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8 Rivers North crew returns from adventure of a lifetime

Tessa Olson, Jake Bendel and Adam Maxwell with arctic char caught during their trip. Submitted photo.1 / 2
The whole crew relaxing. Front row is Adam Maxwell, Jake Bendel and Alex Compton. Back row is Ryan Ritter, Tessa Olson and Kari Smerud. Submitted photo.2 / 2

Ken Vogel

While their families and friends in Minnesota experienced a shifting of seasons between June and August, six canoeists that just returned from a 900-mile journey spent the same time period paddling through the changing ecosystems of northern Canada.

The adventurers, including Finland, Minn., native Kari Smerud and Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center employee Tessa Olson, paddled, portaged and dragged their canoes along their route, marvelling as the vegetation and wildlife changed around them.

"We saw plenty of moose for the first few weeks," Smerud said, an animal the crew members had all seen before. "Then, we started seeing black bears, even a white black bear ... and eventually caribou, an arctic wolf and a polar bear."

Perhaps to assuage parents, Olson said they were never close enough to the wildlife to be in harm's way, but that it was "just incredible" to see so many unfamiliar creatures.

The wildlife sightings were just one highlight of the two-month trip, dubbed the 8 Rivers North Expedition, that took the crew along eight different rivers in northern Canada. Three of the six have been on long-distance canoe trips but for the other half, this was a first. Adam Maxwell of Duluth is a seasoned veteran, having already tackled a trip from Duluth to Hudson Bay. Three have worked at Voyageur Canoe Outfitters off the Gunflint Trail and some have attended the University of Minnesota Duluth.

They began by driving to Waterbury Lake, Saskatchewan, and dropping their canoes in the water. From there, they took their three canoes loaded with provisions east to Whale Cove on Hudson Bay, a small Inuit community.

While most of the journey was smooth sailing, the voyage was not without mishaps. According to Smerud, on day six, one of the teams encountered shallow, rocky rapids that damaged their canoe.

"Ryan (Ritter) and Alex (Compton) came down hard on a rock and it caused a huge crack in the canoe and snapped the yoke," she said. Ritter is from Owatonnna, Minn., and Compton is from Skokie, Ill.

Smerud said although the canoe was badly damaged, they were able to complete some patch work and paddle the leaking boat another 60 miles to Black Lake, where they were able to acquire another canoe.

The first on-land challenge came early in the trip, too, when the crew encountered a 2 ½-mile portage -- no small feat when carrying huge packs of food and supplies and three canoes. It took them eight hours to get to the next body of water.

In addition, low water in many areas meant they couldn't paddle their canoes through many passages.

"We did a lot of dragging and carrying through those areas, which slowed us down," Olson said.

Smerud said it was physically taxing, but there was an emotional component, too.

"Time itself can be challenging," she said. "When you have a long paddling day there is lots of time to get inside your own head and overthink things."

Another first for the crew members was seeing a rare tundra fire as they paddled the Ferguson River in the Province of Nunavut towards the end of their trip.

"We started seeing smoke and we were heading directly towards it," Olson said.

When they paddled to dry land to assess the situation, they could see the flames but decided that the wind direction was favorable for them to continue. The team discussion was one of many on the trip during which the six team members, all in their early- to mid-20s, had to put their heads together and reach an agreement.

"Risk management and decision making are crucial. We worked together to determine if we should stay put or move forward," Olson said, adding that a light-hearted approach was necessary. "Laughter is a huge factor in being able to maintain a good attitude on a trip like this."

Arriving in Whale Cove at the end of a long, exhausting trip provided another experience for the crew. It was the beginning of whale hunting season for the native Inuit community.

"It was an incredible experience as this community welcomed us with open arms," Smerud said. "The whales came in and everyone ran to the beach cheering and greeting the hunters." Smerud said the natives cut off thick chunks of blubber and skin which was then placed in a community freezer for the entire community to use.

"Everyone was running around and celebrating. It was so nice to be a part of their traditions," she said.

As for souvenirs, Smerud and Jake Bendel of Lakeville, Minn., found and brought home a 32-pound muskox skull they found half-buried in a sand bar.

Both Smerud and Olson said reaching the final point was a relief, but it was sad to bid farewell as all of them went back to college and jobs on Sunday.

"It was an immense sense of reward for what we just accomplished, but bittersweet that it was coming to an end," Olson said. "The smells are still fresh in my mind."

She mentioned the scent of migrating caribou, salt water near Whale Cove and labrador tea, a traditional Inuit drink made of native herbs. One taste Olson and Smerud will never forget is that of raw beluga meat, which they tasted in the name of tradition with the Inuit hunters in Whale Cove.

They both said it was different, but not something they desire as a mainstay in their diet.