NIPIGON, Ont. – Travelling through the isolated wilderness of Wabakimi Provincial Park, it’s possible to forget about the COVID-19 pandemic causing disruption around the globe. But not for the six young men behind Canoe4Covid, who focused their epic 60-day journey from Armstrong to Ottawa on the crisis.
The team had raised nearly $50,000 for COVID-19 support efforts when they left Nipigon Monday morning after a day and a half of rest, closing in on their initial fundraising goal only a sixth of the way through their trip.
The group of 18-year-olds (and one almost-18-year-old), who hail from Toronto, share a passion for the outdoors and canoe tripping. They met as councillors leading trips at a camp in Algonquin Park last summer.
When the pandemic first began registering as a serious crisis earlier this year, team member Georges Kirijian was in denial, texting daily with friends about whether the camp might still be able to operate.
“We were trying to block the idea [that it could be cancelled] out, convincing ourselves it was going to happen – because this is like our safety net,” he said.
When hope turned to disappointment, the group started dreaming big, conceiving of the idea of a massive canoe trip from Wabikimi down to Ottawa that would help raise money for those impacted by the pandemic.
They initially thought their $60,000 fundraising goal was ambitious, if not unrealistic. All six were taken aback at the success of their campaign, which took them by surprise after days without cell or internet service.
“About three days ago, we got service for the first time,” recounted Kirijian. “Right when we saw the bar, we were all making bets about what the number was going to be at – none of us were even close.
“When I first came up with the idea of $60,000, I thought it was a ridiculous number, and we’re close to it. I don’t know what’s going to happen after this.”
The money will go to Food Banks Canada’s COVID-19 response fund, with half dedicated to supporting Indigenous communities.
The dramatic scenery of the region had made a strong impression on the team, with Wabakimi, Kopka River, and Lake Nipigon – where they travelled 80 kilometres in a day, including a 12-kilometre open water crossing – some of the highlights.
Encounters with other people, while rare, had also brightened the trip – Bruce Hyer of Wabakimi Outfitters had met the team on a float plane to drop off some fruit, while a handful of Nipigon residents awaited them on their arrival.
While they’ve found time to enjoy the scenery, the idea of the trip is to push themselves to their physical limit, they said – part of what has drawn attention to the fundraising initiative.
“The route we’re doing is so intense that people in the canoe tripping community see that and are impressed,” said Cailan Maurutto-Robinson. “We’re really pushing ourselves.”
While grueling, that has an appeal of its own, he said.
“It’s an adjustment to be hauling so hard every day, doing an average of 40 kilometre days. But eventually, you just get in this rhythm that cannot be stopped. You wake up in the morning, the tents are packed, the next thing you know you’re on the water, paddling.”
From Nipigon, the crew will spend seven days paddling Lake Superior to the Michipicoten River, spending time on the Spanish and French Rivers and Georgian Bay, before taking the Ottawa River to their destination in the nation’s capital.
Their progress can be tracked on their website, where donations can also be made, or through their Instagram account. The crew is also filming a documentary of the trip that will be made available after its completion.