Lost-then-found little canoe's Red River journey fraught with drought, flooding, beavers

In the spring of 2021, Jason Molinski and his grandsons launched a small, hand-carved canoe in the Red River, hoping to track its journey to Lake Winnipeg. Instead, the little wooden vessel vanished — until this past weekend.

'We may never see it again,' Jason Molinski told grandsons after canoe sightings dried up

The River Gypsy was a little worse for wear, with what appear to be tooth marks, but for the most part it was still in good shape when it was found on Sept. 9, more than a year after Jason Molinski and his grandsons launched it in the Red River. (Submitted by Pierre Sabourin)

Jason Molinski and his grandsons launched a pint-sized canoe into Manitoba's Red River in May 2021, hoping to track its journey along the northbound current to Lake Winnipeg, but instead their little wooden vessel vanished.

That is, until this past weekend. 

After nearly 16 months, a muddied and gnawed River Gypsy was found embedded in the riverbank about 2.5 kilometres south of St. Jean Baptiste.

Molinski rushed from Winnipeg south to the area to retrieve the hand-carved canoe after getting a call Saturday from farmer Pierre Sabourin.

"I was surprised. After lasting a winter, I thought with the freeze-thaw cycle and everything like that, you know, paint would be peeling. But it's actually in good shape," Molinski said, adding it was cleaned up by Sabourin and his wife.

He went to the riverbank where "you could still see … the shape of the canoe in the mud."

The River Gypsy is seen before getting a cleaning by the Sabourins, who found it near St. Jean Baptiste. (Submitted by Pierre Sabourin)

Molinski's grandsons, age 11 and nine, were elated and "very, very surprised" by the news.

"We kind of told them, you know, we may never see it again."

The trio set the boat afloat as a nod to one of Molinski's favourite books, Paddle-to-the-Sea. In it, a boy releases a small canoe with a figure inside into Lake Nipigon, just north of Thunder Bay, Ont., to travel on to the Atlantic Ocean.

Molinski read it as a child and always wanted to do something similar. Last year, at age 68, he did. A retired carpenter, he spent a month carving the boat and two seated figures, a little each day.

"I had balanced it so that it doesn't matter which way it ends up in the water, it will always come right side up," he said. "If it's floating upside down, how's anybody going to notice it?"

Between the figures, a secured lid says "remove screws." Molinski put his contact information inside, so he and his grandsons could plot the locations on a map, and a note asking the finder to then return the canoe to the river.

The River Gypsy at the edge of the Red River. (Submitted by Pierre Sabourin)

It was launched in Emerson — just north of the U.S. border, and about 30 kilometres south of St. Jean Baptiste. The first report came on May 30, almost 10 kilometres to the north. Then the findings dried up, like the river itself.

Molinski happened to launch his boat at the start of two extreme years. It was put in during a drought that left many rivers running at a trickle. The next year brought heavy snow and incessant rains that led to severe flooding.

"I'm a glutton for punishment, I guess," he said. "After the flood, in all honesty, it could have been anywhere."

The Red River in spring 2022 spread out 10 kilometres wide for a stretch of 40 kilometres between Emerson and Morris.

'Maybe a beaver got ahold of it'

Sabourin found the River Gypsy on Sept. 9. His home is one of the few between Emerson and Morris built near the river. Otherwise, the area is swaths of farmland.

"I thought it was a toy from the flood that floated away from the dump grounds," Sabourin said. "Then I saw the little people and thought, 'This is not normal, somebody made this.'"

He opened it and saw the last reported find was May 30, 2021.

"It's just a fluke that I found it. It could have been 50 feet away from our place and nobody would find it," he said.

Molinski surmised that wedged in with other branches, the canoe was secured during spring thaw and ice breakup, but floated loose when floodwaters came.

Both Sabourin and Molinski believe the boat had encounters they can only speculate about.

"It has chew marks on it, like maybe a beaver got ahold of it or something," Molinski said.

"Maybe it got ahold of it and put it in its brush pile, you know, put it on its house … stuffed it in among the willows that it had there."

The River Gypsy as seen while being carved by Jason Molinski. (Submitted by Jason Molinski)

After it disappeared in 2021, he walked the riverbank from Emerson to Letellier, about 16 kilometres, scouting for the boat. It wasn't anywhere to be found, but there were plenty of beaver dams.

"Maybe it caught the eye of another animal, maybe a bear, who pulled it from the water for a closer look," Molinski said, noting the person who found it in May 2021 said it was more than a metre from the water.

That was when the water was low, "so something dragged it out."

Jason Molinski, left, and Pierre Sabourin with the River Gypsy the day after Sabourin found it. (Submitted by Jason Molinski)

With freeze-up now only a couple of months away, Molinski will keep the River Gypsy in dry dock this winter. It may not go back at all — that odyssey might belong to River Gypsy 2.

Molinski is considering carving a slightly larger version that could carry an embedded GPS tracker. Not only would he be able to track it, it would be easier for people to spot.

"We would still like the people to find it and let us know. It's kind of like a treasure hunt," he said. "They're part of the journey. That's what this is all about."

He also plans to skip a tightly winding and reed-filled section of the river, based on advice from Sabourin, and relaunch north of Morris.

"We didn't do our homework from Emerson to Morris. Experience is the best teacher."

The River Gypsy seen in the Red River shortly after being launched in May 2021. (Submitted by Jason Molinski)

Ultimately, Molinski would love to see his little canoe make it to Lake Winnipeg and into the Nelson River, which drains the lake and runs 644 kilometres to Hudson Bay.

But first it needs to get through Lockport and the marshy stretch beyond, where Netley Creek joins the Red.

"There's so many bulrushes and stuff, I don't know if you'd ever find it again," he said.

"It would be something even if it got to the northern tip of Lake Winnipeg — if it got to Norway House or some settlement along there."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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