In 1976, 16 teenage boys reenacted the Sieur de La Salle’s historic canoe odyssey to the Gulf of Mexico in 1681-82, living much as the 17th century voyageurs had while traveling 3,300 miles in six replica canoes built by canoe historian Ralph Frese. They completed their quest on the same day in April that La Salle declared America French, from the Appalachians to the Rockies and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, and called it Louisiana. This August, many of those same boys, now in their late fifties, gathered near the northern edge of their portage across metro Toronto to mark the 40th anniversary of their amazing feat….and their full story is now told for the first time in Hard Rivers: The Untold Saga of La Salle: Expedition II (River Grove Books), a new book written by Craig P. Howard.
As the four got to the shallows, they tried to right the canoe, but their attempt was feeble. Wracked by the cold, they could barely stand. Their bodies shook. Their hands trembled. Small
motor functions completely disappeared. They wanted to save their craft. They could not. They dragged themselves onto the island and let the lake take the canoe. “We were really cold, really not thinking very clearly. But I do remember that for a moment we felt like gods,” Wilson said. “We lived. The rush was overwhelming.”
–from Hard Rivers: The Untold Saga of La Salle: Expedition II.
The near-fatal capsizing in 39-degree Lake Michigan in early November 1976 was just one of many dramatic events in a canoe odyssey set in motion and fostered by Ralph Frese, the 1958 founder of the Des Plaines River Marathon, the oldest continuous paddling race in the United States.
In the summer of 1973 Frese built two canoes in the early Algonquin style and sent seven hardy outdoorsmen on a long journey. Reenacting Louis Jolliet’s discovery of the Mississippi River, they paddled the length of Lake Michigan, across Wisconsin, down to the Arkansas and back up through Illinois to Green Bay. Reid Lewis, Frese’s hand-picked leader to portray Jolliet that summer, then decided to make another voyage, but bigger and better.
Independence Day had already capped the U.S. Bicentennial by Aug. 11, 1976. The closing ceremonies in Montreal just weeks earlier had put an exclamation point on Canada’s national euphoria in hosting of the 1976 Olympic Games. No wonder that the gathering there that day at the edge of the St. Lawrence River was paltry in comparison and the fanfare brief for 16 teenage boys about to start an epic journey that scarcely can be comprehended today.
After two years of training and study, these boys reenacted the Sieur de La Salle’s historic canoe odyssey to the Gulf of Mexico in 1681-82. They lived much as the 17th century voyageurs had. Endorsed by such modern greats as Sir Edmund Hillary and Jacques and Philippe Cousteau, the young paddlers traveled 3,300 miles in six Frese canoes over the same eight-month calendar as the great explorer’s.
But it was not the same journey.
The 20th century suburban youths paddled into the teeth of the coldest winter in the history of the Midwest. In September they fought ten-foot waves on Lake Ontario. In October they trudged up to 175 miles in a portage over Toronto’s concrete and hills. In November some nearly died in frigid Lake Michigan water outside Green Bay. In December the rivers turned to ice and Lake Michigan froze from shore to shore. In January the boys, now marching overland, nearly became road kill on an Indiana highway. Yet they persevered. They all survived. And they completed their quest in 1977 on the same day in April that La Salle declared America French, from the Appalachians to the Rockies and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, and called it Louisiana.
Billed as “Reliving the Past to Explore the Future,” the trip taught the boys lessons that have served them well in the four decades of future through which they have passed. The experience of bringing lessons of conservation and French heritage to America’s heartland is seldom far away.
Now in their late fifties, those teenage voyageurs gathered Aug. 6 near the northern edge of their portage across metro Toronto to mark the 40th anniversary of their amazing feat. As they did for their 35th reunion in New Orleans, they brought along friends and family to a place that holds many memories.
They remembered how carrying tons of gear for half-mile increments up to three times a day left them footsore. They remembered the help and goodwill they received from Canadians who saw their own pioneers marching in costume through their urban lives, camping in their parks, and singing the French folk songs of a bygone era.
Frese often said that the canoe was the only form of transportation invented by man that left no sign of its passing, and that seems also to have been true of La Salle: Expedition II. It was never featured in National Geographic and, until this year, no books had been written about it. Again this year, the hoopla of other events will draw attention. But neither America’s Fourth of July nor the glory of the Rio Olympics can dim the glow of pride these people feel even 40 years later at an achievement that is unlikely ever to be duplicated.
No one watching the graying campers in the woods Friday, Aug. 5, would take them for heroes of an epic canoe voyage. Only a dog recognized the aging Ulysses returned to Ithaca. Yet heroes they were.
As 16 teenagers in 1976 they battled ten-foot waves on Lake Ontario, ferried six 200-pound canoes and 6,000 pounds of gear across metro Toronto, and raced to save each other from hypothermia in 39-degree water off Green Bay. And that was just the beginning.
The boys of La Salle: Expedition II had trained for two years in high school to reenact as 17th century voyageurs the historic journey of the French explorer from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico – and to inform and entertain audiences all the way to New Orleans. They were endorsed by Sir Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau and famed environmentalist Sigurd Olson. They were taught by experts in meteorology, geology, cartography, first aid, winter survival and history. Marine construction was guided by Chicago’s Mr. Canoe, Ralph Frese.
But training never fully prepared them for the coldest winter in the history of the Midwest. Lake Michigan froze from shore to shore, and every river turned to ice, including the Mississippi. Conditions forced the crew to march from southern Michigan to southern Missouri. Four young men were hospitalized in a truck accident. Wind chills plunged past minus 75. The leader, like La Salle himself, faced increasing discontent. Yet they all survived and reached their goal on the scheduled day eight months and 3,300 miles after they pushed off in Quebec, a testament to teamwork, commitment, and the human spirit.
The full story of their tale is told for the first time in a new book, Hard Rivers: The Untold Saga of La Salle: Expedition II (River Grove Books). Written by Craig P. Howard, a journalist who covered the crew’s appearance at their home high schools halfway through the trip, Hard Rivers is based on half a dozen expedition journals, original training documents, letters home, and interviews with virtually everyone involved in the canoes and the land-based support team.
The day after they gathered around a campfire again, this time with beer and barbecue instead of lake water and beans, they sought out the route of their brutal Toronto portage. Now weighed down by nothing more than plastic water bottles, they measured the distance and hiked the last six and a half miles over the hills La Salle had called les montagnes.
The men once hailed in small towns of Canada and the United States have been nearly forgotten in the passage of time. Yet the legendary achievement of La Salle II, accomplished by a group of anonymous kids, reminds modern Americans of the pioneer spirit that beats in all our hearts. And it speaks to the qualities of teamwork that today invest almost every aspect of innovation and progress.
[Editor’s Note: Craig P. Howard’s book, Hard Rivers, uses journals, letters, training documents and interviews with almost all the participants to tell the story of La Salle: Expedition II. Info: www.craigphoward.com