From a waterfront park in the Ontario town of Hawkesbury, the armada sets off at noon under low gray clouds, steering west up the Ottawa River. Paddling under the half-mile concrete span of the Long-Sault bridge, which connects Ontario to Québec, are 10 young men steering five wood-canvas canoes. They ride high through the chop stirred up by a strong tailwind, powering upriver against a barely perceptible current.
It’s not long before the singing begins. Someone starts to whistle a melody quickly recognizable as “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” A few voices chime in. Over the wind and swells, I catch a line or two about the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings.
The 10 men bring to mind the voyageurs who, centuries ago, sang while paddling northwest on these waters in search of beaver pelts proffered by Indian trappers. In reality, they’re a gaggle of grown-up summer campers recapturing the freedom of adolescence and its attendant adventure.
This is Expedition 2012: a 70-day, 1200-mile canoe trip from Vermont’s Lake Dunmore to the shores of James Bay in northern Ontario. (Click here to see the interary.) Its crew consists of 10 staff members of Keewaydin Dunmore, a 102-year-old boys’ camp known for its epic canoe trips into the Canadian interior. Many of the men, all counselors between the ages of 21 and 27, have spent every summer at Keewaydin since they were young campers.
After three years of planning, the group of old friends set off from Lake Dunmore on Easter Sunday, expecting to return in June for another year at camp.
“At this point, camp is like home to a lot of us,” says Bill Souser, a doctoral student in history at Penn State University who has attended Keewaydin for 15 years, as a camper and counselor. “It’s a very familiar, comfortable place where you grew up living and learning and playing and growing.”
When I join them in Hawkesbury on a 40-something-degree, rainy Friday in April, the crew has already logged more than 200 miles in 13 days. From Dunmore, they followed Otter Creek to Lake Champlain, paddling north along its western shore, past a remote border crossing and on to the Richelieu. Walking their boats down shallow canals and portaging their gear miles overland, they reached the St. Lawrence Seaway at Montréal, where their green, 17-foot canoes were dwarfed — and nearly swamped — by cargo ships. Turning west, they followed Samuel de Champlain’s 1615 route up the Ottawa, which will take them to Lake Temiskaming and, eventually, through a series of rivers and lakes to James Bay.
Along the way, the men have garnered quizzical glances and raised eyebrows. Recounting the reaction of more than a few Québecois, they affect their best French Canadian accents, and say, “Bay James? Mon Dieu!”
Here on the Ottawa, ours are the only crafts on the water. We are not in the wilderness, but we are all alone. To our port side is Ontario and to our starboard is Québec. Both shores are lined with a smattering of suburban-style houses, mobile homes and the occasional gaudy mansion. Highways and high-tension wires run parallel to the river, which, of course, was itself once a highway.
My friend Hannah — whom I’ve talked into joining me for my three days on the Ottawa — and I paddle hard, but we struggle at times to keep up with the guys. Our rented yellow plastic canoe lacks the freeboard of their high-gunwaled boats, causing us to take on frigid water as the swells splash over our bow.
Wearing matching blue jackets emblazoned with an Expedition 2012 logo, our comrades pass the time on the water bantering about pop culture, telling old Keewaydin stories and, most of all, it seems, singing. By the time we make landfall two hours later to scout for a campsite, I have heard renditions of “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and the Bucknell University alma mater.
Song is a big part of this expedition. Tom Bloch, a crew member who graduated from Bates College last year and worked briefly for a Washington, D.C., law firm, explains that many of the songs sung at Keewaydin describe canoeing journeys of the past.
“We always sing about these epic trips,” he tells me after we’ve set up camp not far from a highway on the Québec side of the river. “With this trip, we’re trying to show campers it’s still possible.”
Indeed, the paddlers intend to follow the route of a storied Keewaydin journey chronicled in a song called “The Trip In,” which describes a trek to Lake Temagami, where another Keewaydin camp is located. All five boats — Sylvan Bliss and Lord of the Forest among them — are named for lyrics in camp songs.
Expedition 2012 “sort of pulls the songs from the pages for these kids,” says Pete Wright, a math teacher whose grandparents met on Lake Dunmore and who has spent 15 summers at Keewaydin.
The crew sets up camp with impressive efficiency. Each has a designated role for the day as delineated by a complex spreadsheet hammered out in advance. The arrangement assures that no one is paired with the same partner in any of the five rotating tasks: Two are assigned to build and tend a fire; two bake bread and dessert; two serve as leaders and navigators; two “roamers” help out where help is needed. The least desirable of the roles is “walloping,” which is Keewaydin jargon for doing the dishes. Time-honored tradition has it that one is to giggle while one wallops.
To Hannah, all this talk of summer camp is utterly foreign. She shoots me a look when the guys wax nostalgic about summers past or launch into song. Having grown up in Vermont hiking and paddling with her family, she finds it odd the way these flatlanders come north from New York and Boston to wallop in the woods in organized groups of boys before heading back to their prep schools and liberal arts colleges.
Me, I’m conflicted. I myself spent eight summers at a different boys’ camp on the other side of Vermont from Lake Dunmore. Some of my fondest early memories are of canoe trips to the Rangeley Lakes and the Adirondacks — not walloping, but certainly singing camp songs. Nevertheless, I stopped working as a summer camp counselor nearly a decade ago, and I can’t help but wonder when — or if — these guys ever will.
“Keewaydin inspires lifelong loyalties in a lot of people,” Souser tells me later. “So it’s not weird to be sitting here at 25 or 26 saying, ‘What am I doing still at summer camp?’ when there are people who have families that come up every year for summer camp who have been doing this for 30 or 40 years themselves.”
Try as I might, I cannot help but think of these 10 men — most only a couple years younger than myself — as the Lost Boys paddling north without their Peter Pan.
It’s raining when, at 5:15 on Saturday morning, the call comes out that a breakfast of pancakes and bacon is ready. In matching blue-and-white Expedition 2012 rainsuits, the boys around the fire are oddly chipper for such a miserable morning. Despite the early wake-up, it takes nearly two hours for them to organize themselves and hit the water.
We still aren’t in the wilderness — that won’t come for another couple of weeks — but the further from Hawkesbury we travel, the more fields and silos appear, broken up by small villages with stone churches. The river, once nearly two miles wide, narrows as we pass one of three car ferries that link the two provinces between Hawkesbury and Ottawa, which are approximately 70 miles apart.
We eat lunch on a peninsula just past the Québec town of Montebello. The cold rain has left me shivering and uncoordinated, so after a quick bowl of coffee and some gorp, Hannah and I shove off while the boys continue munching on the second course of their midday meal. On a day like this, you have to paddle hard to keep yourself from freezing.
Despite our head start, five boats soon overtake us. It occurs to me that, in addition to their muscles, the guys are fueled by the adrenaline of finally being on the journey they spent three years planning.
The idea was hatched in 2009 when Johnny Clore, Jeff Chandler and Souser spent a day off from camp hiking in the Adirondacks. Frustrated that they never spent time with one another outside of camp, they talked about organizing a four-day, counselors-only trip at the end of the summer. Within half an hour, the plan had grown far more elaborate.
“By the time we stopped formulating this idea, it had become an expedition all the way from Vermont to James Bay where we built our own canoes,” Souser says.
As the crew expanded from six to 10, so did their ambitions: They received the backing of the camp and, in return, turned the expedition into a fundraising mission. To date, they have raised more than $200,000 for camp scholarships — much of it from two $75,000 gifts. They secured sponsorships from gear manufacturers, built the canoes with a master craftsman, and talked fellow counselor and film student Kyle Sauer into graduating a semester early so he could serve as trip videographer. After quitting their jobs and explaining themselves to anxious parents and girlfriends, they set off on their journey.
Ahead of us now, the day’s designated navigators investigate a spongy, swampy campsite in national parkland on the Québec side of the river. After we beach our boats and set up our tents, a ranger drives up a road we had not noticed and tells us in broken English that we cannot camp here. Defeated, we take to the canoes and paddle into a driving rain. The wind picks up as we cross a vast stretch of open water.
With 21 miles already behind us that day, we now paddle three more — though it feels like 10. Finally, our navigators settle on a horseshoe-shaped island just outside the nature preserve, and we set up camp again.
In our boat, Hannah and I had debated whether the boys would have the pep and spunk to set up a campfire in the rain, bake bread and sing. Sure enough, they do. Gathered around a crackling fire as the sun sets upriver, the crew shovels down heaping bowls of Cajun chili. When I ask how they chose the names of their boats, they explain the lyrical origins of each. And then they burst into song.
“Oh, the ocean waves may roll, may roll! And the stormy winds may blow, may blow!” they sing. “While we poor sailors go skipping to the top, and the land lubbers lie down below, below, below! And the land lubbers lie down below!”
Hannah and I exchange looks, but the boys don’t seem a bit self-conscious. If there’s something wrong with a bunch of twentysomething men singing camp songs around a fire, nobody seems to have told them.
I ask them about their canoes, of which I have become tremendously jealous. Clore, who has said little since our arrival, speaks up. He worked closely with Schuyler Thomson, a master craftsman from Connecticut — himself a Keewaydin alum — to design the boats.
“They’re based on a Chestnut Canoe Company Prospector model,” Clore says. “A model that was famed in the days when the wood canvas canoe was the way you got around in the Maine woods and the Canadian woods.”
Clore — a Princeton graduate who earned a master’s in education last year from Harvard — speaks admiringly of their deep hulls, their ability to withstand waves and cut a straight line through water when fully loaded. Built with white cedar ribs, red cedar planking and covered with epoxied canvas, the canoes are tough, but occasionally require patching.
Clore’s reverence for these five canoes brings to mind that of Henri Vaillancourt, the famed New Hampshire canoe builder John McPhee profiles in his classic, The Survival of the Bark Canoe.
Knowing that McPhee, too, is a Keewaydin alum — they seem to be everywhere — I ask the crew if they’ve read the book. Most nod their heads and Clore speaks up again.
“Obviously he talks about the building of boats and the repairing of boats and all that,” Clore says. “But I think my favorite part of that book is where he discusses traveling by canoe.”
Then he quotes almost verbatim one of my favorite John McPhee lines: “Travel by canoe is not a necessity, and it will nevermore be the most efficient way to get from one region to another, or even from one lake to another — anywhere. A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary, but because there is value in the act itself…”
Clore pauses and then continues.
“That’s sort of the way I feel about canoe tripping,” he says. “You can obviously get to James Bay much more quickly than we are right now, but it’s sort of slowing down to the pace of the landscape is what we’re doing in a lot of ways.”
By now the rain has ceased. The fire is dying and the boys drift off to their tents. I retire to my own and am settling into my sleeping bag when I hear someone call out, “Do you say ‘kitty-corner’ or ‘catty-corner?’”
“Kitty!” someone else shouts.
“Catty!” calls another.
“Diagonal!” says a third.
In the morning, a few solitary snowflakes fall on our campsite, melting before they hit the ground. Whoever was in charge of the wake-up call has let us sleep in an extra hour today, but it’s still early — and cold. We eat breakfast, pack up the canoes and, of course, sing.
“Oh, the year was 1778,” Souser calls out.
“I wish I was in Sherbrooke now,” the boys respond in song.
“A letter of marque came from the king to the scummiest vessel I’ve ever seen,” Souser sings.
“Goddamn them all!” the boys sing. “I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold…”
And so on.
As we take to the water, I can see a small patch of clear sky in the distance — the first since we joined the crew two days before. On our starboard side, plumes of smoke emanate from the nearby Fortress Paper mill in Thurso, Québec.
Hannah and I are due back in Burlington, so we bid the boys adieu when we reach Thurso. As we paddle toward a ferry dock, they chant something about Keewaydin; perhaps it’s their farewell call.
The five canoes paddle swiftly out of sight. They are headed west and then north to James Bay — or to Neverland. Whichever comes first.
As I walk through town in search of a hitch back to my car in Hawkesbury, I find myself humming, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Perhaps the day will come when these guys quit paddling against the current and giggling while they wallop. But I hope not.
All photos by Paul Heintz.