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Author recounts journey to Hudson Bay

By Staff | Oct 25, 2008

From left: are Rich Wiebke, Dennis Weidemann, Hank Kohler and Keith Kohler in front of the Great House at York Factory on Hudson Bay. (Keith is 6-foot 9-inches and played basketball for Morningside.) Photo submitted

When he was a little boy, Hank Kohler of Remsen was fishing with his father on the Red River in Minnesota.

“Do you know where this river goes?” his father asked.

“To the Mississippi and then the Gulf of Mexico,” Little Hank said.

“No,” his father said. “It goes to Hudson Bay. In Canada.”

Little Hank looked past his line and the bobber to the river flowing away into the distance, his imagination going with it.

Years later, when he was managing a pizza parlor in Ames in 1979, he mentioned to an employee and friend, Dennis Weidemann, that he had always wanted to canoe the Red all the way from Minnesota to Hudson Bay.

“So when should we do it?” Dennis said.

Hank rolled his eyes at the thought. “I don’t know. How about this spring.”

Totally unaware of the trip they were about to embark upon, Kohler and his brother, Keith and their friend Rich Wiebke, along with Weidemann, set out on a 1,400-mile voyage.

Putting in at the Otter Tail River near Fergus Falls, Minn., they hit the Red River which they took all the way to Lake Winnipeg, a lake 60 by 300 miles in Manitoba, Canada. After canoeing Winnipeg they hit the outlet, the Nelson River. At one point they portaged for two days to the Hayes River watershed and then put into the Hayes and ended up at Hudson Bay, 100 miles from Churchill.

Weidemann recounts the trip in his book, This Water Goes North. He’ll be signing the book 10-11 a.m. Wednesday at Cool Beans Coffee House in downtown Estherville.

It was high water late spring 1979 when they set out on the Red which spread out a couple miles on the flat bottomlands. Over the next three weeks, black bear and moose watched them along the way.

“We had a Wrist Rocket sling shot,” Weidemann said. “That’s all we had. We were really, really inexperienced. We had just your basic weekender gear. We didn’t know what we were doing and it got us into some close calls more than once.”

Just three days into the trip, they were below a dam on the Red River. A tree had fallen across the river and their canoe hit it broadside, driving them underneath the roots. Then, as the canoe filled with water, it gained enough weight to break through the tree roots.

At Winnipeg, they followed the eastern shore. The water was so cold that if they had capsized they would have lasted no longer than 15 minutes.

One of the highlights of the trip, at least for the Kohler brothers and Wiebke, was when they saw a polar bear near the old great house at York Factory, a former Hudson Bay Company trading post that finally closed in 1957.

A floatplane came in and picked up the adventurers and their canoes and flew them to Dodge Lake. A supply plane took them from there to Winnipeg where one of the fathers of the other young men came to get them.

“We met a lot of wonderful people along the river here,” said Weidemann.

You can also order the book by calling 1-800-888-4741 or at www.ipgbook.com.