Peter C. Agre, you've just won a Nobel Prize. What are you going to do now? Go to Disney World? No way! Not when a whitewater canoeing adventure beckons ... To Hudson Bay

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June 26, 2005|By Peter C. Agre | Peter C. Agre,Special to the Sun

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.

Setting out

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.

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