Water’s Perilous Journey

Education By Natalie Warren

The author of the recently published memoir, Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Bay (University of Minnesota Press) reflects on how transformative trips into the Boundary Waters shaped her spirit of adventure and made her a lifelong advocate for clean water.

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I did not grow up romping through the woods or dipping a paddle into the water. I went to an arts high school in the concrete jungle of downtown Miami, Florida, where I struggled to follow in the footsteps of the freakishly talented musicians that came before me. Like so many teenagers, I was floating, unable to find a groove or establish an identity. Then a friend of mine told me about a place called the Boundary Waters, in the faraway land of Minnesota. Despite never having camped or canoed, I signed up for a two-week expedition into the BWCA with YMCA Camp Menogyn.

I can still feel the excitement of getting on a bus full of strangers and driving north into unfamiliar beauty. Looking at the pine, spruce, and firs made me exclaim, “You have so many Christmas trees here!” After a series of cultural confusions, including mistaking a loon call for a wolf howl and staying up all night mentally preparing to be eaten alive — “I’ve lived a good life!”— I fell in sync with the water and woods.

I remember the touch of the granite rock sloping gently down to the lake from the perfect campsite; a well-deserved swim after a long hard portage, soothing my sore muscles in the cool water; evenings spent watching the sun set until the bugs forced us to bed. Skills I never knew I had began to surface. I was pretty damn good at pushing my physical limits, thriving in difficult situations, and not showering (a skill I’m proud to have maintained). That first trip in the BWCA was my entry into canoe expeditions and my foray into a life-long pondering of the human-nature relationship.

From there, I went on to become one of the first two women to canoe over 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, inspired by Eric Sevareid’s route from his classic book, Canoeing with the Cree. On this expedition I witnessed first-hand the impact polluted rivers have on the landscape and on people.

As we paddled upstream on the Minnesota River, I noticed the eroded riverbank. Where there used to be prairie, there was nothing but uniform rows of corn and soybeans. These agricultural practices produce excessive runoff that regularly floods the river, ripping the soft edges of the land, tearing away precious soil and carrying excess sediment and pesticides to torment delicate natural systems and communities downstream.

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When we reached the headwaters of the Red River we were finally paddling with the current. It was a welcome respite for our minds and muscles. The river was so flooded that we could take shortcuts by paddling straight over corn fields, our canoe brushing the corn stalks that bent with the current.

Pollution can go undetected by the human eye unless we intimately interact with the land and water. When we do, the impacts of water pollution are impossible to ignore. I will never forget the rancid smell of algal blooms on Lake Winnipeg. While paddling the upper reaches of the lake, in relatively rugged wilderness, a stench hit my nostrils before I could see where it was coming from. It smelled like a New York City back alley on a hot summer day. Then I saw the green carpet of algae floating just below the surface. It went on for miles. We dug our paddles into the green abyss as it covered our canoe in slime. This was a direct result of excess nitrogen in the water caused by agricultural practices on the Red River. The algal blooms on Lake Winnipeg can be seen from space. It wasn’t until we paddled off Lake Winnipeg that we came to truly clean water. The kind I knew from my time in the Boundary Waters.

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Paddling to the Hudson Bay showed me how deeply intertwined land and water are. What we do on land greatly impacts the water. Water quality usually does not collapse overnight; it degrades slowly, the result of small compromises and seemingly harmless encroachments of industry and development sprinkled across the watershed.

Today, I have paddled over 7,000 miles in a canoe across North America’s lakes, rivers, streams, and even sanitary canals. I have dipped my cup into Arctic rivers to drink from their clear blue waters, and I have had to fill large water jugs that would hopefully last until the next resupply.

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From the vantage point of a canoe, I have seen how entire water systems can become degraded. I have also seen how they can be preserved and kept clean for all to enjoy. The Boundary Waters continues to be the foundation of my career, my identity, and most of my life-long friendships. There are many stories like mine, of budding adventurers getting their paddle wet in the BWCA. There are as many arguments to protect its wilderness as there are people who have visited the seemingly endless string of lakes. Through these stories we can see the transformative effect of the BWCA on the human spirit. But the BWCA is not there solely for human conquest or enjoyment. In it, we can see more than a moose drinking from the lake or a black bear traversing the shoreline. When we paddle with the water, we bear witness to the backbone of all life; a delicate web of fragile relationships and complex interconnections in nature that require balance and great care.

Natalie Warren
A lifelong paddler and river lover, Natalie Warren has canoed the length of the Mississippi River and won first place in the Yukon River Quest in the women’s voyageur division. She is currently a PhD student in the Communication Studies department at the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis with her husband, daughter, and dog.

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