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    The six paddlers arrived on the shore next to Algonquin College in Pembroke on Aug. 21 after completing 57 days in canoes. CANOE4COVID raised  $76,509.19 for Food Banks Canada to support those affected by the pandemic. (Photo by Patricia Leboeuf, Petawawa Post)

    Two canoes with several people paddling
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    The group was composed of Will Vyse, Tim Mulligan, Nolan Aziz, Jacob Heisey, Cailan Robinson and Georges Kirijian. (Photo by Patricia Leboeuf, Petawawa Post)

    Six young men with arms around shoulders



CANOE4COVID team raises $76,509.18 for Food Banks Canada

By Patricia Leboeuf

Posted on Thursday September 17, 2020

Six friends did what few people are willing to do to raise money for COVID-19 relief: paddle 2,000 km over 60 days.

CANOE4COVID saw these 18-year-olds start their journey in Northern Ontario about 250 km past Thunder Bay. From there, they fought the elements, rough waters, a damaged boat, unknown locations, injuries, poorly mapped paths and a lack of comfortable amenities to make it safely to Ottawa.

All of this to raise $60,000 for Food Banks Canada and support communities and healthcare workers affected by the pandemic.

This goal was not only met but surpassed, reaching $76,509.19 by the time they landed in Ottawa on Aug. 24.

The crew, composed of Tim Mulligan, Jacob Heisey, Will Vyse, Georges Kirijian, Cailan Robinson, and Nolan Aziz are all experienced outdoorsmen. And they came up with the idea when their summer jobs at Camp Ahmek for Boys were cut.

Like any young outdoor enthusiast, they took to the wilds with abandon.

“It’s been a crazy journey,” said Kirijian. “It’s been fun. It’s been hard. We’ve had the best days ever and the worst days ever.”

When they started planning, the concept of paddling so far and for so long was much more nebulous, but as they made their way down the sometimes treacherous riverways, their focus sharpened.

“It’s crazy to see how the whole route formed together, what we were able to accomplish, what we weren’t, and I’m really surprised by what we were able to accomplish,” said Robinson, adding the entire journey was an emotional rollercoaster.

The initiative was led by Kirijian and Robinson, who are two first-year students in the Outdoors Adventure Program at Algonquin College Pembroke Campus.

So they felt it appropriate that they make a stop at the shores of the college on Aug. 21. With just three days before the end of their trip, emotions were high.

“It’s hard to believe that it has all been one trip,” said Vyse. “The start of the trip feels like it’s last year or two years ago. It feels like an eternity, and at the same time, it feels as though it’s gone by very quickly. It’s a very strange feeling.”

The entire canoe trip was a life-changing experience, and the challenges they met along the way only allowed them to build confidence and character.

And there were challenges aplenty.

For the first forty days of the trip, the teens were confronted by constant and unrelenting headwinds. But things got a bit easier towards the end of their journey, notably once they started reaching more popular canoe spots where the portages were clearly marked.

At one point, they were stuck in the “Dark Lands”, a long stretch of continued unpleasantness.

“Those were the days where we’d wake up and have no idea what to expect,” said Kirijian. “We could have a 20 km paddle and a quick portage and the day was over, or we could have a 15 km paddle, a bushwack and we’d end up sleeping in the middle of nowhere with no water around.”

Lake Superior was one challenge they physically couldn’t finish. When they were on the lake, they found themselves in a thunderstorm and realized that the weather would not change any time soon.

“You can’t paddle if you want to live, so it was the decision of if we go out there and die or if we wait here and have the trip be delayed for four days,” said Robinson.

It was the hardest choice, but they ultimately decided to hitch a ride from a man named Snake to Wawa, Ont.

After reaching calmer, more familiar waters, things got back on track.

“I feel a lot safer now that we are on the Ottawa (River),” said Mulligan. “I remember a couple of segments ago where I felt unsafe and uneasy, ... like what’s going to happen tomorrow, what’s going to happen a week from now, but now that we are here I feel very good and confident.”

From it all, they learned to expect the unexpected, and that teamwork is paramount to survival.

This was never more true than when Aziz injured his wrist by dropping the boat on his hand and was unable to paddle towards the end. But there was no way that they would leave their buddy behind.

Despite it all, they managed to finish on time and with more donations than expected.

The paddlers were honestly surprised and impressed by the attention they garnered. Though they knew it was going to be a considerable accomplishment and their fundraising goal was relatively high, seeing the backing from everyone they encountered kept their spirits up.

“I never knew anybody would care so much about canoeing,” said Kirijian.