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MPH senior spent summer on 1,000 mile canoe adventure

DeWitt resident and Manlius Pebble Hill senior Sofia Verheyen spent her summer on the water, basking in the sun, enjoying the great outdoors … sort of. While this is all true to some extent, she didn’t exactly enjoy a lot of “down time” during her summer break. She did, however, have an adventure like no other, paddling almost 1,000 miles from western and northern Ontario to Hudson Bay by canoe with Camp Wabun. It was her sixth year as a Camp Wabun member, with each summer trip proving to be longer and more strenuous.

Camp Wabun was founded in 1933 and is rooted heavily in tradition. In fact, campers today are traveling the same routes they did all those years ago. Their philosophy is this: “Wabun provides boys and girls with the opportunity to travel in uncomplicated ways in undisturbed wilderness territories. Campers develop confidence born of competence as they become proficient in canoe-tripping skills, enjoy a wonderful growth in maturity and responsibility, and have great fun with other campers and staff. The young adults who leave home in June return in August more mature, physically stronger, self-assured and with new friends and confidence that will serve them well through a lifetime of challenges.”

Six years ago, Sofia expressed interest in a summer camp experience. Her mother, Hope Kuniholm, offered a suggestion — Camp Wabun, the camp where she spent her summer in 1982. Having no real canoeing experience, but ready for an adventure, Sofia said she’d give it a try. At that time, the longest trip was just seven days. This summer, she traveled for six weeks straight.

There are no luxuries of homes on these trips. Campers are without cell phones and modern technologies. They chop wood, build fires and cook over open flames … then they paddle. And not just the leisurely paddling we see on Skaneateles Lake. There’s portaging, running whitewater, changing weather conditions and hours of physical labor. However, with this hard work comes a reward like no other. Not just the physical rewards, but leadership skills and self confidence that will be apparent for years to come.

“I think my mom kind of noticed just how busy I became and how often I would rely on technology,” said Sofia. “I think that may be a reason she wanted me to go to camp … I think it was a very unique experience.”

Sofia’s group visited three “First Nations” communities throughout the six-week journey, the first being the Neskantaga community along Attawapiskat Lake on day 15 of the trip. These short stays in the communities offer campers a chance to receive letters and care packages from home, rest up and learn about the community’s culture.

Sofia spoke about some of the challenges along the way. There was the time on day five that her group of six had to create a three-mile long portage due to the low water in the creek, the slight anxiety of not having an exact route, the “bush to portage,” which forces campers to create a trail from scratch and let’s not forget those waterfalls and polar bears. And while the group has GPS for re-routing purposes, marking campsites and emergencies, they rely on good-old-fashioned maps to lead their way. This creates challenges itself, because Sofia found that little creek that’s on the map, isn’t always there.

She’s grown much over these six summers. She no longer gets homesick and has forged lifelong friendships. This is her favorite part — having this experience with a group of girls, who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be friends. This is their common bond — doing something that very few will ever experience.

When asked what lessons she’s learned, Sofia says, “Even if what you’re doing is hard, just keep working through it. You have to keep going — stopping will never help.” 

This lesson translates to her school, work and social life. She also thinks it’s important to note that all of the people who run Camp Wabun are educators. They’ve served as teachers and administrators so they know kids and understand how valuable this experience is for young people.