Port Carling Teen To Paddle 250 Kilometres In Support Of Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary

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Port Carling teen Cailan Punnewaert paddles from Huntsville to Bracebridge as part of a fundraiser for Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in August 2020
Port Carling teen Cailan Punnewaert paddles from Huntsville to Bracebridge as part of a fundraiser for Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in August 2020. Photo courtesy of Cailan Punnewaert

Last year, Port Carling teen Cailan Punnewaert paddled 120 kilometres to raise money for Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. Now, she’s taking to the water again in support of local wildlife and this time, she’s doubling the distance.

The 14-year-old wildlife advocate has raised over $17,000 since her first paddle last August, which had the teen and her mom Debbie paddling from Huntsville to Arnold’s Bay. Before that, she raised about $15,000 for the sanctuary by attending events and going door to door. Her goal is to raise $100,000 for Aspen Valley by the time she turns 18 since that’s the age when she’ll be able to volunteer for the sanctuary’s animal care program. She and her mom are gearing up for another paddling adventure this August after spending four days straight on the water last summer.

“It was an incredible feeling of relief, excitement and a bit of nerves still mixed in there,” Cailan said. “It was a little nerve wracking because a few of the spots we went through were new to us, [but] it felt good, especially with how much money we raised for the sanctuary.”

It was incredible to see how the community pulled together in support of her fundraiser, she said, and the best part of the experience was seeing the fawn housing she helped fund get built at the sanctuary. 

Port Carling teen Cailan Punnewaert and her dog Tinkerbell camping during their 2020 paddle for Aspen Valley
Cailan Punnewaert and her dog Tinkerbell camping during their 2020 paddle for Aspen Valley. Photo courtesy of Cailan Punnewaert

The hardest part of the paddle was the many portages along the way, especially the small portages on Moon River that had them out of their canoe every five minutes. They’re still working to nail down their route for this year with the goal of minimizing the pesky portages.

“It’s really hard to go 250 kilometres with no portages, so we’re reaching out to friends who are good at mapping for that,” Cailan said. “I’m a little nervous, but I’m sure as soon as I get out to the water, I’ll be ready to go, and so will my little shih tzu who gets in the canoe before everyone.”

Cailan and Debbie are dehydrating food and getting out on the water in preparation for their trip, but the most important part of their prep is making sure that locals know the importance of the cause. Animals are such a big part of our environment, Cailan said, and since Aspen Valley is the biggest wildlife sanctuary in Ontario, it’s crucial to keep them going with donations and support from the public.

“[Animals are] what keeps our whole planet just alive and well,” Cailan said. “At Aspen, we call them habitat heroes because they do so much. Like possums eat ticks and mosquitoes, and even though people think they’re pests, they do so much for us that people don’t realize, and I think it’s important that Aspen can not only educate people on all of these animals that do so much but also help the animals.”

Alison Withey, director of advancement and communications at Aspen Valley, said their wish list is long due to the many animals in their care, which is part of what makes community fundraising efforts so essential.

“Cailan’s enthusiasm and commitment to the animals at Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary is remarkable,” Withey said. “We are always grateful when members of the community lend a hand in raising funds for the sanctuary, and Cailan has taken it to the next level having campaigned to raise funds for a much needed deer fawn enclosure.” 

Since they rely entirely on the generosity of donors and volunteers, the staff at Aspen are excited to have a new dedicated facility for injured and orphaned fawns, which has been on their wish list for some time now. Debbie said she and Cailan were encouraged by the community’s response to last year’s paddle, so they’re looking forward to stirring up more support for Aspen Valley with their next adventure.

“We just want to make sure that people understand that it’s really about raising the money for the sanctuary but also the awareness that they aren’t government funded, so they really need us,” Debbie said. “The future of the planet really relies on wildlife. I think sometimes we forget how much.”

Cailan Punnewaert holds a painted turtle while wearing her Aspen Valley t-shirt. Photo courtesy of Cailan Punnewaert

There were hard days during last summer’s paddle, Debbie said, particularly because they hit rough waters and high winds at times. Whenever Cailan would start to feel exhausted, Debbie would remind her of what they were doing it for and she’d start to paddle like crazy.

“It was a lot,” Debbie said. “I mean, anyone who does a four-day trip with that many portages would know, but I was really proud of her that she stuck it out.”

The increased distance doesn’t phase Debbie and she’s proud of her daughter for her persistence and her dedication to what she believes in. Last year they were racing against storms and walked into their house the moment the skies opened up, so they’re hoping for better weather this time around.

Regardless of what comes their way, Debbie hopes that their fundraising efforts continue to show Cailan what a big impact she can have in making the world a better place.

“If we end up doing double the following year, or whatever she wants to do, I will go right along with her and help her out every step of the way because I’m lucky to have her and lucky to have her with the attitude that she has about making a difference in the world,” Debbie said. “Who knows where we could end up if we just keep following her.”

To follow along with Cailan’s fundraiser, visit her Instagram and Facebook pages. To make a donation in support of her efforts, click here.

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