German tourists hike through Manitoba wilderness for 11 days after canoe crash

Wolf Wagner

For German tourists Wolf Wagner and John Hoentsch, a portaging trip through northern Manitoba turned into a gruelling 11-day hike through boggy terrain after they crashed their canoe.

Wagner, 25, and Hoentsch, 26, arrived in Winnipeg from Dresden in mid-July for the canoe trip they’d been planning for eight months. The plan was to start in Norway House, about 450-kilometers north of Winnipeg, and paddle northeast to Port Nelson, a ghost town along the Hudson’s Bay.

After 10-days of canoeing and passing over some 40 rapids without any issues, they hit a rough patch on the Hayes River.  The pair maneuvered through the rapids and came out unharmed – but their canoe was completely destroyed. With their main form of transportation now out of commission, Wagner and Hoentsch realized their only option was to hike the 115-kilometres to the nearest town, Gillam.

“We go our clothes out and dried them overnight and then we made the plan to start walking,” Wagner told The Thompson Citizen.

And although they didn’t have a satellite phone, they still had their camping gear, some food, a compass, paper maps, a GPS and experience backwoods hiking.

John Hoentsch wading through high waters during the 11-day trek.
John Hoentsch wading through high waters during the 11-day trek.

Initially, they thought they’d be able to cover around 15 to 20 kilometers each day, meaning they’d arrive in Gillam in four or five days. However, they didn’t take into account into the swampy ground, which made the trek a slow, tiring process. After their first day, they covered just six kilometers in eight hours.

A few days in, though, the pair, got the hang of it.

“After the third day, we had a kind of routine…getting up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to travel” said Hoentsch. “It took a bit longer to get out of the tent because [as we travelled north] it got colder and colder and colder.”

During the days, there was blistering heat and a constant barrage of flies, while the evenings were freezing. Twice, the duo woke up to find their shoes covered in a layer of ice.

Then on day 11 of their hike, they heard the sound of vehicles. They hurried to the road and tried to flag down a car. The first five didn’t stop, but the sixth one did. The driver was Aaron Schell, a Manitoba Hydro field safety officer.

Schell dropped them off at a hotel in Gillam, where they had warm showers, warm meals and cold beer.

On August 11, they returned to Winnipeg and flew home to Dresden, just as they had intended – albeit in a slightly different route then they had originally planned.

Despite such a hard journey, Wagner told the CBC he wants to return to North Manitoba again, next time to explore Churchill and Shammattawa. This trip made them admire Manitoba even more.

“It’s so wild and so untouched nature,” Wagner said.