For more than 50 years, we’ve used wilderness experience as a vehicle to inspire self-discovery, growth, and a shared sense of purpose amongst our campers and camp counselors.
The experiences they have at Birchwood as young men are oftentimes the foundational blocks of their adulthood. It’s not uncommon for an alumni to paddle up to our dock with children of his own to regale us with stories of his youth and the many ways Birchwood impacted his formative years.
These are the stories we are most proud of so, in the spirit of celebration, we’ve decided to share them with you in this series titled “Where Are They Now”.
We continue our series with a former camper AND staff member who embodies the adventurous spirit of the quintessential Birchwood man:
Jesse Rider (AKA Chubbs) 2003, 2004, 2005, 2013, 2015
Jesse first came to Birchwood as a second-grader in 2003. As part of a pre-camp program at Birchwood, a group of kids from Gibbon, MN, spent a week participating in all the fun activities at our sister camp.
From my perspective, it was always fun to hear voices at six in the morning from the big dock on Steamboat Lake. These were the voices of excited kids, like Jesse, up at sunrise, fishing. Their enthusiasm spilling out over the glassy waters of the lake. This same enthusiasm is an obvious lifelong characteristic of Jesse Rider.
Even before he was old enough to be a counselor at Birchwood Wilderness Camp, he was hired to be our maintenance man. We knew he was qualified because he came to camp with the cedar strip canoe that he made in his high school woodshop. He told his shop teacher that he wanted to build a canoe, while other kids made breadboards and gun racks. His teacher advised against it, but Jesse persisted. At the end of the semester, he had a finished canoe and an “A” in the class.
During the summer of 2014, the call of the northland lured him to Alaska where he found a job on a fishing boat catching salmon.
Jesse started his university education at UMD in Duluth, Minnesota. He transferred to Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Physical Education.
Jesse and his wife, Emily, are English teachers on leave from their jobs in Wuhan, China. Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the entire city was locked down, leaving the Riders on the outside, with only the belongings in their backpacks. Due to their strong religious faith, they were content and thankful for what they had, the next chapter yet to be written. UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, Jesse and Emily have made it safely back to Minnesota!
Going back to the summer of 2013, Jesse and his coworker found themselves at the Grand Marais Library on a day off from their maintenance job at Birchwood Wilderness Camp. They stumbled upon a book written by Eric Sevareid, CANOEING WITH THE CREE. After both reading the book, they agreed they too would one day retrace Sevareid’s historic trip up the Minnesota River to the source of the Red River of the North and to Hudsons Bay.
In 2016 the two young men realized their agreement and started their own epic journey to Hudsons Bay, almost 2,000 miles away.
Sevareid and his canoeing companion started their trip from their hometown, St Paul, Minnesota. Jesse and his canoeing companion wanted to start in their hometown, New Ulm, Minnesota.
After a short distance paddling on a drainage ditch, they reached the Minnesota river and headed upstream and north. The scenery was familiar, farm fields with very muddy banks and muddy water. The current was swift enough that making headway was very challenging.
The Minnesota River headwaters are near Ortonville, MN on Big Stone Lake. The journey north takes the boys to the Little Minnesota River. Paddling this river led the duo to Lake Traverse and onto the Bois de Sioux River. Somewhere around Breckenridge, MN the river changes from the Bois de Sioux River to the Red River of the North.
These rivers bisect the red river valley, some of the most fertile land in North America. The black, rich topsoil is measured in feet, not inches. This is a result of eons of river flooding caused by massive snowfalls and the fact that the north end, downstream, is still frozen when the spring thaw occurs. At least for our voyageurs, they were going downstream with the current.
The next biggest challenge was the hundreds of miles of open water of Lake Winnipeg.
The lake from north to south is more than 258 miles and 60 miles across. Due to the prevailing west winds, the rather shallow depth of the lake, 39 feet, the seiche effect, causes waves to build to ten feet high on a windy day.
Jesse said it was a real catch 22, the desire to paddle close to shore for safety was offset by the desire to remain alive. Near shore, the waves were breaking and can cause very dangerous canoe tipping conditions. To avoid this danger, they paddled out from shore farther than they would normally like. After surviving the hazards of lake Winnipeg, the two-headed into the boreal forest, similar to those found in the BWCA.
Sevareid, in his book, describes this next part of the trip as a combination of luck and good advice. At times Sevareid was using hand-drawn maps and advice from local Cree Indians. Hence the title.
On that trip, it was a miracle they made it at all, in fact, their sponsor only paid them after each installment of their story. There was some belief that the two would never make it and possibly never be seen again.
Our voyageurs used historical maps from French Voyageurs, modern maps, and GPS to find their way through the maze of lakes and rivers north of Lake Winnipeg. The most valuable being the historical maps, with information describing how to get from lake to lake.
This information dates to the 1600s. Some of the portages required exiting the water up an eight-foot rock wall, with a huge waterfall right alongside.
Jesse wondered how the voyagers might have struggled to haul their rather large and heavy freight canoes and load over obstacles like this, not to mention the fragile nature of a birchbark canoe. It was probably a good thing that repair materials grew in the forest.
After hundreds of miles, the young men found their way to Gods Lake.
At this point, they picked up the Gods River and eventually the Hays River to Hudson Bay.
The trip ended at York Factory, the historic fur trading post owned and operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company founded in 1670. The Hudson Bay Company was primarily a fur trading company that supplied Europe with beaver and other furs harvested in the region. The company was located on the shore of Hudson Bay because it was accessible by ship in the summer and all rivers for thousands of miles empty into it.
Jesse said there was one employee still stationed at the post when they arrived. He told the story of the Battle of Hudson’s Bay, also known as the Battle of York Factory, a naval battle fought during the War of the Grand Alliance.
As a result, the French took York Factory. Their tenure at York Factory was short-lived, ten months later, three Royal Navy frigates recaptured the fort and put it back in the hands of the British.
Jesse said he was able to find grapeshot and a couple of cannonballs. Grapeshot, if you’re not sure, are small round pellet size projectiles fired from a cannon, kind of like a big shotgun. Imagine, shot from a cannon in 1697, surviving 300 some years of ice and waves and found by our two paddlers. Amazing!
The trip home proved to be a journey all on its own.
Jesse described the road out as “the worst road in Canada.” Getting to the road is an adventure too. The several hundred miles of gravel road ends in Sundance, Manitoba, on the Nelson River.
To get our guys to Sundance, they hired a jetboat to haul them and their canoe and gear out onto the Hudson Bay and then up the Nelson River, there they met Jesse’s sister and started the long road trip back to civilization.
Fifty days and 1800 miles, on rivers and lakes, the two paddlers ended their epic journey and, I am sure, started planning more adventures on the long road home.
Jesse’s favorite quote by Severeid: “Such sights as these are reserved for those who suffer to behold them.”
When I asked Jesse what value summer camps and wilderness trips provide kids, he said:
“A kid’s brain is like a lake, the constant input from stimulation like video games and electronics cause waves, like the ripples on a lake. Camp is like calm waters; you take away the electronics and you stop the ripples and the waters become calm and kids can play the way they are supposed to.”
The future for Jesse and his wife is a bright one and I am sure they will continue to embrace the natural world and devote their work to educating people!
We wish the very best for them.
As always, Happy Trails!