German tourists in 'Mickey Mouse' canoe were ill-equipped for Hayes River, paddler says

A Saskatchewan paddler who came across a canoe abandoned on the Hayes River by a pair of German tourists says they were neither prepared nor properly equipped to paddle the rocky northern Manitoba waterway.

Canoeists praised for mental toughness in surviving trek out, criticized for not preparing properly

Wolf Wagner and John Hoentsch's canoe was damaged while the pair was paddling the Hayes River. (Wolf Wagner)

A Saskatchewan paddler who came across a canoe abandoned on the Hayes River by a pair of German tourists says they were neither prepared nor properly equipped to paddle the rocky northern Manitoba waterway.

Wolf Wagner and John Hoentsch were forced to walk and wade their way across about 115 kilometres of muskeg after they damaged their canoe in a rapid on the Hayes, a historic fur-trade route that flows into Hudson Bay.

While the duo has been lauded for surviving their 11-day ordeal, their buggy and boggy journey from the Hayes River to a highway outside Gillam, Man. — almost 750 kilometres north of Winnipeg — is also serving as a cautionary tale about the importance of preparing for remote wilderness travel and planning for the possibility of an emergency.

"They get a feather in their cap for surviving, because to walk 10 days through muskeg is no small feat," said Scott Robertson, a La Ronge, Sask., paddler who found Wagner and Hoentsch's canoe amid what remained of their gear at Nunatonowago Rapids, one of the more dangerous drops on the Hayes River, on Aug. 21.

German tourists Wolf Wagner, right, and John Hoentsch walked through the bush for 11 days after their canoe was damaged on the Hayes River. The Saskatchewan paddler who found their gear say they were not properly equipped for the trip. (Submitted by Wolf Wagner)

Robertson, who runs a fur-trading company and has been paddling for 40 years, said he always wanted to paddle the Hayes and visit York Factory, the Hudson Bay trading post that served as the largest European settlement in Manitoba for almost two centuries.

But he and his paddling partner spent the last four days of their trip worrying about the fate of two men who left behind a damaged red fibreglass canoe, a black pack that had been torn open by a black bear and a tattered note about their predicament at Nunatonowago Rapids, which sits in the middle of a dense section of Hayes River rapids.

Feared travellers were dead

"The note said, 'We wrecked our canoe and we're intending to walk to Gillam,'" Robertson said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from La Ronge, adding he and his paddling partner spent the remainder of their trip fearing they had stumbled across a note from two dead men.

While the Germans' decision to travel overland perturbed the Saskatchewan paddlers, so did the vessel they discovered. Robertson said it was a fibreglass boat with a folded keel, suitable for a day paddle on a placid pond. Most paddlers traverse the Hayes in boats made of hard ABS plastic or composite materials such as Royalex.

RAW: German tourists crash canoe on Hayes River (VIDEO: Wolf Wagner)

4 years ago
Two German tourists got more than they bargained for after they crashed their canoe and were forced to trek about 115 kilometres through the bush in northern Manitoba. 0:29

"When we first saw this canoe, this Mickey Mouse, ratshit canoe, I found it hard to believe anyone would be foolish enough to take that route with such poor equipment. It was hard to wrap your head around what we were seeing," said Robertson.

"The keel wasn't even solid, so as you ground off one-eighth of an inch of fibreglass, your boat is now leaking over its full 17-foot length," he said, adding it appears the German paddlers attempted to seal the leaks with spruce gum. "Whoever sold those boys that canoe should be locked up."

Robertson said after he landed at York Factory and flew by floatplane to Gillam, he went to the RCMP station to report his discovery. He was relieved to hear the Germans made it out of the muskeg alive.

Robertson said he always travels with a satellite phone and a personal locator beacon, a GPS-enabled device that allows stranded or wounded travellers to trigger a search-and-rescue response with the push of a button.

'Go prepared'

Dave MacDonald, president and lead instructor at the International Canadian School of Survival, echoed Robertson's advice.

"I always carry a personal locator beacon. I highly recommend carrying a personal locator beacon," he told CBC Radio's Information Radio on Wednesday.

Hoentsch (left) and Wagner made it to the highway leading to Gillam, Man., on Aug. 6. (Submitted by Wolf Wagner)

"Go prepared. Go with some survival equipment and have a means of communicating if you need rescue. If you don't have a way of communicating and you don't have a trip plan — so people don't even know where you are or when you're supposed to be back — then you're not going to get rescued."

MacDonald nonetheless praised the Germans for at least packing a map, compass and GPS, and for possessing the skills to use those tools to travel overland to Gillam.

Robertson also praised their mental toughness for surviving their trek, even as he criticized them for not preparing properly for their trip.

"Absolutely be prepared. Absolutely have a plan B or a plan C in terms of backup or extraction plans," he said.

"Every Canadian history buff should have a visit to York Factory, arguably the most significant fur trade post in Canadian history," Robertson said.

"Every Canadian paddler should have the Hayes River on his bucket list, arguably the most significant fur-trade water route in Canadian history. But paddling the Hayes River to York Factory doesn't need to be the place where you kick the bucket."


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.