The Happy Camper: Top 10 Women’s Paddling Books to Inspire You


At the end of my daughter’s first year at university, she changed her major from Psychology to English Literature. It seems she likes books. So, to add to her summer reading list, I gathered up my collection of unique paddling adventure books written by women. Some are classics and others are just darn good reads. And yes, there’s a lot more I could add—Deep Water Passage by Anne Linnenea, The Voyageur by Grace Lee Nute, The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert, Upwards by Laurie Apgar Chandler—the list goes on. But here are the books I quickly grabbed off my shelf and put in a box for her to read over the summer.


A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador by Mina Hubbard (1908)

In 1903, Leonidas Hubbard, companion Dillon Wallace and Indigenous guide George Elson, paddled the remote interior of Labrador to locate the illusive George River. Hubbard died of starvation and the river was never found. Wallace returned to repeat the expedition in hopes of erasing the blame put upon him for Hubbard’s death. Mina Hubbard, Leonidas’ wife, also headed out to find the George River. She was the one who put the blame on Wallace. She returned with Elson. Wallace failed once again but Mina found the river. Mina Hubbard’s book, A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador, is organized into three parts: Mrs. Hubbard’s account of their expedition, a copy of Mr. Hubbard’s diary during his ill-fated expedition and Mr. Elson’s own account of the last month of the first Hubbard expedition. It is definitely a classic . . . and one heck of an adventure. Make sure to get the updated version—2004—edited by author Sherrill Grace.


Arctic Daughter by Jean Aspen (1988)

Jean Aspen’s mother, Constance Helmericks, was a best-selling author who wrote about her and her husband filming Arctic adventure documentaries. She grew up loving the wild north and at the age of twenty-two, Jean retuned to Alaska’s remote Brooks Range with her childhood sweetheart. They paddled down the Yukon River and pulled their loaded canoe up a tributary into the mountains. Then, they built a cabin and emerged from the wilds four years later.

This is a captivating story of a young and idealistic view of living in a remote, wild place.


Dare To Do: Taking On The Planet By Bike and Boat by Sarah Outen (2017)

Sarah’s journey will blow your mind. She set out to circumnavigate the world entirely under her own steam—cycling, kayaking and rowing across Europe, Asia, the Pacific, the Americas, the Atlantic and eventually home in London, England. A year into the trip, she was rescued after tropical storm Mawar tossed her into the Pacific Ocean. She shook off the disaster and headed back out again—and soon became the first woman to row solo from Japan to Alaska, as well as the first woman to row the Pacific from West to East. She kayaked the treacherous Aleutian chain and cycled the Americas before setting sail on the Atlantic. Apart from being a detailed description of one massive achievement, the book engages the reader throughout with empathy of someone who had persevered so much to finish her task—and to continue and overcome the “norms” of her life’s journey itself.


Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic by Natalie Warren (2021)

Eric Sevareid’s 1935 classic, Canoeing With The Cree, was the inspiration behind author Natalie Warren’s 2000-mile canoe journey from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay. She was accompanied by her friend, Ann Raiho (and their dog). They recreate this historic route, and on the way experience extreme environmental issues, the perils of sexism and the enduring wonder of the wilderness.


Tumblehome: One Woman’s Canoeing Adventures in the Divine Near-Wilderness by Brenda Missen (2022)

I just finished reading this book. It was excellent. It’s not about an arduous paddle trip or extensive canoe journey. Instead, the book reveals the struggles and joys of a 37-year-old, recently singled, unattached writer who heads out on a series of semi-wilderness solo canoe trips. It touches on her interpretations of romance, relationships, spirituality and connection to nature. It’s part memoir and part travel guide.


Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild by Jennifer Kingsley (2014)

This is one very absorbing story of the author’s extended 54-day canoe trip on the far northern Back River with five paddling companions. There are tales of grizzly bears, challenging rapids and rising tensions amongst the group. Jennifer also adds in some amazing portraits of past explorers—some who didn’t survive their journey on the river. She also perfectly characterizes the diversity and beauty of the Arctic landscape and how canoeing through this wilderness paradise can change a person’s life forever.


Paddling to Winter by Julie Buckles (2013)

The canoe trip itself that the author and her husband took on was incredible. They build a canoe together, exchange marriage vows, then set off from their home on Lake Superior to Wollaston Lake in northern Saskatchewan (4,300 kilometres). They end it by overwintering in a small, remote cabin. However, my appreciation for this book is the writing. Julie is humorous, honest, intimate and humble on subjects ranging from running rapids to having a relationship. It seems so wonderfully simple…but the journey is anything but.


Paddling My Own Canoe: The Story of Algonquin Park’s First Female Guide by Esther Sessions Keyser (2003) 

The author first visited Algonquin Provincial Park back in 1927 and her book, Paddling My Own Canoe, reminisces the time she spent there since. Not only was she Algonquin’s first female canoe guide, but she was also one of the pioneers of the Girl Scouts. Throughout the book, she touches on the history of the park, her connection with nature, women’s issues and her love for canoeing. You’ll have a smile on your face throughout the entire read. 


Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey Through the Northwest Passage by Victoria Jason (1995)

I will never forget a comment Victoria made when I attended one of her lectures on her book Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak. Someone asked how she dealt with polar bears. Her response was awesome. “I taught myself how to use a shotgun prior to the trip so when a polar bear attacked me, I’d simply shoot myself first.” That remark pretty much defines the humour and insight in Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak. During the summers of 1991 to 1994, she paddled with Don Starkell (Paddle to the Amazon book fame) on a trip from Churchill, Manitoba to Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea. At the time, she was a grandmother of two, was relatively new to kayaking and was still on the mend from the second of two strokes. But she completed the trip. Her partner didn’t. Her true strong but humble character helped her along the way, but Don’s blind arrogance almost killed him. Make sure to read her book first, and then Don Starkwell’s account in Paddle to the Arctic: The Incredible Story of a Kayak Quest Across the Roof of the World.


Rivers Running Free: Canoeing Stories by Adventurous Women by Judith Niemi & Barbara Wieser (1987)

I struck gold when I found this anthology of women paddlers in a used bookstore. I never knew it existed, and I’m not sure why. There are over 35 canoe stories that cover vast wilderness places as well as more urban adventures. Each writer also reveals the influence their trip had on their lives. Some of my favourites: A sixty-two-year-old woman paddles solo down the mighty Yukon River; a group of women from Minnesota retrace Mina Hubbard’s 1905 trip on Labrador’s George River; a group of feminists spend a month travelling 600 kilometres (380 miles) to Hudson Bay; intransigent ladies wearing long skirts float through the canals of upstate New York. 


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