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Bicentennial Paddlers Recall Their Test of Endurance

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Then and now: Marc Lieberman (foreground, left) hauls equipment uphill on the gravel of Weston Road in September 1976. Forty years later expedition photographer Bart Dean (below left) and voyageur Keith Gorse lead expedition veterans on a 6.5-mile hike along the now-paved road. (Photo by Barton Dean)
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Photo by Craig P. Howard

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.

La Salle II veterans pause at a sign identifying the historic voyageur portage route. They include (standing from left) Keith Gorse, Bob Kulick, Gary Braun, Terry Cox, George Lesieutre, Sam Hess, Chuck Campbell and Marc Lieberman and (kneeling) Cathy Palmer and Randy Foster. Palmer was a member of the liaison team.
La Salle II veterans pause at a sign identifying the historic voyageur portage route. They include (standing from left) Keith Gorse, Bob Kulick, Gary Braun, Terry Cox, George Lesieutre, Sam Hess, Chuck Campbell and Marc Lieberman and (kneeling) Cathy Palmer and Randy Foster. Palmer was a member of the liaison team.

Photo by Barton Dean Bow man hacks at solid ice as fellow crewmen paddle through the thick slush in front of Wilmette’s Baha’i Temple in December 1976.
Photo by Barton Dean
Bow man hacks at solid ice as fellow crewmen paddle through the thick slush in front of Wilmette’s Baha’i Temple in December 1976.
Photo by Barton Dean Voyageurs, including expedition leader Reid Lewis, far right, paddle through a rare open stretch of the icy Kankakee River in late 1976.
Photo by Barton Dean
Voyageurs, including expedition leader Reid Lewis, far right, paddle through a rare open stretch of the icy Kankakee River in late 1976.
 Photo by Barton Dean Six canoes paddle toward Belmont Harbor as dusk descends over Chicago after shelf ice along the shore delayed launch and kept the boys from an elegant dinner at Adler Planetarium.
Photo by Barton Dean
Six canoes paddle toward Belmont Harbor as dusk descends over Chicago after shelf ice along the shore delayed launch and kept the boys from an elegant dinner at Adler Planetarium.

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