.
The Red River was probably the hardest stretch for her, not only because of the mud but the loneliness of having to travel long distances between landing spots, she said.
Elsewhere, starting on the Minnesota River, Williams met up with hosts who put her up in their homes or cabins on numerous nights. She has six pages in a notebook with the names of strangers who became friends by putting her up for a night or more. She has nearly 140 thank-you cards in the mail on their way to the friends she found on the way.
She had some company on the water too. After crossing into Canada, she met up by sheer chance with six paddlers calling themselves the Vagabond Voyageurs . They are six friends who are also wilderness guides. Williams said they paddled from the Grand Portage on Lake Superior through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park, and then followed the same route as hers to York Factory.
Williams and the paddlers joined company at Princess Harbor on Lake Winnipeg and paddled together to Oxford House over the course of about two weeks. She was on her own from there.
Williams said she was impressed by the kindness of the people she met along the way. Meeting people was an intentional part of the trip for her. She had visited with Natalie Warren prior to taking this adventure on, and received a list of contacts of the people who had helped Warren and Anne Raiho when they became the first women to paddle this route in 2011.
Meeting the locals and learning the local history and culture helped make the trip special, explained Williams.
But have no doubt. She is an outdoors woman at heart, and when asked about the highlights of the trip, the first point she made was this: “I really enjoyed the peace and the wilderness and the beauty of mother nature.”
Another highlight for her was serving as a citizen scientist. On the Red River, she collected water samples for the state of North Dakota. They are being tested for the presence of PFAFs, or “per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances," also called forever chemicals for their persistence in the environment.
When she paddled the Red River, she took a break with her husband at their apartment in Grand Forks. They also took that time to close on their new home in California, where he is now stationed with the Air Force.
She has been placing photos and blogs about her trip on her social media accounts, and is working on getting that book together.
The book could be a two-part edition of before and after York Factory. Before she reached York Factory, she learned that there had been a miscommunication and the boat that she had expected to ferry her and the kayak to the Canada rail system for a return to Winnipeg would not be available.
She has a whole other adventure to tell about how she managed to get back, starting with a spendy helicopter pickup at York Factory.