Cailan Punnewaert, a 15-year-old from Port Carling, is setting out on her third annual paddle next week with plans to travel 350 kilometres in support of Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.
Cailan paddled 120 kilometres in 2020 and 250 kilometres in 2021, all with her mother Debbie and her shih tzu Tinkerbell by her side. She isn’t able to volunteer for Aspen Valley’s animal care program until she’s 18, so in the meantime, she decided to set a goal of fundraising $100,000 for the sanctuary, which cares for injured and orphaned wildlife. Along with the $15,000 she collected through door-to-door efforts and working at events, she has raised $28,815 through her paddles so far, bringing her total to nearly $44,000.
“I believe that without animals, we wouldn’t have our Muskoka and our woods and our Earth, really,” Cailan said. “It’s such an important thing and if we want a future, we really need to take care of our habitat heroes.”
Cailan and her crew took some wrong turns during last year’s paddle, and with the hot weather and unfamiliar territory, it made for a challenging journey. Still, despite the difficulties, they’re upping the ante with this year’s trip by increasing the distance. They expect it to be about 350 kilometres with 50 portages along the way.
Cailan and her mom have been canoeing and camping all summer to practice for the big trip. They’re currently dehydrating food and packing grab bags to switch out their supplies as they make their way through Muskoka. Keeping the weight of their packs down is an important aspect to consider, especially since they need room for some special cargo: the nearly 12-year-old Tinkerbell.
They can’t imagine doing the paddle without her, but as Tinkerbell gets older, she can’t handle the rough terrain of some portages. They’re happy to carry her along, though, especially since they know how much the little dog adores her time on the water.
“When you’re suffering and your arms feel like they’re going to fall off, all you have to do is look in the middle of the canoe and she’s looking out and sniffing the air and happy and you’re like, ‘Okay, well, at least one of us is enjoying it at this moment,’” Cailan laughed.
Cailan and Debbie will leave from Moon River Cottages on Sept. 1 and spend a few days in the Moon River area to rest for their trip and let some of the lake traffic die down. Then on Sept. 5, they will start their journey on Moon River before crossing Lake Muskoka and entering into the Muskoka River. They plan to take it slow and enjoy the last few weeks of summer, so they’re not sure how long the paddle will take.
They debated on the route for a while, but they ultimately decided it was best to start and finish at Moon River with mostly familiar territory in between. They’ll face a new portage between the north and south branches of the Muskoka River, but more importantly, they know they’ll be passing through several areas with slim pickings for camping locations.
They’re asking anyone who lives on the Muskoka River that is willing to let them set up their tent on a dock or lawn to send them a message on Facebook or Instagram. Having safe places to camp will give them some options and some peace of mind, Debbie said, and they’re hoping some locals may even join in on the paddle.
“We’re going to track our whereabouts better so that online they’ll be able to see where we are, where we’ll be taking off from the next morning and if they are able to come out and join us, I think it would be great,” Debbie said. “We’re really wanting to turn it into a community event.”
In future years, Debbie hopes to include a community paddle day where other locals canoe along with them before sending them off on the rest of their trip. They met people along last year’s route that expressed interest in joining them for a portion of the paddle, so they’re hoping to see some familiar faces this year.
Wildlife rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries are not government funded in Ontario, which is part of the reason Cailan and Debbie are so passionate about the cause. Places like Aspen Valley rely on donations from the public, and it’s an issue that extends far beyond cottage country.
“People come from far and wide to come to Muskoka, and we feel like it’s more than just a community issue here,” Debbie said. “As a whole, our province and our country need to really understand that taking care of wildlife ensures our habitats and clean air and filtered water and farming. I mean, without wildlife, we don’t really stand a chance for a future.”
Cailan said it’s been incredible to see how supportive the community is, especially considering how COVID impacted people and their businesses over the last two years. Seeing that support has made her feel better about the future since she knows there are people out there who want to protect it by protecting nature.
Debbie is proud to see Cailan’s ongoing dedication to wildlife, and she’s not the only one. The team at Aspen Valley was able to create a new facility for injured and orphaned fawns thanks to the funds raised by her first annual paddle. Alison Withey, director of advancement and communications at Aspen Valley, said they’re in need of that support again as they face another record year of intakes.
“Cailan’s passion for wildlife and their habitat is unstoppable. She has remained steadfast in her goal and we are truly grateful for her support,” Withey said. “This season has brought five orphaned moose calves and five orphaned bear cubs to our doorstep, in addition to hundreds of other animals in need of urgent care. The need is great and your contribution to Cailan’s fundraiser couldn’t be made at a better time than now.”