They had smelled salt for miles, but it had been raining and cold and the wind had been in their face, so it took a while, when they reached the mouth of the river and looked out at an endless horizon, to dawn on them:
They were finished.
After seven weeks and 2,200 miles paddling up the heart of the continent, Sean Bloomfield and Colton Witte, the 18-year-olds who started an amazing journey April 28, reached their goal Sunday, a shore littered with 3-foot-thick remnants of ice. Out in the mist, beyond a half mile of open water, sea ice stretched to the horizon: Hudson Bay.
Some folks didn't think they could do it. At the end, they hardly believed it themselves.
"Weird, here it is," Colton thought. "There's no way to put into words the feeling of finishing. A sense of relief and satisfaction and enjoyment. And pride. We just stopped paddling, and I put my hands on my head and looked at the bay."
"It was shocking," Sean said. "I got chills when I realized we did it. We paddled from Minneapolis to the Arctic Ocean."
Then they pulled ashore, shook hands, hugged and hollered.
The "Bloomitte Expedition'' (a mix of Bloomfield and Witte) had succeeded. (See www.colton-seanhudsonbay.com)
I spoke with the boys by phone Monday, reaching them in Gillam, Manitoba, where they were lifted by chartered floatplane and where they hoped to catch a 12-hour bus ride to Winnipeg today, continuing the long journey home.
Sean and Colton graduated six weeks early from Chaska High to follow their dream of traveling in the wake of Eric Sevareid's epic tale, "Canoeing With the Cree," which told of Sevareid's 1930 trip to Hudson Bay with friend Walt Port. The boys halved Sevareid's time, completing in 49 days what Sevareid and Port did in 98 and averaging an astonishing 45 miles a day. Not by being fast, but by being 18 and having the stamina to paddle all day and into the night. By the end, they were waking at 3:45 a.m., getting on the water at 4:30 and paddling 16 to 18 hours a day.
They conquered the mighty Minnesota, paddling 300 miles upstream against the river in its spring flood. They navigated the muck and bone-filled banks of the Red River of the North. The icy shores and deadly waves of Lake Winnipeg. And, in the final 10 days, survived dangerous rapids, waterfalls and the accidental detonation of a canister of bear spray that left them looking like boiled lobsters.
Snow was falling the day they began. Snow kept the floatplane from picking them up for an extra day at the end. The last week was sleeting, raining, blowing and under 40 degrees.
"It seemed like the whole world was never going to change," Colton said. "It was freezing when we started, and it seemed like we paddled right back into winter. I have never been more miserable."
More miserable. Or proud.
The last grueling leg included 500 miles of lonely rivers, rapids and waterfalls, and a thrill ride of near-disasters that left Colton, who talks in his sleep, mumbling nightmarish warnings in the tent: "Watch out for that rock, Sean!" ''Oh, we just missed it!"
At one point, Sean was standing on a tree to help "line" the canoe through a rapids when it gave way, dumping him in the raging water. He had a life jacket on.
The canoe swamped when the boys were broadsided by a 5- or 6-foot-high wall of water in a rapids that wasn't supposed to be a challenge. It was swept sideways through another big rapids, then backwards, with the boys turning in their seats to pull in the other direction. They made it through only to find, to their chagrin, they had paddled against each other.
"That was a close one," Sean said. "There were a lot of 'that-was-close' moments."
The boys reached the bay so early that the polar bears were still out on the ice. Good thing: A canister of bear spray they brought for protection somehow detonated in one of their Duluth packs, coating their gear with an acrid irritant which they unwisely tried to wash off in the river.
Within minutes, their hands and arms were covered with a burning rash that migrated to their faces and made their eyes swell. They stumbled 20 miles down river to a fly-in resort where they washed off, fighting bugs and portaging through tangled windfalls that left them wondering whether they should have stayed home in Chaska.
"That was scary," Sean said. "We had to tough it out. It was one thing after another."
They arrived Sunday afternoon at York Factory, a historic fur trade site preserved by the Canadian government. No one was home: The post is usually staffed at the beginning of June, but the late spring has delayed its opening. Colton and Sean tiptoed around planks with nails jutting from them -- to keep polar bears off the stairs -- and found an open storage shed, where they set up their last camp of the journey.
There, like voyageurs of old, they sang favorite songs. The voyageurs sang "Frere Jacques." Sean and Colton sang the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" and Jack Johnson's "Taylor." Then they broke out cheap "victory" cigars they bought back on the Red River.
And they lit up. And sent a satellite messenger signal that told their parents, "Take us home." But the floatplane chartered by their parents couldn't get there until Monday.
"I guess we're going to just go back home and be normal teenagers again," Colton said.
I doubt there is a risk of that.
Already, the boys are thinking about another adventure to equal the scope of their Hudson Bay journey. And when they get home later this week, they plan to put their canoe back on the Minnesota, at the landing in Chaska where they started out on April 28.
"We want to paddle up river to the first bend, and just sit there, and say hello to the river," Sean said. "We want it to end where it all began. Because we know, some day when we're 50 years old, we'll look back and say, 'What were we thinking?'"
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