In May 1999, newlyweds Julie Buckles and Charly Ray of Washburn, Wis. launched their handcrafted red expedition canoe from Bayview beach into the cold blue Lake Superior water, beginning a 1,700-mile journey north to the subarctic. It was an adventure that tested them physically and mentally as they paddled and portaged their way to Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, where they set up residence for the winter — on a remote island. No running water. No electricity.
Their remarkable story is chronicled in Buckles’ first-person memoir, “Padding to Winter: A Couple’s Wilderness Journey from Lake Superior to the Canadian North,” published in September by Raven Productions Inc., in Ely, Minn. Crafting the 280-page memoir was a 10-year journey in itself that followed Buckles through earning a master’s degree, assembling a team of Siberian husky sledddogs and becoming a mother of two.
The book isn’t just a travelogue about getting from point A to point B, but a narrative in which she and Ray are the principal characters and how they related to each other and their families and friends provided as much drama as any dangerous weather.
“It was a remarkable way to start a marriage,” said Buckles. “In the years since, whenever we have gone through the rough parts that all marriages go through, we come back to this place of knowing how good we can be together, how much we can accomplish together and how much we have each other’s backs.”
Paddling Life sat down for an exclusive interview with this paddling professor…
Did you build the canoe yourself?
Yes. We named her Le Strubel because Charly’s family (the Strubels) gave us money for our wedding for the canoe. The Le is for the French voyageurs. We considered all our choices and decided on wood and canvas for aesthetics, history, and because it was a boat we could repair in the wilderness. We then found master boat builder Jerry Stelmok and worked with him on building the E.M White guide boat and never regretted it. We just took that canoe in August to the Churchill River. Everyone wants to know how much she weighs. Charly’s stock answer is 80 pounds when she’s dry.
What initially inspired the journey?
When I first started dating Charly, we both lived in Washington D.C. For our first date, he took me paddling on the Potomac River. He’s a canoe guy, you see. He had gone on several expeditions in his youth from Wollaston Lake north. When I went to his house, I noticed a map hanging on the wall with a highlighted line that went from Lake Superior to Wollaston Lake. He wanted to paddle what he had always driven. Of course, he expected to go with his childhood friends, the ones he had taken on his last expedition but they all had gotten married, gotten jobs or just weren’t interested. After a few years together, I said, “hey, why don’t we go?” He couldn’t believe it. He spent six months grilling me until finally he believed that yes, I would really go. I guess when you fall in love, you want to experience that thing that the other person loves so much. For Charly it is the wilderness.
Is this your first book?
Yes. I’ve been a reporter for twenty years and a freelance writer but this is my first major project. I didn’t go on the trip expecting to write about it. In fact, I deliberately intended to not write about it so I could just take in the experience without trying to distill the moment into words before I was even done experiencing it. To be in the moment. It’s something that’s hard to do when you’re a journalist—I still write leads in my head while I’m still in the mist of chaos—so I had to work at it and after a while I could turn my reporter self off. I poured all my writing energy in to writing letters—anyone remember those?—and writing in a journal, which was great for later when I decided to write the book.
I started graduate school — an MFA in Creative Writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles — after I returned. I wrote an essay or two about the trip and faculty and students had so many questions and there was so much interest that I wrote more essays and soon I had the chapters and the chapters started to shape the book. By the time I was done with graduate school I had it half done and just kept going. In all I probably spent about two years writing it and another year revising.
What would you do differently next time?
With the trip, nothing — except pack less food. Charly was so well schooled in deep wilderness travel that we had packed every bit of food, but when you travel the old Voyageur route, you’re passing through towns. There’s food and even occasional restaurants! It was also an El Nino summer so really warm and we didn’t have much appetite so we ended up giving food away when we could.
With the book, if I were starting over, I would organize better. I found myself scrambling for the same information a few times over because I would toss a letter back in a box of letters and my editor would ask if so-and-so had really said such-and-such and I’d have to go back and search for that dang letter. And I didn’t seem to learn because I would throw it back in the box again after I looked it up.
I am already working on a book about my life with sled dogs. We never really did settle back in a normal life after the expedition because shortly after our return we got a team of Siberian huskies — and we returned to Wollaston for a four-week winter camping excursion. We still have a team of ten. I’m writing about how sled dogs are great preparation for having children. They are chaos and noise and whole lot of fun. And each dog has his or her own unique personality and role on the team. After a few years with dogs, when kids came, we barely broke our stride.
Julie Buckles teaches journalism, film, and writing at Northland College in Ashland, Wis. She earned her bachelor of arts degree from UW-Madison, and a MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles. She is a regular contributor to “Lake Superior Magazine,” Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life, “ and blogs regularly about her life at www.juliebuckles.com