A pair of German tourists got more than they bargained for when they flew to Winnipeg and bought a canoe to paddle 380 miles on the Hayes River to Hudson Bay. The route Wolf Wagner, 25, and John Hoentsch, 26, chose is a Canadian classic, a principal artery of the fur trade now considered a canoe-tripping right of passage.
It’s a long trip through isolated wilderness typically undertaken by experienced paddlers in tough tripping canoes. Wagner and Hoentsch had little experience, and the canoe they chose was manifestly unsuited to the task — a thin-walled fiberglass model with a full keel and sponsons designed to keep clueless tourists upright on calm lakes. The boys bought it for a song on the Canadian equivalent of Craigslist.
The craft lasted just 11 days on the Hayes, meeting its end July 30 on the Nunatonowago Rapids. Canoe trippers usually portage this section, but Wagner and Hoentsch didn’t find a trail.
“We arrived at the Nunatonowago Rapids and it is very wide with steep shorelines with no possibility to portage or line it,” Wagner said. They decided to run right through the center, and went aground on a series of rocky ledges.
“One of us took a seat in the boat and the other pushed it forward, again and again, as we then hit another three or four stone ledges,” he said. The abuse tore a grapefruit-sized chunk from the keel. The canoe swerved sideways and pinned.
“I had to dive under the canoe to free it when it was entirely submerged and each of us grabbed one end of the boat and swam to the riverside,” Wagner says. “All our stuff bobbed on the surface connected by a rope.”
Their adventure had suddenly become a survival test, and their lives could very well depend on their next move. Should they wait for help or try to walk out? They decided to sleep on the question.
“In a case like this, it is very important to keep cool. Our credo was ‘keep cool, keep your head, and use your head.’ So we built up our energy, dried our paper navigation maps and clothes, and went to bed,” Wagner said.
The next morning brought their decision. They would walk.
It was 115 kilometers (71 miles) overland to Gillam, Manitoba. They had no satellite phone, PLB, Spot, or cell phone service. They estimated it would take four to five days, covering between 15 and 20 kilometers (9 to 12 miles) daily. They didn’t realize how slow their progress would be due to the boggy terrain. Much of it was muskeg, an uncertain mix of water and rotting vegetation covered by a layer of sphagnum and other mosses.
They left a note on their broken canoe explaining what had happened to them and where they were headed, and began to walk.
They covered six kilometers (3.2 miles) in eight hours that first day, rarely talking to conserve energy, wondering if they’d ever reach the road. That evening they wrote more notes, to family and girlfriends, in case their bodies were ever found.
Three weeks after they abandoned the canoe, Scott Robertson found the boat and their note.
“When I first saw their canoe, this Mickey Mouse, ratshit canoe, I found it hard to believe anyone would be foolish enough to take that route with such poor equipment,” Robertson, an experienced river-runner from La Ronge, Saskatchewan, told the CBC.
“It was hard to wrap your head around what we were seeing. The keel wasn’t even solid, so as you ground off one-eighth of an inch of fiberglass, your boat is now leaking over its full 17-foot length. It appeared they attempted to seal the leaks with spruce gum. Whoever sold those boys that canoe should be locked up,” said Robertson. He and his paddling partner spent the rest of their trip wondering whether the Germans had survived.
For their part, Wagner and Hoensch just kept slogging, following a compass bearing north-northwest, aiming for the 15-mile stretch of blacktop connecting Gillam with the settlement of Long Spruce, Manitoba.
They had wisely taken their lifejackets, as they had to swim across a half-dozen or so rivers each day. They wore backpacks too. Their rain jackets, boots, gloves, mosquito spray, GPS, paddle, tarp, and Biolite Camp Stove were invaluable. It was often hot and they had to wear more clothing than was comfortable to buffer the bugs. At night, it was often cold. They awoke to frost twice and because their boots were always wet, they were frozen those two mornings.
“We were breathless each day. Only during the breaks did we have the breath to talk, but then we always said to each other, ‘We will make it,’” Wagner says.
Each day’s menu was the same: two pieces of bread with chocolate spread for breakfast, the same for lunch, and a can of soup for dinner. The closer they came to the highway, the more a new fear arose.
“Nobody was talking about it, but it was always clear that neither of us should suffer an injury. That was the only thing that could stop us.”
They didn’t even stop for fresh fruit or fish.
“We saw some tiny strawberries, but we had no time and no need to collect them. I had some hooks and a fishing line with me, but John doesn’t like fish and fortunately we calculated well and had enough food with us.”
On the eleventh day, they stopped and said, “’Listen, is that a car?’ We were so happy, but it was still 20 minutes till we reached the road.”
They had talked about busting out of the bush with the first car screeching to a stop and speeding them to pizza, a shower, and a bed. However, the first five cars sped past the scruffy pair.
“It was hard and especially because we made so many good experiences with the people in Manitoba and their northern hospitality,” Wagner said. “I always told John that there would be no problem hitchhiking to Gillam because the first car will stop and pick us up, but I can also understand the people passing by. They saw two, big, bug-bitten guys with life jackets and a paddle, walking along the road in the middle of nowhere.”
The sixth car stopped, and dropped the friends in town where they quickly downed two large pizzas. The local bartender poured them free beer and liquor. They checked into the hotel for showers and a long night of sleep. Cleaned up, they looked as they had looked at the start of their journey, albeit 20 pounds thinner, but they weren’t the same.
“We both now know that we can reach our goals in a hopeless situation. This makes us feel much more independent,” Wagner said.
Robertson and his paddling partner reached Hudson Bay a few days later, and immediately reported the canoe and note they had found. To their great relief, the Mounties told them the boys were safe.
They had no business attempting such a trip in that canoe, and without the requisite experience and preparation. But they had map, compass and GPS, and they knew how to use them. More than that they had the toughness and presence of mind to survive.
“They get a feather in their cap for surviving because to walk 11 days through muskeg is no small feat,” Robertson said.
In short, if you venture into the Canadian bush with the wrong canoe, you had better have the right stuff.
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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