31 days and 1,000 miles: A canoe journey of a lifetime

Canoe

Provided photo: This story appeared in the Aug. 22, 2012, edition of the Faribault Daily News.

  • This piece won first place feature story (dailies under 20,000) at the 2012 AP Sports Awards.

By JOSH BERHOW

Fifty-four miles south of the Hudson Bay, the Gods and Hayes rivers intersect amid vast expanses of trees and wilderness.

Off the shoreline rests a man-made rock pile which gives way to a narrow trail into the forest. Down the path, peaks of giant trees scrape the clouds, thickly crowding the northern Manitoba countryside.

Further up the trail at its crest, a cluster of smaller spruce trees surround a 200-pound granite stone. Smaller rocks outline it, and flanked to the side sits an ammunition box containing a notebook, a magazine article and a letter from a man’s mother.

Keith Holmquist took his time before he grabbed the notebook, walked back to the shore and sat down on the rocky beach. There he sat under the shining sun for a couple of hours on the afternoon of July 1, carefully reading the entries scribbled in a notebook dedicated to his nephew.

It took Holmquist and his brother-in-law, Ken Hubert, 30 days to canoe roughly 1,000 miles to the memorial site honoring Holmquist’s nephew, who passed away in June 2000. On the 31st day they reached the Hudson Bay to cap their trip through rivers, lakes and often-challenging weather.

“It was a journey beyond anything I have ever done,” Hubert said.

*****

Sam Keaveny, Holmquist’s nephew, was an outdoorsman.

He was heavily involved in the Les Voyageurs program based in Sartell, which provides young adults wilderness adventures into Canada.

In 2000, Keaveny was preparing to help lead a group up a river in northern Manitoba when an eyelet came loose. Keaveny playfully put it in his mouth and used it to start whistling, but by accident inhaled the piece and it got into his lungs. He decided to go to the hospital and have it aspirated, which should have been a simple procedure.

But before the doctors could remove it, Keaveny went into cardiac arrest and passed away. The autopsy revealed cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. He was 22.

The Les Voyageurs group that was headed north canceled the trip and schedule a new one a month later. They flew into Oxford House, Manitoba, and then canoed for about five days before they reached a location where they set up Keaveny’s granite memorial.

Because of its location — it was picked since several Les Voyageurs groups go by it every year — many of Keaveny’s family members have yet to visit it. Holmquist, who lives in Winona, wanted to make his way there someday, too, but hadn’t been in a canoe more than a dozen times. So at Easter dinner a few years ago he asked Hubert, who is an experienced canoeist, if he was interested in making the trip with him.

“He asked me and I didn’t hesitate,” said Hubert, the Faribault High School athletics director.

Getting the project in motion, Hubert supplied Holmquist with “Canoeing with the Cree” by Eric Severeid and “Distant Fires” by Scott Anderson, books about voyages similar to the one they would be making. But their hectic schedules initially put the trip on hold, and it wasn’t until last fall when Holmquist bought a canoe and they decided to start making plans. Hubert, who has tried to make it to the boundary waters at least twice a year since the 1970s, had all the canoeing and camping supplies they needed, but even he hadn’t set out on a trip as daunting as the one planned.

“I didn’t do this for any great self-reflection or anything,” Hubert said. “It just sounded like a great trip. As a canoeist it’s one of those trips you know about and it was an opportunity you didn’t want to pass up.”

*****

Hubert and Holmquist began their journey on June 2 from Crookston — Holmquist’s hometown — and estimated they had 34 days and just more than 1,000 miles to reach the memorial before finishing their trip by reaching the York Factory trading post building on the shore of the Hudson Bay.

Every day of the voyage started to duplicate the last. Start out around 8 a.m., a 30-minute lunch around noon, an hour dinner break around 6 p.m. and setting up camp around 9 p.m. Camping sites were hit or miss. Sometimes the best opportunity for sleep was a flat rock that at the very least would momentarily hide them from the mosquitoes.

They paddled for 30 of the 31 days. The only day off — although not scheduled — was when the weather made Lake Winnipeg too treacherous to cross. Instead a man Hubert and Holmquist found in town drove them 80 miles up their route with their canoe in the bed of his pick-up truck. When he dropped them off the bottom of the canoe was covered in an inch of hail.

“Some days were beautiful with blue skies and other days we had to hunker down and wait out storms,” Holmquist said. “We were blessed in that we made good decisions.”

There were times when Hubert and Holmquist went five or six days without seeing another person — better than seeing polar bears, they thought — and they lived off oatmeal, sandwiches, noodles and fish. (Despite their plan to consume roughly 3,000 calories a day Hubert lost about 10-15 pounds on the trip).

They communicated with their families with a spot satellite messenger they bought before they left. They pushed a button on the device that sent their GPS coordinates via email and text message to people back home.

*****

At about 1:30 p.m. on July 1 they reached the memorial site, but the ammunition box and the items it held were a surprise to both of them.

Holmquist paged through the notebook, copying down certain messages written by others that he would relay to his sister and brother-in-law. He wrote inside the notebook himself and was pleasantly surprised to find out that others who happened to stumble upon it wrote messages as well, unaware of who his nephew was but sincere nonetheless.

“When we got to the memorial it really did define that trip,” Hubert said. “It had been hard work and long days.”

Holmquist and Hubert built their second camp fire of the trip that night and left the next morning for York Factory. The next day a plane picked them up to begin their route home, this time by plane and car. The trip’s highlight, though, was a lone granite stone ensconced by spruce trees.

“That was definitely the exclamation point for me,” Holmquist said. “Meeting the people along the way and of course the beauty, but for me the motivation for this trip was to get to that site. That was a great day.”

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