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Modern-day voyageurs embark on 900-mile canoe expedition

In June, six paddlers will embark on a trek from northern Saskatchewan to Nunavut Territory. Among them is Silver Bay native, Kari Smerud. Submitted photo.1 / 3
Wolf Ridge naturalist, Tessa Olson, is among a team of six who will be paddling through boreal forests and tundra along a 900 mile water route in Canada in June. Submitted photo.2 / 3
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Ken Vogel

A Silver Bay native and a Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center employee are part of a group embarking on a 900-mile expedition in Canada this summer.

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Kari Smerud of Silver Bay, now studying at St. Olaf College and Tessa Olson, a naturalist at Wolf Ridge, are joining four others on a journey that begins June 18. They will drive to Waterbury Lake in northern Saskatchewan, and then launch three canoes to begin a two-month paddling and portaging adventure ending in the tiny Inuit community of Whale Cove, along the Hudson Bay in Nunavut Territory.

“I really have wanted to go on a trip like this but never had the resources or experienced people to go with,” said Smerud.

Three of her travel companions – Ryan Ritter, Jake Bendel and Adam Maxwell – completed a similar expedition in 2012, covering over 1,800 miles in northern Canada. Olson, Smerud and the sixth member, Alex Compton, are all outdoor enthusiasts with decades of paddling experience among them.

“I learned how to paddle while working seasonally at a canoe outfitter on the Gunflint Trail,” said Olson.

She will need the experience – Smerud estimates they will spend 55 days total paddling through eight waterways, hence the name of their trip – 8 Rivers North.

Their route will begin in the boreal forest, an ecosystem similar to most of northeastern Minnesota. Toward the end of their trip, they will venture into the tundra – an ecosystem characterized by permanently frozen soil.

“This will be the farthest north that anyone in the crew has ever been,” Olson said.

That means the crew is hoping to encounter some animals that most people only get to see in National Geographic specials – like musk oxen, caribou and arctic foxes. They also hope to catch some fish along the way to supplement the 700 pounds of food they will be carrying with them.

“Of course, what would a Canadian voyageur expedition be without fresh fish?” said Olson.

As for the less appealing wildlife – like black flies – the crew is prepared with bug jackets, head nets and insect repellent. Olson said if all else fails, “you just need to find your Zen.”

Smerud said she’s looking forward to the cultural experience, too. Northern Canada is inhabited largely by indigenous peoples.

“I can’t wait to meet the people that live along these rivers,” she said. “The self-sustaining lifestyle they live is exciting to me.”

A main objective of the trip is to bring their experiences back and educate people about wilderness and the importance of preservation, as well as inspiring more people to enjoy it. Olson said she is excited to see what the trip will add to her educational toolbox when she’s back at Wolf Ridge.

“This will be a great learning experience that I will be able to share with others,” she said.

On a more personal level, Smerud said that she and her crewmembers will have a opportunity for some self- reflection, too. They will be somewhat disconnected, with just a satellite phone for emergency use.

“Anytime you are in the wilderness for that amount of time, you have the opportunity to think about the things you value,” Smerud said. “I find I think more clearly when I return from a trip.”

When they arrive in Whale Cove, they’ll catch a flight to Churchill, Manitoba and then take a train to Winnipeg. There, they will be picked up and driven back to Duluth.

Though they have a tentative itinerary, there are no guarantees.

“We don’t have any set guidelines,” Smerud said, “there are too many variables when it comes to wilderness travel.”

To get updates on the trip, check out the group’s Facebook page by searching “8 Rivers North Expedition.”