Camp Keewaydin adventurers plan to paddle 1,200 miles to James Bay in hand-built canoes

MIDDLEBURY — Imagine driving from Middlebury to Jacksonville, Fla. Now, replace your car engine with a paddle and muscle power, and imagine canoeing the same distance — about 1,200 miles.
This spring, 10 young men will leave Lake Dunmore in a fleet of wood-canvas canoes they built themselves, bound 1,200 miles north for James Bay, Canada. Instead of finishing in the sunbelt, though, they’ll chase spring ice on their paddle through Quebec and Ontario.
The 10 paddlers, all in their 20s, met through Lake Dunmore’s Camp Keewaydin over the past decade and a half. They are experienced canoeists who have paddled throughout the United States and on wilderness rivers in Canada. The young men hail from states up and down the East Coast, though four of them are living in Shoreham as they make final preparations for the trip.
They call themselves “Expedition 2012,” and describe their trip as “fundraiser, environmental activism, and an honor to Camp Keewaydin’s heritage.”
The crew is composed of Tom Bloch, Jeff Chandler, Johnny Clore, James Hogan, Nick Kramer, Rich Morgan, Ben Ramseyer, Kyle Sauer, Bill Souser and Peter Wright. They hope to paddle their five hand-built canoes out of Lake Dunmore by April 8.
From Lake Dunmore, the group will travel down the Leicester River to Otter Creek, out to Lake Champlain, and north into Canada to the St. Lawrence River.
At this point the group will turn upriver and will continue paddling against the current for hundreds of miles. After passing through Montreal, they’ll beat upstream for 300 miles on the Ottawa River. A series of lake crossings and portages will bring the team to the Abatibi River, where they will paddle with the current down to James Bay at Moosonee in far northern Quebec.
Expedition members expect to arrive in Moosonee, Ontario, in about 70 days. If they leave on schedule, they’ll be back at Camp Keewaydin before the end of June.
Even before the team has set their boats in the water, Expedition 2012 has been a successful fundraising campaign for Camp Keewaydin.
“This is the center of a project to bring kids to Keewaydin who might not otherwise be able to,” said team member Jeff Chandler. “It’s like a walk-a-thon. Just really long.”
Bill Souser specified that two donors have agreed to match up to $75,000 and that the total donations are already approaching $150,000. The money will provide scholarships for Keewaydin campers.
“We want to give more kids the chance to spend time in the woods,” Souser said.
Chandler agreed — the spending time in the woods and making trips through the wilderness are central to both Keewaydin and Expedition 2012.
“The only reason that we can do a trip like this is because of the natural environment,” Chandler said. “But we’ll still pass a lot of dams and paper mills.”
“The route takes us right through downtown Montreal,” Souser added.
In fact, the team will rarely be far from the artifacts of human beings. They’ll carry their boats around six hydropower projects before they even reach Lake Champlain. And, though James Bay is a long haul from their starting point, it’s the center of one of the largest hydropower projects in North America.
“We don’t want to be too negative about the impacts of society,” Chandler said. “It’s about finding a balance so that we can use hydro in a way that preserves the land.”
Camp Keewaydin has scratched one river after another from their trip list because of massive hydro projects, including the final leg of this year’s trip, the Abatibi River. For a group of paddlers so likely to toe the anti-dam party line, they are surprisingly equitable.
“Hydropower is a renewable resource, and sometimes it can be a good thing,” Chandler said. “This adventure is designed to encourage thoughtfulness, and to keep us in contact with the impacts that we’re having.”
What with the hydro projects, rapids and drainage system crossing, Wright estimates that they’ll do about 50 miles of portaging.
Fifty miles is a long way to walk, even without an 87-pound, wood-and-canvas canoe over your head. But the third pillar of Expedition 2012 is “heritage,” and the travelers intend to be stylishly outdated. The crew will carry their food and gear in handmade wooden boxes called wangans, portage using tumplines, and plan to name their boats after time-honored camp songs.
“It’s old fashioned, but that’s Keewaydin’s style,” said Chandler. “People asked us why we’re in all this old, heavy gear, and the main answer is ‘tradition.’”
In keeping with this tradition, the men built all five boats from scratch, with the help of Connecticut master builder Schuyler “Sky” Tomson.
“We started building the boats last winter with Sky. We milled the wood last fall in Connecticut, and made a lot of trips between here and there to work on them,” Wright said.
The boats are beautiful pieces of craftsmanship. Their waterproofed canvas sides are a silky bottle green, and the gunwales, deckplates and thwarts are carved in ash and cherry. They are slight modifications of the iconic wood-canvas canoe — the Chestnut Prospector. At just over 17 feet, they’re a little longer and slightly deeper than the original.
For a repair kit, the team will carry canvas patches, epoxy and a mysterious compound called Ambroid.
“I’ve patched these boats with a bandana before,” Clore said.
A trip this ambitious and romantic doesn’t go unnoticed in the outdoor recreation industry. The group is already signed on for two episodes of Outside TV: a preview of the trip this spring and a recap when Expedition 2012 returns. The expedition has been publicized in Canoe and Kayakmagazine, and on the web at Outside Online.
With the help of Camp Keewaydin, Expedition 2012 has also picked up big-name sponsors like Polartec and the HD camera company GoPro, along with Vermont businesses like Dakin Farms, Cabot Co-operative Creamery and Green Mountain Coffee.
For such a sprawling undertaking, though, Expedition 2012 had predictably humble beginnings.
“We started thinking about it one day on a hike, and it just got bigger and bigger. We didn’t stop adding to it until it was really time to start building the boats,” Chandler said.
Now, the boats are built, gear is getting packed, and the team is gathering in Addison County. In the final month before departure, they’ll finalize food plans, check and re-check their maps, and hope for an early ice-out.

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