‘Canoeing With The Cree’ Inspired Them; Now, They Hope To Inspire Other Young People

Tom Cherveny | Tribune April Smith (in bow) and Ally Sharbo (in stern) make a four-day paddle from Montevideo to North Redwood Falls on the Minnesota River their senior project in high school. They want to encourage more young people to explore the outdoors in Minnesota. They are shown downstream of Granite Falls on April 22, the second day of their adventure.

MONTEVIDEO – If you’re worried that young people are too busy or preoccupied with electronics to discover the outdoors, then you haven’t met April Smith and Ally Sharbo.

They just completed a four-day paddle down the Minnesota River. They survived a near tip over at Patterson’s Rapids, camped wilderness style along the way, and covered 70 miles, or almost twice as far as they expected to go.

“The reason for our trip (is to) encourage people our age and any age really to go out and enjoy nature and appreciate the beauty,’’ said Smith moments after they portaged around the dam in Granite Falls on Saturday.

Their goal now is to inspire their classmates at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley to get outdoors as well.

Sharbo, 18, and Smith, 17, both of Eagan, are seniors at the school. Until they enrolled at the school, both said they were not very outdoorsy or environmental minded. “I didn’t seem to care that much before,’’ said Sharbo. “I just happened to go there and it changed my outlook on everything.’’

So did a reading of Eric Sevareid’s book, “Canoeing with the Cree.’’ Sevareid tells how he and friend Walter Port paddled from Fort Snelling to York Factory on Hudson Bay in 1930, a 2,250 mile adventure.

Reading the book was a class assignment, but it sparked an interest in the two friends to do their own, long canoe trip. They had never done any real paddling together before. Sharbo has done some Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness camping with her family, while Smith had no such experience.

They launched their canoe on Friday in Montevideo, and reached the North Redwood Falls landing on Monday.  By then, they were already talking about how they want to finish the entire river someday.

“It’s cool to just put in your canoe and just go,’’ said Smith of their adventure. “You don’t even notice any time. You just kind of go where it takes you.’’

Tom Cherveny | Tribune
Ally Sharbo in stern and April Smith in bow launch their canoe after portaging the dam in Granite Falls on April 22.

On their first night, they pitched their tent at a primitive campsite maintained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on an island in the river. They made a riverside campsite in the Upper Sioux Agency State Park their second night’s destination, and a similar site in Renville County’s Vicksburg Park on their final.

From there it was a windy day’s paddle to the North Redwood Falls landing, where a phone call brought anxious parents to take them home. “Relieved to see us safe and happy,’’ said Sharbo, laughing.

While they didn’t expect to cover as many miles as they did, they had planned. When they originally started talking about the idea of a long canoe trip, their instructor, William Koenig, put them in touch with Natalie Warren. She and friend Annie Raiho followed Sevareid’s route to Hudson Bay in 2011. Since then, Warren has led students on trips along portions of the Minnesota River. She equipped the two with a canoe and dry bags and offered advice on where to go.

After that, it was entirely in their hands. As a senior project, they carried along gear to monitor turbidity in the river and make other water quality observations. Along with the science aspect, they carried a video camera and journal. They intend to publish an account from the notes they made on the trip, as well as produce a video.

They said they were pleasantly surprised by all of the wildlife they encountered on the river, and surprised too by the inter-connected paddling community they discovered by making the trip. Both especially appreciated the kindness of the people they met.  

The two students termed the trip “inspiring,’’ which is fitting.

The day before launching their canoe near Montevideo, they visited Audrey Arner at Moonstone Farm north of the community. They learned about how Arner and her husband Richard Handeen have developed their sustainable farming operation, and work to promote clean water in the state. “We talked to Audrey and asked her how she keeps hope for the natural world,’’ said Sharbo. “Her response was because of people like us. It kind of really motivated us for the rest of the trip.’’

Tom Cherveny | Tribune April Smith (left) and Ally Sharbo carry their gear on their first portage of a four-day paddle on the Minnesota River.