“Canoeing With The Cree”

WALL Hunter Creek No. 61
If you ever want to go back in time for a nifty little adventure, be sure and pick up an excellent book authored by Eric Sevareid. Sevareid, a long-time journalist and newscaster for CBS and of Swedish stock, is the author of a journal and notes that he kept on a grand canoe trip with another high school buddy. The voyage lasted almost 15 weeks, for a total of 2250 miles.
“Canoeing With The Cree” tells the story of two recently graduated high school boys, Eric Sevareid age 17 and another 18 year-old friend with whom he had gone to school, Walter Port; and their excellent outdoor travels in 1930. The book was first published in 1935 by MacMillan. It has been re-printed by the Minnesota Historic Free Press, St. Paul MN. The boys mapped out their circuitous route, leaving from their home in June from Minneapolis. First they would float up the tranquil Minnesota River in a northwesterly direction for a couple of hundred miles. Ultimately they were headed to York Factory Manitoba, located on the southwestern shores of Hudson Bay for their final destination. And their plan was to be and sure arrive there by the early part of September before the snow starts to fall in this part of the world, and before winter freeze up.
During the late winter of 1930, the boys re-conditioned an old 18½ foot Old Town wood and canvas canoe. These heavy canoes, by today’s standards, were manufactured in Bangor, Maine, and were considered to be the second-best canoes available in North America at that time. The best were Peterborough Canoes made in Ontario, CA. The canoe weighed about 120-lb. They moved the craft through the water with two oval-gripped wooden beaver-tail paddles.
“We were off! The trail stretched ahead, a twisting steam of green water. As we began to paddle against the stiff current, we could hear a band playing and guns firing at Fort Snelling. Overhead airplanes were circling – not in our honor , for our start was very inauspicious but the unintentional celebrations were quite timely.” A quote from Eric Sevareid, June 17, 1930, two days after graduation.
After traveling down the Mississippi for a short stretch, they reached Fort Snelling and the mouth of the Minnesota River. It would be all ‘uphill’ now for over 200 miles. Eventually they portaged their gear and canoe for almost a mile from Lake Big Stone Lake to Traverse Lake which is the headwaters of the northerly-flowing Red River of the North. This point also marks the continental divide for river drainage to the south and Gulf of Mexico, and to the north to Hudson Bay. Upon the direction of worried parents, they sent their first postcards home from Fargo, North Dakota, after a month of river travel, with the hope of allaying all family concerns.
While the Red River was sluggish, at least now they were floating to their destination with the current and often with a southerly tailwind.
Reaching the Canadian border, after almost two months, they had to tie up their canoe, the Sans Soucci (“without care”) and hike 1½ miles to a Canadian Mountie border entry portal to register as foreign visitors.
Along with the Mounties, several “knowledgeable” people they met on the river had told them, “no way” that they would reach Hudson Bay by early September, and that the two lads would be unlikely to make it before winter freeze-up.
A few times they were discouraged and thought about throwing in the towel, but their youthful enthusiasm and pride always persevered. Besides, they had expended their juvenile life savings on equipment, including their excellent second-hand wood and canvas canoe. In addition, the Minnesota Star, the leading paper of the Twin Cities had sponsored their adventure with a $100.00 donation in return for a couple of photos and a few journal entries.
Arriving in Winnipeg Manitoba, and already 15 days behind their schedule, Sevareid and Port decided to splurge on a bath, meal and a room at a cheap hotel in the city.
Ahead of them lay the most dangerous part of their journey –– a 184 mile traverse up Lake Winnipeg to Norway House, and then the task to locate the right outlet stream that junctures with Hayes River. Then, down the Hayes to York Factory an outpost for the Hudson Bay Fur Company, located on Hudson Bay.
Winnipeg Canada would be their last place to re-supply with butter, bread, flour, sugar, cooking oil, etc. This location would mark their last point of civilization for 780 miles, and it would be necessary to update the Star on their travels and send their folks the third and probably last set of postcards before arriving at York Factory.
Ahead of them on Lake Winnipeg lay a huge long lake known for nasty cross-winds from the western plains, and for producing large whitecaps. They would hug the eastern shoreline while attempting to avoid the many rocky outcroppings.
After stopping at an Indian Cree settlement on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, at a place called Berens River, they stayed a couple of nights and spent some time with two Mounties and an Indian guide. They were still over 80 miles from Norway House at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg.
In talking with these people, they were told of many boating fatalities on the northern sections of the lake due to strong autumn northerly winds. Sure enough, two days later and just six miles after leaving the Indian settlement, they became stranded on a rocky outcropping on a small peninsula as unrelenting northerly whitecaps rose to almost six-feet tall.
After a tough decision and a coin flip, the two young dejected adventurers returned to Berens River to await a steamer due to arrive in three days. Depressed that they had cheated the last 80 miles of the lake voyage, and that they would be loading their canoe and themselves aboard the lake steamer, they rationalized they would not make their Hudson Bay destination at York Factory before freeze-up. The risk of being stranded on the Hayes River in the North Country without proper winter gear until the following April or May, without a reliable way of contacting their folks back in Minnesota, was just way too risky. Even so the Mounties stationed at Warren Point, their debarkation point from the steamer, and the missionaries at Norway House at the final jumping-off spot from Lake Winnipeg, only gave the boys a 50/50 chance of reaching Hudson Bay before freeze-up.
It had taken almost two months to enter Canada, and the date for departure form Norway House into a labyrinth of 500 miles of lakes and rivers that lay between them and the final destination was August 29. Over five hundred miles of pure wilderness lay ahead and mornings were already frosty.
First, they had to negotiate Gods River to a small Hudson Bay Outpost by the same name. Picking the way through a labyrinth of islands, and then, stretches of hair-raising rapids marked the daily routes. They had 180 miles to go to reach the encampment at Gods River and with only a crude map.
Luckily, on the third day out they met a trapper who they had met earlier at Norway House, along with two Cree Indians, in a large freighter canoe. They were headed to Gods River also and were invited to tag along. Tag along they did, but with the cost of tired muscles and aching bones each night after 12 hours of paddling every day. Seven days later they arrived at the small outpost where the musher dogs outnumbered the Cree and the few white company men.
Now only 300 miles of wildness stood between the boys from Minneapolis and the Canadian village of York Factory, on the Hudson Bay. They were directed to this route to avoid the numerous canoe-breaking rapids of the upper Hayes River. After 100 miles down the Gods River, they would merge with the Shamatawa River. In the Cree language, this name means “fast running river,” and it was. The river miles clicked off quickly at the rate of almost 40 a day. Rapids were run with only a cursory scouting job.
Then as they reached the tricky hidden portage marking the entrance into Hayes River, weather became not just sour but really brutal. Ice formed on the coffee pot every morning, and a constant ice-cold drizzle and light rain continued all day and night for several days. Dry firewood was almost impossible to locate, and keeping boots and clothes dry was a losing battle.
The young men said little to each other in the canoe as they saved their remaining strength and warmth for the final 120 miles ahead –– a stretch of wilderness that had seen very few white men. In some years, none.
Paddling furiously down the Hayes River in cold but now clearing weather, Sevareid and Port reached York Factory on their third day just as dark was descending on the inland ocean settlement.
York Factory had been established on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay over 120 years earlier by the British Hudson Bay Company. It was for trappers to explore up the Hayes and Nelson Rivers and then up the Red River into Minnesota and North Dakota.
It was Sept. 20, 1930. Now all they had to do was hike 40 miles to Nelson River, in a snowstorm, and catch an Indian freighter canoe upriver for 80 miles before freeze-up to the end of the rail line at Gillam, Manitoba.
Needless, to say, they needed to contact their parents to let them know, as they would miss out on their college scholarships as the local heroes did not arrive home to the Twin Cities until mid-October.
Whatever happened to the beloved Old Town wood and canvas canoe, the “Sans Soucci?” Left at the Hudson Bay shoreline, just above the high-tide mark, the company manager agreed to care for the battered and patched craft until the young men could return and retrieve the boat with several major pine tar patch repairs, .
I wonder if they even returned for the boat. The author doesn’t say, but I am guessing probably not. What a great adventure! It reminds me somewhat of the Corps of Discovery expedition, sponsored by President Thomas Jefferson and led by Merriwether Lewis and William Clark in the early part of the 19th Century.
Note: FEMA
One of my readers dropped me a note defending FEMA and all of their good deeds. A few weeks ago, I complained about the contracting and tedious process FEMA requires before replacing county bridges washed away by flooding. It takes an coverage of 2-3 years.
Anyway, I agree with the reader, FEMA does do some good work on the whole.
And, I also realized I did not set out to author “Op-Ed” articles with “Notes from Hunter Creek.” Therefore, I promise in the future to do my best to keep my uninformed opinions to myself.
After all, as a lawyer for 44 years, you can believe this. Right?
Now, get up and get out and go enjoy our beautiful Ozarks outdoors!