German tourists walk 11 days in northern Manitoba bush after canoe crash

Two German tourists walked about 115 kilometres through the bush in northern Manitoba with minimal food after crashing their canoe in rapids on the Hayes River.

Wolf Wagner, John Hoentsch planned 3-week canoe trip on Hayes River to Hudson Bay but crashed on rapids

Wolf Wagner, right, and John Hoentsch walked through the bush for 11 days after their canoe crashed in northern Manitoba. (Submitted by Wolf Wagner)

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.

Wolf Wagner, 25, and John Hoentsch, 26, spent 11 days slogging through boggy terrain with no means of communication to ask for help after the crash on the Hayes River near Oxford House, about 575 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

But Wagner said the experience didn't sour them on hiking or on Manitoba.

"We definitely [do] not hate it. It's just the other way around," said Wagner, who's back home in Germany. "We love it much more now because we know that we get through it, especially Canada or northern Manitoba. It's so wild and so untouched nature."

He and Hoentsch arrived at the Hayes River on July 19 for the three-week canoe trip they had been planning since November. They had hoped to paddle to Hudson Bay and stop to pick up more food about halfway through.

They had already crossed some 40 rapids and were wrapping up their 11th day when they lost control and crashed the boat.

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

"It took maybe 15 minutes to get through this rapid, and after it, our boat was 100 per cent under the waters of it," said Wagner. "All our stuff we have connected with the boat with a big rope before was swimming on the water surface."

The canoe was damaged beyond use, Wagner said, and without a satellite phone or cell service, their only option was walking to Gillam, Man., about 115 kilometres away.

Boggy terrain, limited food

Wagner said that initially, he thought the trip would take four or five days, covering between 15 and 20 kilometres daily. He didn't realize how slow it would be because of the boggy terrain.

They finished their first day of walking sore and demoralized, having covered about six kilometres in roughly eight hours.

"This was the hardest time, I think, the evening of the first day," Wagner said.

Hoenstch and Wagner swam through rivers three or four times a day on their hike, Wagner said. (Submitted by Wolf Wagner)

For the first four or five days, Wagner said, it was a struggle to stay positive. The days were hot, and they had to wear layers to stave off mosquitoes and flies. Their feet never dried off, and temperatures dropped so much at night that they woke up to find ice on their shoes twice.

"I always said to John, yes we will make it, and very easy, and we are motivated. We were looking for some pizza or something like this. But deep in myself I sometimes thought we are not going to make it," said Wagner. "I think maybe it was the same with him."

They had two pieces of toast with chocolate spread for breakfast each, then another two pieces of toast for lunch and canned soup for dinner. At night, they both squeezed into a tent that was 120 centimetres across because they had left so much of their gear at the crash site to keep their backpacks light.

Around 4 p.m., 11 days into their walk, they heard the sound of vehicles on the highway.

"We were so happy," said Wagner. "Then we were on the road, just walked some metres and we tried to stop [a vehicle] because we wanted to hitchhike to Gillam. The first five cars, they are passing by, they did not stop for us. But the sixth one, it was a guy who was working for [Manitoba Hydro]. He stopped and picked us up."

Aaron Schell, left, with Wagner and Hoentsch after he dropped the pair off in Gillam. (Submitted by Aaron Schell)

That guy was Aaron Schell, a Manitoba Hydro field safety officer, who said he was amazed the pair were still happy and healthy after their ordeal. 

"At first I didn't want to believe it, but the more they talked and the more I realized where they were from, that this was true and all I wanted to do was hear more.

"It's not unusual to see people every once in a while on the road," he added. "But as I got closer I realized there was something different."

The pair's lanky appearance and Wagner's cowboy hat made Schell curious enough to pull over, he said. He didn't notice they were still carrying a paddle until a little later. 

"When we got to Gillam, he was quite proud that he had the paddle left. It was bought in Germany but it was made in Canada."

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

When they arrived at a hotel in Gillam, said Wagner, they were offered beer and spirits before taking showers and going to bed early.

John Twining, a bartender at the Gillam Hotel, said the pair came in the next morning and ordered "two specials." He says he was flabbergasted when he heard their story.

"We're just dotted with water up here," he said. "There's no straight lines, there's no easy path, there's no trails. They bushwacked it, you know, 120 kilometres? Like, that's 800 kilometres on the road.

"That would terrify me — to be 120 kilometres from the road up here, frankly."

Wagner and Hoenstch returned to Winnipeg and flew home on Aug. 11, as planned.

Wagner said the experience made his friendship with Hoenstch stronger.

"We say we have walked through hell. The mosquitoes, the black flies everywhere. I still see the bites on my body, and we have walked in wet shoes.

"Sometimes we think we have learned a lot of our body, our condition, our relationship to each other," he said. "We lost civilization, things like having fast food or something like this, or carrying dry shoes. … We care about it much more now."

Wagner says he would like to return to northern Manitoba to visit Churchill and Shammattawa, and plans to keep on hiking, although next time he'll bring a satellite phone.

Schell said that's a good idea. "They would have been able to contact someone and tell them where they were and what had happened.

"They were very good: They had a compass, they had a GPS, they knew their co-ordinates, they had their maps, but they had no way of contacting anyone."

With files from Susan Magas and Karen Pauls