Academically and adventure bound

Natalie Warren in the front of her canoe
Natalie Warren. Photo by Lee Vue.

Natalie Warren is many things: author, paddler, public speaker, founder of a nonprofit, and this coming April, Warren can add a PhD in communication studies to her many accomplishments. 

Author is also a relatively new accomplishment, as Warren recently published the book Hudson Bay Bound about her experience canoeing more than 2,000 miles over 85 days from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay in 2011. She and her paddling partner, Ann Raiho, are thought to be the first women to complete the route, which was made famous by Eric Sevareid in his 1935 book Canoeing with the Cree. She's now using her river paddling experiences, including a 2013 canoe journey down the Mississippi River from Bemidji to New Orleans, as a foundation for her doctoral dissertation. 

Still, the academics weren't planned. Warren says that she never really thought about going to graduate school, “But my entire life has sort of been a funny unfolding of events in which I have no idea what's coming next, but say yes to opportunities as they arise.” 

After her journey to Hudson Bay, Warren founded a nonprofit, leading canoe trips on the Minnesota River to learn from farmers and to tour wastewater treatment facilities, to, as she says, “use the river as a classroom.” In 2013, she took an environmental policy job working on land use regulation on the Saint Croix River. The Star Tribune picked up her story, and Mark Pedelty, a University of Minnesota professor of communication studies and fellow at the U of M Institute on the Environment, saw that story and reached out to Warren to create a podcast with her on land use and environmental communication. 

“After working with him he said, ‘You know, I think you'd really like this [communications studies] program,’” says Warren. “And it was kind of funny. I never thought I would go back to school. I’m not an awesome student. I wasn’t on an academic trajectory.

But Warren enrolled in the program in 2018, and Pedelty is now her advisor. She hasn’t regretted the decision.

“I had all these experiences in a canoe, listening to people and seeing the landscape. And then I got to go back to school and do some really high-level work around Indigenous ways of knowing the land, and thinking more about human-nature relationships. And so my education has just sort of elevated everything,” says Warren.
Her dissertation focuses on how interactions with place can help humans to know and care for them, and she’s had plenty of firsthand experience in that realm.

In Hudson Bay Bound, beyond the physical adventures of often paddling more than a dozen hours a day through sometimes dangerous waters, Warren interacts with countless people. It’s an adventure full of hospitality, of people helping each other, of observations about how small river towns are changing, how family farms are being abandoned, and about the successes and failures of water quality and agricultural systems.  

“That trip was the first where we were paddling through America's corn belt, paddling by practices that are really harmful to the land, and seeing the erosion, and actually talking to the farmers candidly about it, sitting at a table across from people who are very different from ourselves and hearing their stories,” says Warren. “We were able to connect all of these things that we know are there, but are often hidden from the public eye. And it's very different from reading about these issues when you're confronted with them with your entire body.”

“There's erosion. There’s flooding. There’s no buffer zone, there's no vegetation that helps filter out chemicals from the fields to the river,” adds Warren. “But farmers get paid based on the footage they farm, and many are in debt. So you hear there’s another side to the story, and understand that it's far more complex and it's a larger, systemic issue.”

Some of those conversations were difficult, some contentious, but overall they were welcoming and productive, and that’s likely due to Warren and Raiho’s approach. “We were never out to try to convince people of certain things. We came at it from a listening perspective instead of a telling perspective,” she says.
At one point in her book, Warren writes, “Everything that happens, good or bad, is a story. And life is just a string of stories that we collect, over time, and we might as well make them good ones.”

“I still feel that sentiment,” says Warren, “but it reflects itself in different ways these days.”

This July, Warren will begin a postdoc residency at the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, working on an EPA grant with Associate Professor Bonnie Keeler.

And soon, she’ll welcome her second child.

“Parenting is an adventure. And we’re starting to get pretty excited—we're a couple of years away from being able to actually take our kids out and pass it along. I have so much gear, you know. I'm like, ‘Alright, you just need to make some friends, and I'll take all your friends canoeing. I can outfit everyone. We're ready.’”

Learn more about Natalie Warren at her website.