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Kayaker prepares for 1,600-mile trip from St. Paul to Hudson Bay

The route follows the historic trek of Eric Sevareid and Walter Port that was documented in a novel titled “Canoeing with the Cree."

Self portrait of Madison Eklund in kayak..jpg
Madison Eklund will spend at least three months in her kayak this spring and summer as she makes her way north to the Hudson Bay.
Contributed / Madison Eklund
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GRAND FORKS — Soon after the snow melts, Madison Eklund plans to embark on a solo 1,600-mile journey across raging currents, where she'll brave the elements and possibly face polar bears.

Eklund, 26, a postal worker, is taking four months off from work to take her 17-foot-long kayak on a journey few others have taken. She'll start on the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling State Park in the Twin Cities. She'll follow that to Ortonville, Minnesota, on the South Dakota border, crossing lakes and the Bois De Sioux River to reach the Red River.

She will then paddle up the Red River and across the border into Canada, ending hundreds of miles downstream at York Factory, a remote and historic building that once belonged to the Hudson Bay Trading Company.

“It seems like it would be a really fun adventure,” she said.

The route follows the historic trek of Eric Sevareid and Walter Port as recounted in a novel titled “Canoeing with the Cree,” she said. She estimates that fewer than 10 people have completed the journey, and none of them have done it alone.

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“I love the outdoors. From a personal standpoint, it helps with mental health and keeping depression at bay. For me it’s a mental health thing,” said Eklund, who moved to Grand Forks from upstate New York to be with her husband.

A blue line traces the river route from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the Hudson Bay.
Madison Eklund's kayak route from Fort Snelling State Park to the Hudson Bay.
Contributed / Madison Eklund

But the trip won’t be just for fun. She’s also collecting water samples along the way for the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.

“I reached out to them, and I have some interest in environmental conservation. It will be my first time taking water samples, so they’ll have somebody come out and instruct me on how to do it,” Eklund said. "We hope to further promote conservation of our local waterways and get the community interested in the science and history of the local area."

Eklund contacted the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality two years ago, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, said Aaron Larsen, program manager for the watershed management program in the division of water quality.

Decisions on how much water she’ll collect and from what places have not been decided yet, Larsen said.

“(The) overall goal is the opportunity for not only us to raise awareness of the river, but also an opportunity for us to coordinate with citizen scientists,” Larsen said.

The state’s department of environmental quality will most likely check samples for nutrients and suspended sediments, Larsen said.

A woman crouches next to a kayak holding a canoe-shaped small plaque
Madison Eklund poses with her kayak after winning the Race the Red kayak race hosted by the River Keepers in August 2021.
Contributed / Madison Eklund

Eklund said that although she is going to the gym, there is no way to prepare the body for such a trip.

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“I’m still going to be sore; it will be rough the first couple of weeks,” she said, adding that for the first 340 miles she’ll be paddling against the current.

“Here in Grand Forks and in Fargo, you have this awesome river, and people are afraid of it. They think it’s dirty or unsafe, and at times it can be, but it is such a great source for recreation,” she said.

In addition to fighting the current along the first stretch, she’ll face rapids in northern Manitoba and possibly fierce thunderstorms on shallow Lake Winnipeg.

“The danger there is lightning and the rough waves and being windlocked where wind is so aggressive where you can’t paddle fast enough,” Eklund said.

The trip should take her three months, but she’s budgeting four. If she encounters danger or needs help, an SOS beacon on her satellite GPS phone can alert the proper authorities, she said.

A view of a sunset from a kayak floating on open water.
Madison Eklund will take samples for water testing on behalf of the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality while she undertakes a 1,600-mile kayak trip up to the Hudson Bay.
Contributed / Madison Eklund

Eklund’s camping spots are being mapped out, and due to an autoimmune problem, she will be mailing herself supplies as she passes through towns.

“There are polar bears in the last section. There are also grizzly bears, but I’ve heard they’re extremely uncommon. I will be moving very quickly at the end. I’ll have bear spray with me. My dad wants me to bring a rifle, but there are a lot of issues with that,” she said, adding that storing a weapon in a kayak isn’t the best idea.

“Bears can swim, bears can climb trees. You’re supposed to make yourself big, bad and scary and be loud and scare black bears away. With grizzlies you need to fight back, but protect your head and neck. Polar bears are a little bit harder, and I’m not expecting to see one.

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“But never run from any bear,” she said.

When she arrives at the York Factory, she’ll have to call in a plane with her satellite phone to pick her up, she said, which could cost as much as $3,000. There are no roads leading into the area.

In addition to the state’s environmental department, Eklund has reached out to other local and outdoors agencies for assistance . She is also hosting a fundraiser through which people can preorder locally printed T-shirts and sweatshirts.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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