Paddler bound for Hudson Bay
Madison Eklund has the winds under her wings now after battling the unrelenting current of a flooded Minnesota River and the severe weather that kept her off the water for days at a time. She aims
ORTONVILLE — Madison Eklund has the winds under her wings now.
She reached Big Stone Lake after paddling her 17-foot, 57-pound Wilderness Systems Tempest 170 kayak against the unrelenting current of the Minnesota River at flood level for over 300 miles.
She is more than ready to go with the flow now. “The Minnesota River has overstayed its welcome,” she laughed, while taking a break from her adventure to speak with a reporter. “The people have been great along the way, but the Minnesota River has overstayed its welcome.”
She has just over 1,300 miles to go to reach her destination: York Factory on Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada.
In the weeks ahead, she will follow the meandering Red River of the North before taking on the waves and open expanses of Lake Winnipeg. From there, she will navigate the Hayes River system and some 43 sets of rapids to her destination in polar bear country.
Eric Sevareid and Walter Port followed the God’s River to York Factory in 1930 and made the adventure famous in Sevareid’s book, “Canoeing with the Cree.” Sean Bloomfield and Colton Witte made the route from Fort Snelling to York Factory in record time in 2008 (49 days) and told their story in “Adventure North.” Natalie Warren and Anne Rillo were the first women to make this route in 2011, and Warren told their story in “Hudson Bay Bound.”
Eklund could be the first to do this on her own in a kayak.
“It just became a solo trip. I didn’t go out looking to make this a solo trip,” she said. Friends she had hoped might join her on the trip just couldn’t make it work.
She is a native of New York state and is an avid outdoors person. Eklund hosts a website Expedition Alpine aimed at introducing people to the outdoors. She also has a large following on her Facebook page, where she posts updates on her journey.
In recent years, Eklund, 26, has been living in Grand Forks, North Dakota with her husband, Ryan, who is a pilot with the U.S. Air Force.
Four years ago, she made up her mind to do an extended expedition. A reading of Sevareid’s book, and a visit with Natalie Warren, clinched her decision on the route. She’s done extensive research on her route, packed food to mail to herself at stop over points along the way and has prepared herself for the challenges of the wilderness ahead.
She launched on May 7 and quickly discovered the challenges that the Midwest offers. Since her start, she’s been on the water 24 days. She’s been forced to stay off the water for about as many days. Flood conditions along with thunderstorms and tornadoes have waylaid her.
“I’m a strong believer in everything happens for a reason,” said Eklund. The forced layovers allowed her to make new friends; they hosted her in their homes and made her part of their lives while she had to stay off the water. “I’ve had a ton of fun,” she said.
Through much of the trip, she’s also pitched her tent at campsites along the river and in state parks.
She was on her way to a Renville County park when she encountered a friendly group preparing to fish through the night for flathead catfish. They lured the hungry paddler to shore with a simple offer: “Would you like a hamburger?” “Yes, I want a burger. Yes, I do,” Eklund said she responded. They invited her to pitch her tent near them and soon, offered her a pole to tend.
“I almost went into the river,” said Eklund of the sudden pull on her pole when a catfish struck.
It was one of two that took the anglers’ baits almost simultaneously. Eklund and her new friends pulled in what they estimated to be 30-pound and 20-pound flatheads in back-to-back succession, the lines crossing and tangling at one point. She yanked in the 20-pounder. She has caught fish that size in saltwater. Landing a fish this size in freshwater surprised her, especially after her friends told her the river holds flatheads twice that size.
The Minnesota River has surprised in many other ways too and for the good. She found the section between Redwood Falls and Granite Falls to be the most scenic. In some ways, it reminded her of her home and her treks in the Adirondacks. The granite outcrops and woodlands were “like little glimpses of where I grew up,” she said.
The Minnesota River has offered her a natural corridor filled with wildlife, birdsong and often, a feeling of wilderness solitude.
She’ll be busy in the days ahead as she discovers what the Red River offers. Eklund said she will be performing water quality sampling along her way in cooperation with the state of North Dakota.
She’s also looking forward to a layover in Grand Forks, where her husband will be waiting.
From there, it’s the adventure of the north that will be waiting. “I know mentally what I need to expect,” she said. Her hope, she said, is that the miles ahead will bring as many new friends and fun adventures as she enjoyed on the Minnesota River.