As a Boy Scout in my native Minnesota, Augusts were spent paddling in the wilderness canoe area at the U.S.-Canada border west of Lake Superior -- a vast, watery expanse that fueled my imagination.
As an adult, I have continued this canoeing tradition with my family, and we have taken trips farther into Canada. But my lifelong fantasy -- formed long before I ever thought to become a scientist or dreamed of joining the faculty of Johns Hopkins -- had always been the trek to Hudson Bay, that subarctic region more familiar to polar bears than to most humans.
And last summer, I set out to fulfill that lifelong fantasy with family and friends by paddling the 240-mile Seal River to Hudson Bay. I had received the Nobel Prize in chemistry the previous December, for discovery of cellular water channels, and I was eager to escape from the endless series of events that have followed ever since.
Designated a Canadian Heritage River because of its scenic and historical importance, the Seal is the largest undeveloped river in northern Manitoba.
About 1,000 miles north of Minneapolis, the river is 200 miles from the nearest road and draws only a handful of visitors each year.
Known for numerous demanding whitewater rapids, the river begins in boreal forest, passes through a transition of heath and stunted, dead conifers -- known to the natives as the "Land of Little Sticks" -- and finally passes through barren tundra and huge boulder fields as it empties into its estuary on Hudson Bay near the town of Churchill.
For me, at age 55, this would be a canoe trip like no other.
Our crew included my daughter Claire, 24, and my son Clarke, 19. Also included were members of my generation, ranging in age from 45 to 59: my brother Mark, from St. Paul, Minn., my medical school roommate Vann Bennett, and friend and colleague Bob French. Despite the age range, we were all experienced wilderness canoeists and in excellent physical condition.
Our guides, Paul Gossen, a high school teacher, and Chris Pancoe, a graduate student, were from Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures, a small outfitting guide service in Winnipeg. Northern Soul's guides have expert wilderness skills, remarkable physical strength and delightful senses of humor. Their ability to see amusement and irony in bad weather or discomfort would turn out to be an invaluable asset.
The trip began at the airport in Winnipeg. We arrived with an assortment of gear -- packs containing 200-plus pounds of dried foodstuffs, and paddles and canoes to be loaded onto a propeller plane.
Unlike the tempo at U.S. airports, the Canadian airline employees were laid-back, and even delayed our takeoff 15 minutes while two passengers retrieved essential items accidentally left in their car.
At Thompson, Manitoba, a town that is literally the "end of the road," we changed to a smaller aircraft that brought us to the gravel airstrip at Tadoule Lake, a tiny village on an Indian reservation near the border with Nunavut, the territory to the north.
It was breezy at midday, and although it was August, snow was still on the ground. We should have taken this as a sign that along the way, the weather would not always be our friend.
The locals were members of the Dene First Nation -- also known as Chipewyan, meaning "people under the sun." Although they spoke their native language to each other, they chuckled when they saw Claire's footwear: "Sandals, here?"
These were the last humans we saw until the end of our journey.
We loaded our canoes at the lakefront and paddled off into the whitecaps, two per canoe. Chris and Vann were strongest and paddled an 18-foot canoe -- large enough to accommodate an extra pack of gear. The rest of us paddled 17-foot canoes that were surprisingly quicker and more maneuverable. Clarke and I paddled together. It was a treat, since this was the most time father and son had shared in months. We renewed a bond first developed on canoe and backpacking trips when Clarke was just 10 years old.
A determined pace
I have long had a fascination with water. Canoeing on rivers and lakes reminds me of the movement of fluids in the human body -- a subject that for years has been the focus of my research.
Although I have shared this interest with my family, Claire, a landscape architecture student at Harvard, and Clarke, an art student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, have not chosen to follow my career in science. But both share my enthusiasm for wilderness canoeing, and we were all excited about this trip.
To make Hudson Bay in the time we had -- 11 days -- we would have to paddle eight to 11 hours each day, regardless of the conditions.
With such a demanding schedule to keep, we pushed hard the first four days and covered 65 miles, heading northeast across large lakes -- Tadoule, Negassa and Shethanei -- joined by short runs of fairly tame rapids. The lake crossings were difficult because of strong winds and waves of up to 3 feet in height -- high enough to obscure the canoes from view, even when only a few yards apart.
Despite all that we know about global warming, last August was the coldest in Manitoba in 100 years. And despite years of camping, even during Minnesota winters, my cold hands and feet became a concern -- the possibilities of swamping the canoe and hypothermia were real.
Temperatures varied between 38 degrees Fahrenheit in the early morning to as high as 60 degrees during the warmest days. The wind was also a factor. On two particularly cold mornings, snowflakes were interspersed with sleet, an event so surprising that we laughed as we shivered.
Guides Paul and Chris provided "splash decks" that were lashed over the canoe tops with waist-level skirts surrounding each paddler's cockpit. These prevented the canoes from filling with water when waves crashed over the gunwales and provided warmth from the waist down.
We wore life preservers while on the water, and these provided additional warmth. Some days it was so cold that I didn't remove my ski hat even when sleeping.
Being in the wilderness meant we had to adapt. Fresh drinking water was drawn from midstream and filtered to remove micro-organisms. The incessant cold made bathing impractical. To reduce ecological impact, toilet waste was buried with a trowel, which we named "Excalibur," and tissues were burned.
Camping along the shoreline, we built fires, and hot meals were greatly appreciated. We consumed enormous quantities of food. Our breakfasts included porridge with raisins and brown sugar, and "cowboy coffee." This potent beverage is made by boiling large amounts of coffee in a bucket. The grounds are partially removed by centrifugally swinging the bucket at arm's length.
Dinners varied but were often pasta or rice dishes with freeze-dried ingredients and spices. We each burned up to 7,000 calories a day -- that's equivalent to a normal diet supplemented with nine Big Macs.
Our guides always served as chefs, but the rest of us gathered and cut firewood, set up and disassembled tents, loaded and unloaded canoes and participated in every duty. Vann and I volunteered for permanent dishwashing duty, an event made pleasant by putting our chilled hands into warm water.
Establishing a new campsite at day's end was always a relief from the cold wind and fatigue of paddling. After dinner, we would hike to higher ground to gain a view of the country. Later, we would sit around the fire, sharing jokes and stories. While our professional interests were varied -- science, medicine, education and the arts -- the conversations were often lighthearted.
Reaching the Seal
After four days of crossing lakes, we finally entered the current of the Seal River. Although we still had 170 miles to paddle, the tug of the current was pleasant reassurance that the strain of big-lake paddling was over.
Although most of the Seal is easy paddling, aided by a current that travels 1 to 2 mph, the river is famous for its long and stirring whitewater rapids.
Unlike some whitewater adventures in kayaks or inflatable rafts in the eastern United States, whitewater paddling in the wilderness with fully loaded canoes can be undertaken only with significant precautions. We all wore helmets, for example. And we carried a satellite phone for an emergency, although if trouble or injury occurred, there would be no easy exit.
The Seal has 42 major sets of rapids. Paul and Chris explained how to read them. Fast-moving currents with no threatening obstacles are designated as class I. When boulders and ledges can be seen from above, the rapids are class II. Rapids that are too steep and rough to be taken without scouting from the riverbanks are class III.
In the more difficult rapids, obstacles are often hard to see from upstream and seem to suddenly jump out from the river -- similar to the experience of driving in fog. Challenging rapids will often have a safer route of descent near one of the banks. Large standing waves in series -- "haystacks" -- in the center are often 6 feet high and can easily destroy a canoe.
A bald eagle perched on a dead pine tree at the top of our first set of rapids seemed to laugh at us as we made our way down the current.
Despite our initial anxieties, Paul and Chris encouraged us, and each day our skill level increased. Soon, we were able to handle every set of rapids that we encountered, feeling the joy of shooting through the whitewater like an alpine skier on a giant slalom run.
When crossing fast-flowing water, it is a cardinal sin to lean toward the upriver side of the canoe, because it guarantees the canoe will quickly fill with water if an underwater obstacle is struck. The only capsize of the trip was my mistake -- leaning upriver -- which overturned us 200 yards above a precarious set of rapids.
Despite his low-key nature, Paul immediately yelled for us to swim the 10 yards to shore, and he paddled his canoe to our overturned vessel and threw the coiled stern rope to Clarke, who quickly lashed the end to a tree.
In short order, the canoe was pulled to shore and emptied. Fortunately, it was a sunny, 60-degree day with only a light wind. Even so, the others started a fire, and we changed into dry clothes.
The natural topography of the forest in the western sections of our trip was periodically interrupted by large eskers -- piles of gravel up to 60 yards high that could extend for hundreds of miles. These represent the debris left from rivers flowing through glaciers during the last ice age.
The esker tops are barren and provide the pathways for the 400,000 caribou in the Kaminuriak herd that migrate from their summer residence in the Arctic to lower latitudes in October.
It was usually cloudy at night, but camping beside an esker one evening, I arose to see the most spectacular Northern Lights I had ever seen -- intense green colors that swept back and forth across the entire sky.
We also saw fascinating wildlife and vegetation, along with beautiful wildflowers, lichens and brightly colored berries. We often saw moose, tundra swans and snow geese. We sighted our first seal on the fifth day. Like others we encountered, this seal was curious about us and circled underwater to re-emerge and view us from different angles.
Single seals will swim upstream far from Hudson Bay to feed and raise their broods. Further downriver, we passed a shallow bend where dozens of seals were lounging on flat rocks protruding from the river. We could see several pups.
With the presence of seals comes the possibility of meeting their traditional predators -- polar bears. Although they are often depicted as fuzzy and adorable, polar bears can be lethal. These animals are the largest land-based carnivores. Males can weigh up to 1,400 pounds and stand 9 feet tall. During winter, the bears live on the bay ice and pick off and devour seals as they emerge from breathing holes in the ice.
The bears gain tremendous fat stores during the winter months. When the ice melts in late spring, they move to nearby low-lying shrubby areas. Despite the ability to swim distances of up to 50 miles, the bears cannot catch seals in open water, so the summer months are a long fast for them.
Sadly, one consequence of global warming is that Hudson Bay ice melts one month earlier than a generation ago. This has caused widespread malnourishment of the bears and reduced reproduction. If this trend continues, it is expected to cause the bears' extinction.
The marshy area near where the Seal River empties into Hudson Bay is the denning area for about 1,300 animals. Our final destination, Churchill, is known as the polar bear capital of the world.
When bears wander into town, they are tranquilized and held without food in "bear jail" until autumn, when they are released. The first year of this program, the bears were fed while in jail, so they returned the next summer expecting food.
The most difficult bears are tranquilized and released north of the Seal River, where our final days of paddling would be. I believe we all harbored conflicting feelings about the polar bears -- excitement for the possibility of actually seeing a bear in the wild, but respect for their well-known ferocity.
As a precaution, all toilet trips into the brush were made with loud vocalizations to avoid surprising any bears, and a crew member standing nearby, armed with a shotgun.
The river became increasingly wider -- often a half-mile across -- as we neared Hudson Bay, and the rapids contained larger obstacles.
By the ninth day, we had entered subarctic tundra with only low-lying shrubs and brush on the riverbanks. Our 10th day brought us to Deaf Rapids, technically the most demanding section of the river with severe standing waves midstream and many rocks and ledges near the banks.
We stopped above the rapids and walked along the banks, scouting for obstacles while making loud noises to scare away bears -- and toting the shotgun, just in case.
Now experienced whitewater paddlers, we all took the rapids without incident.
Finally, after 10 days and 240 miles, we paddled into the large estuary where the Seal enters Hudson Bay as the tide was going out. At low tide, the shore is covered with thick, gooey mud strewn with boulders.
We made our way to the north shore where a trapper's shack, on 4-foot-high stilts, was to be our final overnight stop in the wild. It was obvious that a bear had visited the hovel, because a large section of plywood had been broken off one side.
Inside was a primitive wood burner made from a 50-gallon drum with coffee cans stacked above to form a chimney. Pencil messages on one wall contained a message dated Aug. 21, 2003: "No bears observed."
That message was crossed out and below was written: "White bears arrived."
We saw no other evidence of polar bears, although washing dishes that evening in a rivulet a half-mile from the shack was eerie. Everyone slept lightly that night.
We all gulped the next morning when Chris noticed huge paw prints in the sand beside our canoes. Obviously a polar bear had visited our camp during the night but left us undisturbed.
This produced some dark humor: To survive a polar bear encounter, we decided, one need not run faster than the bear -- just faster than the other crew members.
Although Churchill is only 30 miles from the mouth of the Seal River, crossing the frigid open waters of the bay is regarded as treacherous and is strictly forbidden. Paul used the satellite phone to confirm a pickup from Churchill, and at 6 a.m. the next morning, a 20-foot boat was visible bobbing a mile offshore.
We paddled into the bay, and while this last segment of the trip was surprisingly difficult, all of us were able to pull alongside the open boat and lash our canoes onto the overhead rack.
The skipper looked like a character from a Jack London novel -- the wolf's fur from his parka beat against his face during the cold, two-hour crossing to Churchill, the largest settlement on Hudson Bay with about 900 inhabitants -- at least half being Dene or Cree Indians.
After hot showers and breakfast, we visited the Churchill Eskimo Museum and the Arctic Trading Co., a rustic trading post, where I bought a beautiful set of beaded Cree moccasins. That afternoon, we paddled into the estuary of the Churchill River where we were joined by dozens of beluga whales that appeared friendly and curious -- surfacing beside our canoes and releasing puffs from their blowholes.
They seemed to invite us to join them, but we were scheduled to return to Winnipeg that evening by train.
Although all of us were glad to return to the comforts of civilization, I believe that we also felt a touch of sadness to leave the wilderness. The excitement of shooting rapids, the sense of accomplishment from enduring the weather, the intrigue of camping in polar bear country and the joy of finally seeing Hudson Bay were all poignant. Perhaps more heartening was the love experienced from reconnecting with my children, my brother and my friends.
I expect to return to the Canadian north again, and I will look forward to it while I spend the coming months and years in lecture halls at universities and at scientific meetings around the world.
Thinking back on the Hudson Bay experience, I am reminded of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's words when he first reached the South Pole in 1911: It is great to be alive.
When you go
Getting there: A number of airlines offer connecting flights from BWI to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the wilderness canoe trip started. At press time, flights started at about $525.
Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures, 74 Gleneagles Road, Winnipeg
Small outfitting service whose guides have expert wilderness skills and whose philosophy is one of "sustainable tourism" and protecting the wilderness.
The cost of our 14-day trip was about $3,200 and covered everything except our flight to and from Winnipeg.
For more information about the Seal River and the Canadian Heritage Rivers, visit the Web sites www.gov .mb.ca / conservation / parks / regions / heritage_rivers.html and www.churchillwild.com /
-- Peter C. Agre