In 1976, 16 high school students and six adults traveled 3,300 miles by canoe and foot over eight months during what turned out to be the toughest winter the Midwest had ever seen.
The journey retraced the 17th century expedition of French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (aka Robert de La Salle) from Montreal through three Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. It was led by Reid Lewis, then a 37-year-old French teacher in Elgin, Illinois.
The new book, “The Last Voyageurs: Sixteen Teenagers on the Adventure of a Lifetime," tells the story of their journey.
Lewis joins “Chicago Tonight” along with the book’s author, Lorraine Boissoneault, and one of the students who participated in that 3,300-mile trek, Clif Wilson.
Below, read an excerpt from the book.
Nov. 4, 1976 – Washington Island, Lake Michigan
It was a later start than usual. The sun had been up for an hour when the canoes launched from Jackson Harbor at 7:45. The boats glided onto the lake in splendid unison, as if they’d rehearsed the launch hundreds of times. And of course, they had—every day of paddling for the past three months had been a lesson. They were practically experts at this point.
Already the water was a frigid 39 degrees and ice formed rapidly on the canoes. Everyone was dressed in wool hats and mittens, but there was little they could do to protect their faces from the stinging spray. The cold wind nipped at any exposed patches of skin and the choppy surf slapped the canoes. The day was overcast and the air cool, but nothing out of the ordinary. There was no reason to think the six-mile journey would take much longer than an hour.
But after less than a mile of paddling, the wind shifted. In seemingly the blink of an eye the waves had grown to five or six feet and were tossing the canoes around as if they were toys. The six teams were pushed apart by the waves, one taking off in the lead, the others scrambling around to move away from the breaking waves on a narrow strip of shoals to the east. The water was icy cold as it sloshed around their feet at the bottom of the canoes. Men in the middle of the canoes abandoned their paddles to start bailing.
Suddenly Ken shouted out to the others, “We need help! We’re sinking!”
A first wave had hit his boat broadside, sending water swirling around the ankles of Ken, LeSieutre, Hess, and Fredenburg. Before they’d had the chance to react a second breaker followed the watery trail laid by the first, effectively swamping the canoe. Only the tapered points on the bow and the stern poked above the lake’s surface, and some of their gear was now bobbing freely in the water. Everyone sat in three feet of icy water with their feet looped into the gunwales to keep themselves from floating away. For each scoop of water the men were able to bail out, another wave pushed it all back in. To make matters worse, Hess was wearing a heavy plaster cast on one leg to protect his foot, which he’d broken only a week earlier when he slipped on some rocks. He’d continued in the canoes because there hadn’t been any upcoming portages planned, and paddling didn’t require much lower body movement. But now the cast had suddenly become a liability. Leaning back as far as possible to hold his leg above the water, Hess considered what would happen if their canoe sank beneath him. The cast would sponge up the water and he’d plummet like a rock to the bottom.
For the most part, Hess hadn’t doubted his decision to come on the journey. He loved being outside with a group of friends, camping and canoeing everyday. But until this point, his life had never been on the line. He’d had blisters and aches like everyone else, and there had been that minor eye injury after a piece of tinder flew into his face, and the stress fracture in his foot was a bit of a nuisance, but nothing serious had happened. Nothing that might prevent him from returning home to a normal 20th-century life at the end of the expedition. Now he was facing his imminent mortality, in the form of drowning or hypothermia. Neither was very appealing.
“Hey! We’re sinking!” Ken bellowed into the wind again, trying to get the attention of the other canoes, which repositioned to flank the listing boat on all sides.
“Yellow pants keeping you dry?” Cox joked as the five canoes inched toward shore, referring to the foul weather gear some of the men wore under their outfits on rough weather days.
The four men in the submerged boat could hardly spare the energy to laugh. They continued bailing and paddling with grim determination. Hess lay almost flat on his back with his cast straight up in the air like a flag. It would’ve been comedic if the situation weren’t so grave. The cold water soaked into their wool clothes and froze their limbs. If the men weren’t warmed quickly the first symptoms of hypothermia would set in.
As the canoes made their way back to Washington Island, Ken started cracking jokes, trying to distract his crew from their shivering limbs and chattering teeth. His instincts kicked in as tension in the boat rose. Everyone needed a diversion from the miserable cold and the terrifying prospect of capsizing in the rough surf and freezing to death. As a trained actor, he knew he could provide that distraction, telling one joke after another.
After a brief but nerve-wracking struggle the convoy of canoes made it to land, only a mile or two south of the point where they’d launched less than an hour ago. Everyone who wasn’t drenched and frozen rushed off to cut wood for the fires. For the first time since they’d started their journey, the fire was lit with matches from an emergency pouch. It was too risky to waste any time on authenticity now. Ken, Hess, Fredenburg, and LeSieutre stripped out of their heavy wool and linen clothes, peeling off each layer with trembling, numb fingers. Their skin was angry crimson red up to their chests, but none of them looked as if they had any frostbite. Naked but for their underwear, the men wrapped up in warm, dry blankets and huddled close to the fire. Marc Lieberman dug around his pack looking for a small bottle. Though they’d been given plenty of alcohol, he knew the momentary warmth from liquor would do more harm than good. Instead he found a bottle of maple syrup and passed it around. The liquid was like an elixir. Normally used with their breakfast, maple syrup could be a useful preventative against severe hypothermia. The sugars were a quick, easily digestible source of fuel that provided the body with a small boost of warmth.
It wasn’t until the crew had caught their breath that someone realized there were only five canoes on the beach. The only canoe without an adult paddler had never returned to land.
Credit: Lorraine Boissoneault. Excerpted and reprinted with permission courtesy of Pegasus Books.
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