Former Grand Forks woman Madison Eklund completes solo kayak trek to York Factory on Hudson Bay
“Nobody has done it solo that I’m aware of – male or female,” Eklund said. “So I’m the first one. And as far as kayaks go, I don’t think anybody’s done it in a kayak.”
GRAND FORKS – There were plenty of dicey moments – floods, storms, tornado watches, heat, isolation and rough water among them – but Madison Eklund in late August completed a 1,600-plus-mile kayak trek from the Twin Cities to York Factory, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay.
In the process, the former Grand Forks woman became the first person – male or female – to complete the expedition alone. Paddling through the mouth of the Hayes River – a river that required navigating or portaging 45 sets of rapids – into Hudson Bay late Aug. 25 culminated a dream that was years in the planning, Eklund says.
“Nobody has done it solo that I’m aware of – male or female,” Eklund said Wednesday in a virtual chat from her home in Rosamond, Calif. “So I’m the first one. And as far as kayaks go, I don’t think anybody’s done it in a kayak.”
Eklund, who grew up in upstate New York, lived in Grand Forks from 2018 until late August, when her husband, Ryan, transferred from Grand Forks Air Force Base to Edwards Force Base in California.
Hiking, fishing, ice climbing and kayaking were a way of life growing up, she says, and paddling to Hudson Bay was a way to stay connected with the outdoors.
Upon learning of the route from the Twin Cities to Hudson Bay, Eklund connected with Natalie Warren, who with Ann Raiho paddled a canoe from Fort Snelling to York Factory during 85 days in 2011. They were the first women to complete the trek made famous by Walter Port and North Dakota native Eric Sevareid, who documented the journey in his 1935 book, “Canoeing with the Cree.”
Warren in 2021 published “Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic,” a book about their journey.
“We talked a whole lot about the trip,” Eklund said, recalling her meeting with Warren. “We talked about the challenges that they faced along the way. I bought her book, I read it, and I read all the other books I could connect with.”
Originally scheduled for 2020, Eklund’s kayak trip was delayed by the pandemic and the resulting closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel. Further delayed by spring flooding, she finally launched May 7 at Fort Snelling near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.
She financed the trip through personal savings and a couple of small grants.
Before the trip, Eklund had arranged to collect water samples along the U.S. portion of the Red River for the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.
Test results are pending, Eklund says.
“It was really cool getting to talk with people about it and getting to raise awareness about our water quality,” she said. “I had a lot of good conversations about water quality and environmental conservation.”
Flooding and bad weather presented challenges from the get-go, Eklund says. Paddling upstream on the Minnesota River before reaching the Red River Basin, she lost two weeks to flooding, staying with a family in Le Sueur, Minn., before she could resume the trip.
Then came the mud and the monotony of the Red River, and its countless twists and turns. She was able to connect with another group of paddlers for part of her time on Lake Winnipeg, but there were some scary moments on the big lake, which is known for its treacherous waves.
Navigating Lake Winnipeg took from July 17 to Aug. 4, Eklund says, only to be grounded yet again by a massive thunderstorm.
She spent the next three weeks kayaking wilderness lakes and rivers such as the Nelson, Echimamish – Cree for “river that flows both ways” – and Hayes, navigating dozens of rapids that have been the downfall of many paddlers.
Despite minimal whitewater experience, Eklund says most of the portages were obvious.
“Once I got there, honestly, it really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was,” she said. “ I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh yeah, I can just jump right into this – I don’t have to plan,’ but it really wasn’t as bad as I thought they were going to be. Most of them had a very logical spot where there was a portage.”
In planning the trip, Eklund had arranged for food and other supplies to be shipped to several locations along the way. She carried a Garmin InReach satellite communicator, which also functions as a GPS unit, allowing her to keep in touch with family by text messaging daily updates when she was out of cellphone range. While she did meet and spend time with families in remote communities such as Norway House and Oxford House, the isolation was perhaps the most difficult part of the trip, Eklund says.
“I’m really good with the wilderness, that was easy for me,” she said. “My biggest struggle, really, was the solitude.”
The people she met were a highlight, Eklund says.
“The people are what make the trip,” she said. “You learn so much more about the local area, the history and the environmental impacts that are different to each little community along the way. And you don’t have that context if you always stay on the river and never talk to anybody.”
Eklund’s father, Dave Williams, said that while he and his wife, Beth, were excited for their daughter to make the trip, they were glad to receive daily updates.
“She’s always been an adventurous spirit, and she’s been raised in the outdoors and doing things out in the woods,” said Williams, a retired police officer in upstate New York who now lives in Florida. “Of course, her mother was probably more concerned about her being alone in the woods and on the trip.
“I’m glad she’s home – let’s put it that way.”
Williams says he would have preferred his daughter carry a shotgun for protection against black bears and – farther north – polar bears, but that wasn't an option.
He did, however, convince her to carry a flare gun.
“I said, you can use that if need be for self-defense although it's not really designed for that, but polar bears and rapists equally hate hot phosphorus in their face,” Williams said.
Eklund’s arrival at York Factory, a former Hudson Bay Company post and now a national historic site, wasn’t quite as emotional as she had expected it to be, she says, considering all she’d endured and experienced to get there.
“I thought it was going to be, and I’d been thinking this whole time, even long before I started my trip, I was like, ‘I’m going to cry when I get to York Factory,’” Eklund said. “I don’t know if it was because I was feeling rushed or what it was, but it was right before sunset, and as soon as I landed, I was like, ‘Well, this is it.’
“I didn’t really have time to be emotional about it.”
Getting home also was an adventure, Eklund says. The boat that was supposed to pick her up at York Factory had to cancel because of a mixup, and she ended up chartering a private helicopter to fly her to Gillam, Manitoba, where she took a train to Thompson, Manitoba.
She saw her only polar bear of the trip during the helicopter ride, and saw neither wolves nor caribou while paddling.
“It was really quiet as far as animals go, which is not a bad thing,” she said.
There were further mix-ups before she got to Winnipeg, and Eklund ended up having to hire a cargo company to ship her kayak back home.
She returned to Grand Forks on Aug. 30, just in time for the move to California.
“The moving truck had already packed up all of our stuff and was waiting at the house for me to get there with the kayak so I could put the kayak on the truck to come out to California,” she said. “I literally got home, got to sleep in my bed one night, the next morning they came in, broke our furniture down, packed everything on the truck and we spent about six days moving across the country and now we’re kind of getting settled in out here in California.”
While the trip was an adventure of a lifetime, Eklund said once is probably enough.
“I did really enjoy the whole trip,” she said. “I think it was an awesome experience to have, but I have so many other trips I want to do that I don’t think I would dedicate another four months of my life to doing this one again.”
For more on Eklund’s journey, check out her Facebook page at @expeditionalpine or on Instagram at http://www.instagram.com/expedition-alpine .