On June 15, Sean Bloomfield and Colton Witte, both 18, and both graduates this spring of Chaska High School, completed a 2,250 mile canoe trip from their hometown to York Factory, on Hudson Bay, Manitoba.
Following a route blazed by the late newsman Eric Sevareid and a friend in 1930, the young paddlers made the trip in 49 days, averaging more than 40 miles a day by paddling as much as 14 hours per day. Along the way they were re-supplied twice by their parents and slept in an occasional warm bed. But mostly they paddled, ate cold pizza and at night crawled into an inexpensive tent they bought on the Internet.
In the interview below, the young men discuss the logistics of the trip and what they learned from it.
Q: Would you, in retrospect, recommend the trip to other people?
Sean: Yes, but I would give them a warning. The trip isn't all fun and games. You have to be very determined.
Colton: I would recommend it to some people, depending on their preparation and experience. If you have the right experience and the right mindset, yes, it can be a good trip. But in a lot of places, if we hadn't known what we were doing, things could have turned out much worse. It's definitely something you want to be prepared for. I wouldn't flat out encourage anyone to do it, or discourage them from doing it. With the right preparation, yes.
Q: What gave you the confidence you could make a trip of this length and difficulty?
Colton: Our trip last year from Lake of the Woods to Lake Superior was good preparation. That trip refined our expedition skills. Trips like that one require longer commitments. You're out for a longer time, you carry more food than you would on shorter trips, and you encounter more severe weather than you would on a short trip.
Q: How long was the trip last summer?
Colton: Twelve days.
Sean: It wasn't a real long trip. But it definitely helped in our preparation for this summer's trip. It had hard times, bad weather and tough portages. And some parts of the Pigeon River were pretty remote.
Q: On the Hudson Bay trip, was your equipment of the high-tech variety, and ultra-light?
Colton: Not really. Our sleeping bags were rated for 15 to 20 degrees. They were backpacking bags. Nothing overly expensive, $60 or $80 or so. We used a lightweight tent we bought on clearance on the Internet. It wasn't anything fancy.
Q: What equipment do you wish you had brought but didn't?
Sean: Nothing, really. Each trip we've done, we've packed less and less.
Colton: I would have liked better paddling gloves, perhaps. The last part of the trip was in rain, with a temperature in the mid-30s. Waterproof Neoprene gloves would have been nice.
Q: Did you have a satellite telephone with you?
Sean: No. We had a Spot Messenger, which we could use to communicate by satellite that we were OK, or if we needed help. Otherwise, we didn't have any of the high-tech gadgets. We didn't have a GPS, for example, just a map and a compass for navigation. A satellite phone wasn't really necessary.
Q: The Minnesota River was in flood when you set out on April 28. How tough was the paddling on that river, until you got to the north-flowing Red River at Wahpeton, N.D., and Breckenridge, Minn.?
Colton: It definitely was demoralizing to paddle as hard as you could and barely be going anywhere. It was physically one of the toughest parts of the trip.
Q: How about the Red River? It's full of oxbows. You can paddle and paddle and seemingly get nowhere.
Colton: Exactly. We'd go the equivalent of 8 miles if we had been traveling by road, but we'd have to paddle 40 miles on the river to do it.
Sean: I can remember realizing at one point that we were only 10 miles from Grand Forks, N.D., but that we wouldn't be there until the next day. To cover that 10 miles, we would have to paddle 40 miles on the river.
Q: When you reached towns along the way, did you go to a restaurant or café to eat?
Sean: We would if it was at mealtime, and there was a place to eat right by the river. This happened a handful of times. It was always nice to get a hot meal.
Q: How much money did you spend while on the trip?
Sean: I don't really know. We had a credit card that belonged to our parents to use for food and emergencies.
Q: How did you get re-supplied?
Colton: We ran into grocery stores occasionally along the way. But in general, we got re-supplied only twice. Once was in Granite Falls, Minn., and once was in Winnipeg. Our parents came both times and brought food for us.
Q: When you left Winnipeg, knowing you had to cross 250 miles of Lake Winnipeg and then paddle through some pretty desolate country, were you apprehensive, excited or both?
Sean: I was really excited. This was the time I looked forward to. We were talking the trip for wilderness adventure, and that portion of the trip offered it.
Colton: We are more accustomed to paddling in wilderness areas anyway. Seeing all of the towns and roads from the Twin Cities to Winnipeg wasn't very appealing. Once we got on Lake Winnipeg, it was prettier country. It was definitely what I had been looking for.
Q: How long did you paddle on Lake Winnipeg, and were you ever wind bound there?
Sean: We were on the lake six and a half days. We were wind bound once. We woke up one day and the waves were too big to paddle. So we waited until 5 that afternoon and paddled until 1 in the morning.
Q: At the end of a day's paddling, did you build a campfire and cook?
Colton: No. I think we had one evening campfire on the trip, maybe two. Basically, at sunset we would stop paddling and have a cold supper and go to sleep. We'd write in our journals. Otherwise we tried to get as much sleep as possible.
Q: What did you eat?
Colton: For dinner we had pre-cooked chicken that we put in tortillas. For breakfast we had a lot of cold pizza. But by the end of Lake Winnipeg the pizza was starting to mold so we ate that up. For lunches we had pancakes and Rice-a-Roni that we cooked over a backpacking stove.
Q: Did you argue?
Sean: Not much. We've been neighbors and friends since first grade. We didn't talk a lot because we ran out of things to talk about. Every now and then we might disagree, but nothing much.
Q: Who paddled in the stern, and who in the bow?
Colton: We switched off every day at noon.
Q: What kind of canoe did you use?
Sean: We had a Bell North Bay that my dad bought 10 years ago. We used that until we reached Winnipeg. Then we used a Bell Alaskan, which is 17 feet long and made of Royalex.
Q: What wildlife did you see?
Sean: Eagles. In the last few days we saw a moose and two black bears, and a lot of beavers. In Minnesota, we saw a ton of deer.
Q: Did you fish?
Colton: No. We had a rod and reel. But we didn't have time.
Q: Why did you paddle so fast and make the trip so quickly?
Sean: We've just finished high school, and this is our last summer to be with our friends. We wanted to get back for that. And the weather was so bad, there really wasn't anything to do but paddle. We didn't necessarily paddle faster than others who have made the trip. But we paddled for longer periods each day.
Q: Are you planning another, similar trip?
Colton: We're going to talk more about that at our welcome-home party on Thursday. The trip we're thinking about would be about the same distance, but take less time. Travel would again be by canoe.
Q: You're both going to Minnesota State Mankato this fall. What will you study?
Sean: I want to be a psychology teacher and a writer.
Colton: Pre-law or pre med.
Q: Do you think adventure travel benefits those who do it?
Sean: It makes you realize how easy life is at home, and how much little things don't really matter.
Colton: You also come to understand more about yourself. The trip left me with a feeling that I can do anything I want if I put my mind to it. It's very empowering, I feel that if I do my best, I can do it. A trip like that builds confidence.
Dennis Anderson • email@example.com