Lutherans in Minnesota

A journey within and without

Brothers navigate a canoe from southern Minnesota to the Hudson Bay

For brothers Matthew and David Seiffert of St. Anthony, Minnesota, the
summer of 2008 was an unforgettable one — so much so that Matthew is
writing a book about it.

In the 66 days between June 2 and August 6, the pair paddled a canoe more
than 2,000 miles from the Minnesota River at St. Peter to the southwest shore
of Hudson Bay. Their journey was similar to that made famous by journalist
Eric Sevareid and retold in his classic adventure tale Canoeing with the Cree.
Sevareid chronicled the trip he and a friend made by canoe from Fort Snelling
to Hudson Bay in 1930 when he was just 17.

Matt Seiffert, 22, got the idea for the trip in the fall of 2007 during his senior
year at Gustavus Adolphus College. He had worked as a guide for canoe trips
at the Lutheran-affiliated Wilderness Canoe Base in northeastern Minnesota
but was unaware at the time of the Sevareid book. Both he and David, 21,
later read it.

The older brother mapped out an itinerary over rivers, lakes, and streams
with the goal of having no portages of more than a mile. The plan originally
called for his college roommate to accompany him, but when the project
reached the detailed planning stage, the roommate backed out.

Matt had figured that the summer of 2008, following his graduation from
Gustavus, was the one time he would be free of any serious obligations and
could make the trip. He had become so “invested” in the idea, he said, that he
had to find a replacement companion.
The search eventually turned to brother David, a junior at Luther College, who
was coming off a semester of study in Madagascar. David, who said he had
come down with every possible illness except malaria in the African country,
resisted his brother’s invitation for quite a while before agreeing in February
to join him.

David and Matt had previously teamed up on kayaking trips in Minnesota, but
none that lasted more than three days.

At 6:30 a.m. on the morning of June 2, the day after Matt’s graduation from
Gustavus, the brothers slid their 18-foot-long, 70-pound canoe, made of
plastic material and loaded with only the most basic provisions, into the
waters of the Minnesota River at St. Peter. The stretch on the Minnesota,
northward to the Ortonville area, was the one part of the journey when the
brothers would be paddling against the current, and they soon found out how
difficult that could be, especially in a spring marked by heavy rains.

“This is a lot different than paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area or
the kayak trips we did,” Matt told a reporter for the New Ulm Journal. “It’s
pretty tough. Sometimes it’s all we can do to stand still against the current.”

But there were lighter moments to ease the strain, as there would be
throughout most of the journey.
The brothers hit Montevideo, Minnesota, during that city’s annual Fiesta Days
observance, and they were accorded celebrity treatment. Matt spoke briefly to
a crowd gathered for canoe races, and a collection was taken to aid them on
their journey, which would eventually cost them about $5,000.

After making the portage from the headwaters of the Minnesota to one of the
sources of the Red River on Lake Traverse at Browns Valley, Minnesota, the
Seiffert brothers traveled downstream, and were able to pick up speed and
cover greater distances each day.
At one point midway between Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota, they
chalked up 77 miles in one 24-hour period — far above the 20-25 miles a
day they figured they would need to average in order to complete their
expedition in time for David to get back to Luther for the start of fall classes.

With the current flowing their way, the brothers didn’t have to worry about
losing ground if they paused to scratch their noses, their father, ELCA pastor
Steve Seiffert remarked wryly in an entry in a blog kept during his sons’
journey.

During the entire two-week stretch on the Red River, Matt and David did not
have to pitch their tent on shore once. This was the result partly of their
deciding sometimes to paddle straight through the night. It was also partly
because they were able to stay overnight with relatives or friends and partly
because of the hospitality of strangers along the way.

When the brothers asked people with property along the river if they could
pitch their tent there, they often were invited in for a hot shower, a bed for
the night, and sometimes a warm meal. In one case the host couple invited
the canoeists to accompany them to a pool party.

“I expected to meet some nice people along the way,” said David, “but I didn’t
think there’d be that many that would be that nice.”

Sleeping one at a time on the floor of the canoe at night while the other
paddled was actually fairly comfortable, Matt said. If they slept in a tent they
had to contend with the fact that David, at 6’ 9”, could only fit in diagonally,
leaving little space for his brother. Moreover, the banks of the Red River were
very muddy and not conducive to setting up camp.

After reaching Winnipeg, Manitoba, around the 4th of July, the brothers took
several days off to rest. Their parents came up to visit them and provided
them with a motel room and some solid meals. When Matt and David finally
launched out on Lake Winnipeg, the third major leg of their journey, they
found it to be the most difficult part, David said.
The lake is big (the eleventh largest in the world), the paddling is difficult,
and canoeists are very much at the mercy of the weather, David pointed out.
It rained during some part of 11 of the 14 days the brothers were on the lake,
and on some days the wind and waves made conditions so dangerous they
stayed on the shore.

The brothers told of a storm they encountered while stalled on a beach as
they moved up the east side of Lake Winnipeg. At least one wave washed over
a small island a short distance from them and then rolled in and drenched
them even though they had beached their canoe farther from the water than
usual.

After finally leaving Lake Winnipeg at its north end, the Seiffert brothers
made their way to the Hayes River, the historic body of water that served as
the main route from Hudson Bay to the interior of western Canada for fur
traders, settlers, and explorers for two centuries.

At first they found the Hayes to be just a stream connecting some big lakes,
Matt said. But then the whitewater conditions associated with rapids and fast
currents appeared and, for a day or two, became intense. At that time the
brothers had to portage around the most dangerous sections or guide their
canoe from the shore with a rope.

The Hayes emerged from the whitewater areas with a fast current, and the
brothers were able to travel at speeds up to five or six mph as they sailed to
their final goal in the town of York Factory on Hudson Bay.

During the last stages of their trip, Matt and David were passing through a
wilderness, and it was then they had their only contact with a wild animal.
They had stopped at one of the hunter’s shacks along the way and were
playing cribbage when a small black bear got inside the outer of two doors
and started thumping around.

The brothers made sure the inner door was secure, grabbed their bear-spray
cans, and made a lot of noise. The bear eventually left.

In the conclusion to his book, Sevareid wrote, “It was as though we had
suddenly become men and were boys no longer.” Matt Seiffert does not like
to romanticize his and David’s expedition, but he does say it has changed
him. He believes he is a stronger, more self-confident person, largely
because once they started the journey there was no turning back, no matter
how difficult the circumstances. There was no alternative to persevering.
Their Christian faith was important during the trip, David said. “There was a
lot that could go wrong, and we trusted that God would protect us.”