By Craig P. Howard
“I was on a lot of sports teams before and after our trip,” said former gymnast Terry Cox. “But I never learned as much about teamwork as I did with La Salle: Expedition II.”
Sixteen junior boys at Elgin and Larkin high schools worked together in 1974-76 to master modern sciences using arcane instruments; to learn history, music and French, and to discuss it all with people from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico while reenacting La Salle’s journey to claim the Mississippi watershed for France.
As Illinois teenagers in 1976, the canoe men of La Salle: Expedition II paddled up the St.
Lawrence River and dueled ten-foot waves on Lake Ontario before starting an arduous portage north across metro Toronto. Cox, then 27, was one of half a dozen adult directors.
Dressed as 17th century voyageurs, the travelers wore moccasins that scarcely cushioned their feet as the boys trudged five miles for every road mile – a total of 175 miles – ferrying six canoes and three tons of equipment. The caravan marched over hot city pavement and rural gravel roads and through hills so rugged that La Salle himself called them les montagnes.
And that was the easy part.
The boys became men as they paddled their canoes into the coldest winter in the history of the Midwest. Lake Michigan froze from shore to shore, and all the rivers iced solid, including the mighty Mississippi. The 35-mile Toronto portage paled beside the 500-mile hike from southern Michigan to southern Missouri, where the river ran free again.
On Saturday, Aug. 6 the adventurers reunited to mark the 40th anniversary of launching their incredible voyage they had in 2012 to celebrate the 35th year of their arrival – on schedule – in the Gulf. Clif Wilson, who was capsized in 39-degree waters near Green Bay and run over by a truck in Indiana during the ordeal, organized the gathering. Randy Foster, who cooked during the expedition, cooked again for his mates.
The morning after their celebration, the voyageurs once again gathered deep in the Ontario hills for a 6.5-mile hike along Weston Road to the place where they had once again eased their canoes into water at the Holland Canal and paddled toward a rendezvous with history.