A summer in the woods means a lifetime of memories for Lakeville man
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Three men start in the forests of Alberta, Canada, and emerge three months and 1,900 miles later on the shores of Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba.
In May, Lakeville native Jake Bendel, a senior at the University of Minnesota, joined two friends – Ryan Ritter of Owatonna and Adam Maxwell of Crystal Lake, Ill. – for exactly that expansive of an adventure. They tackled rainy days, whitewater rapids and black bear encounters to reach their goal.
“There was some amazing scenery,” Bendel said.
It all started for him when he heard of Maxwell’s similar adventure in 2011.
“I was hearing about this trip all last summer,” said Bendel, a materials science and engineering major. “I was like ‘I’d love to do something like that.’ ”
Bendel had experience with the outdoors. He had worked at Voyageur Canoe Outfitters in the Boundary Waters, where he had begun canoeing at 13 years old.
The longest trip was a week long until he, Maxwell and Ritter embarked across Canada.
When I spoke with him, Bendel discussed the huge undertaking with the kind of engaged nonchalance that only accomplished explorers can exhibit.
But it was indeed a big deal, a journey without much contact with other people, no cell phones, no Internet and no movies or TV shows for most of the 85 nights.
The sounds of wind through the trees, the flow of the water and the calls of birds were the most prominent soundtrack.
Of those nights, Bendel said 81 were spent in ad hoc camping situations after days in which animals were more prominent than people.
“I definitely like being in the woods,” he said.
There were a couple nights of reprieve, though.
“We ended up meeting people a couple of the nights and staying at their houses,” Bendel said.
Each man had his own boat (specifically, Bendel had a kayak). Their paddling covered the Athabasca, LaBiche, Beaver and Churchill rivers across three large provinces of western Canada.
About all of that wildlife, Bendel said the variety was impressive.
In Alberta, they saw big-horned sheep, mountain goats and elk. Along the way the three men encountered “about 40-some moose and 30-some black bears,” Bendel said.
During the last few miles of their journey, seals, beluga whales and polar bears welcomed them.
The whales were a highlight, Bendel said. The 16-foot-long, ivory-shaded mammals would swim around the men as they paddled their canoes and kayak in the vicinity of the Hudson Bay.
“They definitely like boats,” Bendel said. “A dozen would follow you and rub up against your boat.”
Preparations for the trip began in October 2011. Over the course of the subsequent months, the three men planned a route and assessed supply needs.
They scanned and printed maps at the University of Minnesota.
“It cost $60 to scan and copy (at the U of M), whereas it would have cost $1,000 to buy a set of maps,” Bendel said.
Segments of their route were well-known and well-documented in some circles, but other segments required more research and careful planning, he said.
Maxwell’s experience with these types of trips came in handy, especially when it came to knowing what and how much to bring with them.
“Especially with food,” Bendel said. They did not actually bring much. “We ended up getting a lot of our own food.”
Maxwell gathered a sizeable amount of wild rice and apples. Bendel and Ritter were hunters, so they added venison to their subsistence.
They wanted to do the entire trip on the cheap. Maxwell’s 2011 trip, from Grand Portage, Minn., to York Factory, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay, required some flying, which was too expensive.
So to get to Alberta they sought multiple forms of transportation. They drove from Duluth to Winnipeg, Manitoba. They left their car with friends and hopped a train to Jasper, Alberta, from where they would begin their adventure.
Once they reached Churchill in August, they were able to take a train back to Winnipeg.
Despite encountering scores of wild animals, Bendel said the trip was largely a peaceful three months.
There were some challenges, though. In a couple instances, the men encountered three straight days of rain. They paddled, ate and slept through a downpour.
“Everything’s wet,” Bendel said. “You can’t do anything about it. It kind of sucks, but it’s definitely worth it.”
The water would get aggressive at points. Unfortunately, there were no portage trails. In the Boundary Waters, there are often well-worn paths on which adventurers can carry a canoe on land to avoid prohibitive waters.
But in these parts of Canada such things don’t exist.
“You definitely are out in the woods now,” Bendel said. “It makes you think about how you to get down the rapids.”
He was “90 percent confident” he could make it, but taking on rapids has its risks.
“If you don’t make it, you lose your boat,” he said.
Traversing the sparsely-populated Canadian frontier without the modern electronic appendages we take for granted seems risky, but the men had plans. They had a device that used GPS to tell others where they were (though it did not tell the men where they were.) The devices transmitted this data to a website so interested people could follow the journey in real-time.
The personal locator beacon was a “last-ditch” option. If they were profoundly lost and in trouble, the device would alert authorities to the whereabouts of Bendel, Ritter and Maxwell.
Bendel said he would “definitely” do another extended outdoors trip.
“A couple years ago I didn’t think I’d ever be on something like this,” he said, “but then you meet the right people and you really want to do it.”