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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 04:17 pm

Canoe dig it

Springfield man taking dugout canoe down Illinois and Mississippi rivers


Dean Campbell of Springfield crafted his dugout canoe by hand from a large cottonwood tree.

Dean Campbell of Springfield says ideas are cheap. Putting them into action is what matters.

On Sept. 1, the 78-year-old former teacher will launch a 1,200-pound dugout canoe that he fashioned out of a single gigantic log. The canoe will start on the Illinois River at Beardstown and travel 125 miles down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to St. Louis. Fourteen different people will pilot the canoe during the seven-day journey, and Campbell says the whole project has been a community effort. Everything from Campbell’s workspace to the log itself came from donors in the Springfield area.

Campbell first imagined the canoe while working as a tour guide at the State Capitol, where he got the idea of holding a tourist event to “bring Lincoln to Springfield the way he came: in a dugout canoe.” Lincoln is said to have gotten as far as Riverton by water when he first came to Sangmon County, though that idea didn’t pan out for Campbell.  But he pressed ahead with the canoe itself.

One of Campbell’s fellow Capitol tour guides put him in contact with her brother, Drew Kerr, who owns land along the Sangamon River near Dawson. Kerr allowed Campbell to cut down a large cottonwood tree on the floodplain for free.

But Campbell says he had no idea how to fell such a massive tree, much less move it. Bob Bitschenauer, owner of By-Pass Autobody of Springfield, had already offered to transport the tree into Springfield for free, and Bitschenauer contacted Jeff Leka, his brother-in-law who owns Leka Tree Service in Sherman, to cut the tree down – also for free.

Campbell contacted the Teamsters Local 916 for advice on hauling the tree out of the forest, but the union instead sent apprentices to move the log and load it on the truck – again for free.

By-Pass transported the log to a donated pole barn at Riverside Stables, a horse farm located near another section of the Sangamon River, north of Springfield. There, Campbell spent many evenings over a five-month period hewing a canoe out of the log with a variety of axes and adzes, removing hundreds of pounds of wood in the process. The finished canoe “floats like a cork,” Campbell says, and it’s waterproofed with a thin layer of tar.

Boy Scout Troop 305 of Pleasant Plains is lending Campbell the life vests and paddles needed for the journey, while a barge towing company is scheduled to tow the canoe back up river afterward for free.

The canoe's test runs show it “floats like a cork,” Campbell says.

When the canoe launches on Sept. 1, a team of two volunteers will pilot the craft downriver for a day to a designated meeting spot, where a new pair of volunteers will take over. He designed the trip so that the legs would only require a one-day commitment from each crew member. Campbell and his son, David, will take the final leg on Sept. 7 from Alton to St. Louis.

Campbell says he’s thankful for the help given by so many people to make his idea possible.

“Ideas are cheap,” he says. “The people who helped me are actually making this happen.”

Still spry at 78, Campbell says he enjoys the challenges of such projects.

“To me, all of this is my adult way to play,” he says.

The canoe is just one small bite of history for Campbell. He spends plenty of time at Clayville Historical Site, west of Springfield, helping to plant maple trees and cultivate a patch of prairie like the kind that covered much of Illinois hundreds of years ago.

Once his canoe voyage is over, Campbell plans to devote more time to exploring and promoting Fort de Chartres, a French military settlement established in Illinois south of St. Louis in the 1720s. Campbell calls it “the Illinois equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg” in Virginia. He even started a nonprofit group called The King’s Colony to promote the site, and he says he has “knighted” a handful of people so far.

“History is a record of how not to make the mistakes of the past,” Campbell says. “It’s a fascinating story of our own people, of us. To learn how people lived in a different time period gives us, I think, some way to value what we’re doing now.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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