Trio readies for two-week canoe trip to battle polio

VERGENNES — On Aug. 23, Vergennes Day, Rob McNamara and two good friends plan to go for a long paddle on Lake Champlain, a two-week long paddle, to be more specific. Starting at the Vergennes falls at noon this Saturday, the three will paddle a kayak and a canoe some 300 miles southward, down Lake Champlain, through the Champlain Canal, and on to the mouth of the Hudson River.
Their nominal destination is New York City. The bigger goal is to raise awareness and financial support for Rotary International’s effort to eradicate polio.
McNamara, 67, a retired high school biology teacher and Panton resident, has been a member of the Vergennes Rotary for the past 13 years and served as president of the club in 2011. Joining him for this trip are Michael Dempster, a friend from high school who is driving across the country from Washington to take part, and Stewart Brown, a University of Kentucky classmate who is coming from Kentucky to join the fun. As of late last week, Dempster and Brown had not met, but McNamara said he anticipates the close quarters of boat travel will make them fast friends.
“They don’t know each other yet,” he said. “But by the end, they will.”
This won’t be the first paddle for two members of the group. In 2010, McNamara and Brown made a 500-mile trip down the Ohio River from Brownsville, Pa. (50 miles south of Pittsburgh), to Louisville, Ky. The journey raised more than $2,000 for polio research and the pair has been looking for another opportunity since.
“We thought that was such a great experience, so we started learning about other trips,” McNamara said. “We learned that from Vergennes, we could really get anywhere.”
New York, he said, seemed like a suitable destination. A cousin of McNamara’s will pick up the trio in the New York Harbor.
To make themselves more recognizable, the group will wear costumes from the Revolutionary War era. Brown, who was born in London, will dress the part of a redcoated British soldier while the other two will play American colonists, transporting their British captive to New York to meet George Washington. McNamara says the lack of historical accuracy is irrelevant.
“We’re not true re-enactors,” he said. “We’re just dressing the part.”
McNamara estimates the trip will take between two and three weeks, with the group paddling between 20 and 50 miles each day. On the way south, the trio plans on camping in fields and on islands. As they get further south, near the cities of Whitehall, Troy and Albany, N.Y., they hope to meet with members of other Rotary chapters.
McNamara says he anticipates the upcoming trip will require much of the same gear as their previous journey down the Ohio River, some of which has been provided by Cabela’s outfitters as well as a tent from Eureka Tents. On that first trip, they carried some 220 pounds of food and equipment, stopping every few days for food. McNamara says the Old Town canoe can hold up to 1,100 pounds of people, food and equipment.
The crew will update followers on their progress using Facebook and Instagram using their iPhones and a small laptop in a waterproof container. They plan on staying off the lake during the busy Labor Day weekend and will avoid areas in the New York Harbor with higher traffic and rougher waters.   
McNamara says the most important part of the trip is raising public awareness of polio, a disease that Rotary International has heavily focused on eradicating. Interested parties can find a link to make donations on the Vergennes Rotary Club’s website — vergennesrotary.org. 
While the last case of naturally occurring polio in the United States was in 1979, the disease remains prevalent in other areas of the world.
And McNamara says the effects of the disease are still felt in the United States.
“Even today, some people that had polio years ago today have difficulty walking around and getting into buildings,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still work to be done.” 
More information on the trio’s plans and a link to their Facebook page can be found online at www.paddletoendpolio.com.

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