How These Two Germans Survived 10 Days Stranded in the Manitoba Wilderness

They crashed their canoe 115 km away from anything, their only way out was to bushwhack for 10 days through the dense woods.

by Mack Lamoureux
Aug 31 2017, 7:34pm

All photos submitted by Wolf Wagner, left and Johannes Hönstch, right.

Wolf Wagner and Johannes Hönstch stood among the Hayes River rapids for about 15 minutes looking for a way out.

They had just gone through the most intense rapids of their trip through northern Manitoba and the canoe had gotten stuck on a stone embankment. While this gave them a brief reprieve from being thrashed about, that's all it was—a moment's reprieve. The two could move about a few feet to the left and to the right but everything else was the violent foaming of water rushing over stone.

The only way out was the brave the rapids.

"We did not know where to go and we decided to get back in the canoe and threw the boat away from the stones," Wagner told VICE. "We went from stone to stone and crashed it everywhere and a few minutes later we were out of it."

"We had the decision to break the canoe or break our bones so we chose to crash the canoe."

They made it through the rapids alive but now they were stuck in, essentially, in the middle of nowhere—575 kilometres from Winnipeg—and their main form of transportation just shit the bed. While Wagner and Hönstch made their way to Canada from Dresden, Germany, for some adventure in the Great White North, this wasn't the plan.

The canoe after taking a walloping from the rapids.

As first reported by the Thompson Citizen, the two, had made their way from Germany to Manitoba in mid-July. They wanted to make their way up the Haye's river to the Hudson Bay, a journey they figured would take about three weeks.

So, they got a canoe—their choice of canoe has since been criticized by more experienced outdoorsmen but that's neither here nor there—and set off. Eleven days into their trip they encountered the rapids that would kill their newly acquired canoe. They were in a particularly desolate part of an already particularly desolate part of the country and the nearest town was Gillam, about 115 km away from their location.

"We thought 'well, maybe it's not as bad as it looks, in this moment ' so we had some food, went in our tent, dried their stuff and had a look in the morning," said Wagner—but things didn't look better in the morning.

"The only possibility to get out of the situation was to walk up to the north."

So walk they did—it would be ten long days until the two would emerge from the bush.

The boys in front of the rapids that claimed their canoe.

Luckily for the duo, their GPS and navigation gear had survived the crash so they knew where they were going. They abandoned most of their gear to keep the packing light and hit the road. The two left a note saying "We wrecked our canoe and we're intending to walk to Gillam." A trapper later stumbled upon the note, but assumed the two were dead.

The trapper had every right to think the two were outmatched by the wilderness. They lacked typical survival gear like beacons or a satellite phone, which would have been a game changer in their situation. Furthermore, the two didn't know exactly what to expect from the bush. At first, Wagner admits they thought it would just take them a few days, then they saw the terrain.

"The first days were very hard. We thought we would make it very easily, of course it's 110 or 120 kilometres," said Wagner. "We thought it would be about a four or five day walk."

"We did not know the bush was swampy and wet and covered with lakes and rivers, which took a lot of time and a lot of energy."

Johannes Hönstch swims across a river.

The terrain was varied from typical bush, to muskeg, to rivers and lakes—all of them ripe with insects. Wagner said they would have to ford two or three rivers and lakes a day. For the longer swims the two would build a raft out of wood they gathered. They would pile their shoes and packs on the raft and push it while they swam. At the end of one of the longer swims, Wagner took a nasty and awkward fall onto his hip emerging from the lake.

"I felt some heavy pain and thought maybe I had broken something but everything was OK," said Wagner. "That could have been really bad."

The worst part of the trip, something Wagner and Hönstch have mentioned in every interview about their ordeal, was their shoes—their wet, cold shoes. Due to the boggy nature of the bush in northern Manitoba and the rivers and lakes they crossed, their shoes would never dry.

"The biggest problem for us, every morning, was to go back into our wet shoes. A few days there would be ice on our shoes, and our feet were always wet," said Wagner. They hurt from the walk and the cold."

Still, with bumps, bruises and cuts across their body and perpetually wet shoes on their feet, they continued. Day in, day out, from six in the morning till eight at night, they walked, and when it was time to sleep, they had to share a tiny tent.

The boys say night night.

The two were able to salvage the majority of their food and camping gear from the canoe, but decided to ration the food for the walk because of how little ground they were able to cover. Their routine was the same, get up at six and have two pieces of toast, pack up their gear, and walk. At lunch it was another two pieces of toast and, for supper, a can of hot soup.

To end the day and keep up the spirits, the two would listen to podcasts—there was one by a German comedian named Jan Böhmermann they particularly enjoyed. While Wagner said they didn't talk much during the walk, the pair would keep each other's spirits up.

"When we talked we always talked about how we would make it, or why we would make it and never talked about why we would not make it," said Wagner.

"But yeah, we both thought we wouldn't make it, at times, but we never talked about it with each other."

Hunger was a constant presence on the walk, said Wagner, and the two would talk about what they would eat when they finally emerged from the woods.

"We always thought about two things when we walked," said Wagner. "The first thing was a pizza in Thompson or Gillam or somewhere else. We were always hungry—I lost 10 kilograms [about 22 pounds] on the walk—the second thing was we had to come back for our girlfriends."

Wagner opens up some food during their walk.

Finally, after ten days of walking, falling, swimming, and eating lightly, the GPS showed the lads that they were getting close. So, after a few more kilometres, they made it to the way out and they reached a road. They actually heard it before they saw them, added Wagner, who said that hearing the vehicles was like salvation.

"We were so happy to see it," said Wagner. "We then tried to hitchhike to Gillam but the first four or five cars they ignored everyone."

"I get it, we were two crazy looking guys out in the middle of nowhere."

They were eventually picked up by a man who worked for Manitoba Hydro named Aaron Schell—who at first didn't believe their tale. Schell took the scraggly duo to the local hotel where they were able to wash for the first time in a while, relax, and have some beers.

The two are back in Dresden with their girlfriends now, but Wagner says they both understand how lucky they were to get out of that situation without serious harm. That said, Wagner added that the experience didn't turn him off Manitoba and that he might come back with his girlfriend to see Churchill. "I'll be taking the train, though," he laughed.

As for that pizza, well, after being brought down to Thompson from Gillam the pair remembered something. While they were walking they saw on their GPS that Thompson had a Pizza Hut—something they also had back in their home of Dresden—and the duo made a beeline.

They got the biggest fucking pie that Pizza Hut would serve them.

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.