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Four women plan to paddle forward while giving back

Spread out on a floor covered in maps, sleeping bags, food packages and paddles earlier this week, four women charted a course on lakes and rivers from the Boundary Waters to Hudson Bay.

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Chelsea Froemke (from left), Steph Branchaud, Tessa Larson and Whitney Vogel are taking a 1,239-mile long canoe trip from Seagull Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to York Factory on Hudson Bay. They're undertaking the trip as a fundraiser for the Wilderness Canoe Base, a Lutheran Bible camp. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
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Spread out on a floor covered in maps, sleeping bags, food packages and paddles earlier this week, four women charted a course on lakes and rivers from the Boundary Waters to Hudson Bay.

The quartet - Chelsea Froemke, 26, of Duluth, along with Whitney Vogel, 26, Steph Branchaud, 25, and Tessa Larson, 28 - will leave Sunday to follow that route on a summer-long canoe trip of more than 1,200 miles.

The trip, entitled "Journey 4 Renewal," is serving as both a personal challenge for the women and a fundraiser for the place that brought them together: Wilderness Canoe Base (WCB) Lutheran Bible Camp at the end of the Gunflint Trail. The organization that manages WCB is trying to raise money to purchase the camp.

"We realized we were doing this amazing trip at the same time that WCB was doing their renewal campaign, so we decided to merge the two and make the trip even more meaningful," Vogel said. "It's not just about us and our journey, but we can help out WCB at the same time."

The four women previously worked at the Wilderness Canoe Base, guiding trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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"It's a pretty magical place," Froemke said. "I've had the opportunity to run into a couple of our campers over the years and it's amazing to hear how those six days in the BWCA shaped them."

Planning for the trip

Their time as guides at Wilderness Canoe Base provided inspiration for this summer's adventure. The women heard of other, similar trips, and wanted to try it themselves.

"The idea had been there for a while, but when the people came together, it was a moment of OK, we can do this,' " Froemke said.

Technology will play a major role in updating people on the four women's progress from Seagull Lake to York Factory on Hudson Bay - and it also was also instrumental in their planning for this trip.

The responsibilities of planning were split up among several time zones, states and countries, and it has only been in this past week that the pieces have come together.

"We (never were all) together in the same building until last Sunday," Larson said of the trip planning. "We planned all this trip over Skype, Google Docs and email ... that amazing technology that we're leaving behind."

And it won't just be the four women making the 1,239 mile trip. The friends will be joined by Larson's dog, Avery.

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"She's always been an adventure dog," Larson said. "She's done everything from skijoring to mountain biking to sailing. I've taken her on a couple trips and she's just such a fun add-on."

The women are well aware of the challenges they may face on the trip.

"There's some really big water that we'll be paddling on, Lake Winnipeg and Lake of the Woods," Froemke said. "And rapids - none of us have a lot of experience on rapids."

They will have a satellite phone with them and have generated a list of nearby help and evacuation routes - but they say that their biggest resource is each other.

"I'm an EMT, Steph is a PT, and both Tess and Chelsea ... have wilderness first aid," Vogel said.

The four women said the stereotype of outdoor adventures being a male activity doesn't apply at Wilderness Canoe Base.

"It's not a question there," Froemke said. "Of course women can lead trips just as well as our male counterparts."

The women are hoping to show others that their adventure is for everyone.

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"Part of our trip not only shows everyone that trips like this are possible to plan and execute, but it shows women that this opportunity is possible, if you work hard and ask for help and get yourself the right resources," Larson said.

Wilderness Canoe Base

Wilderness Canoe Base was founded in 1956 by Plymouth Christian Youth Center (PCYC), and was owned and managed by PCYC until 2001, when Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp took over management.

For the past 15 years, Lake Wapogasset has been trying to raise money to purchase the camp from PCYC, calling the donation push the "Renewal Campaign."

The women's trip aims to raise money to help reach that goal. The trip is sponsored by businesses such as Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, Cooke Custom Sewing and Super One Foods, and they're collecting donations.

The Rev. Paul Hill, executive director of Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp, estimates that by the end of the summer - and the women's adventure - his organization finally will have the $1.2 million needed to purchase WCB.

"I worked with some alumni that I knew that were of the means and the ability and asked them for the matching grant gift of up to $50,000. For every dollar raised by the (canoe trip), that dollar gets matched," he said.

Hill said he wanted to ensure that the paddlers were up to the challenge before he gave his blessing to the trip.

"The only question I asked was, 'Are you guys good enough to do this trip?' and once I heard about all their credentials and certifications, I was more than satisfied that they could handle it," Hill said. "After I was reassured that they knew what they were doing, I became their biggest fan."

The support that the four women are showing with the "Journey 4 Renewal" is mirrored in the WCB support for them.

"We will be getting to WCB the first week of their summer and getting back the last week, so it will be nice to bookend the summer with our trip," Froemke said. "There is this community of campers, alumni and staff that will be thinking of us throughout the summer and we'll certainly be thinking of them."

Outdoors art

The paddlers will depart Sunday with everything they need in their canoes - and more than just food and clothing.

Larson, who received a master's degree in art therapy from George Washington University, studies the use of art to process experiences in the outdoors. She'll put those skills to use on the trip.

"In my own experience in taking really meaningful trips, art is just a totally different record of the trip," she said. "It's very sensory-based and so it brings you back to that moment in a different way than pictures and journaling does."

She has packed oil pastels, a travel watercolor set, colored pencils, pens and markers to share with her companions and plans on studying the way they process their summer-long adventure.

They also have packed several cameras to record their journey and send information to their supporters back home when they can.

The trip represents a chance for the women to challenge themselves and give back to a place that played an important role in their lives. Froemke said she views the journey as an opportunity to express the group's gratitude for WCB.

"As four women who pretty much learned all our canoeing and camping skills and were really empowered by this place ... to be able to say thank you through our adventure really feels like an honor," she said.

To follow, and to help

To follow the Journey 4 Renewal or to donate, go to www.journey4renewal.org .

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