A 5,000-mile canoe trip at 50
ASPEN ” Longtime Aspen resident Jerry Hewey was doing extreme sports long before the words were even connected.
Hewey was one of four Aspen ski bums who undertook a 5,000-mile canoe trip from Denver to Maine starting 50 years ago this month.
The four men got lost in swamps, braved major rivers at flood stage, portaged their canoes for miles because of low water, rapids and other obstacles, and even got shot at. They only had one rule for their fantastic voyage ” they had to rely completely on muscle power.
The undertaking was so huge, several major newspapers followed it, in addition to their hometown Aspen Times. The accomplishment captured the attention of the country enough to warrant a photo spread in Life magazine.
“It’s a big part of my life,” said Hewey, who has spent his career as a lodge operator and ski pro in Aspen.
Like many a good idea, the amazing trip was hatched over cocktails while Hewey and his friends were hanging out at the Stallard House, where Ed Vestal had a room.
“We were sitting around drinking beer, I think it was, telling each other what great woodsmen we were,” Hewey said with a deadpan delivery.
He was from Maine. Vestal was from Connecticut. That fueled a natural, good-natured rivalry.
Vestal had already dreamed of the great canoe trip, backtracking the waterways that trappers and voyageurs used to explore the western frontier. Hewey signed on, along with Earl “Rick” Rickers and Bengt “Red” Soderstrom. Rickers was a geologist; the other three were ski instructors.
Once they agreed to the journey, they started organizing immediately to build off the momentum. That way, nobody could change his mind. “You didn’t want to back out,” Hewey said.
He was 27 years old at the time. He had served in the military and earned his degree in hotel management from the University of New Hampshire, but he couldn’t land a job in Maine. He came to Aspen, where his twin brother was staying, in June 1956 and was hired as a clerk at the Hotel Jerome. He managed the Prince Albert and Roaring Fork properties the winter of 1956-57 and taught skiing when he could.
Hewey said Vestal approached the Old Town Canoe Co. before the trip and they agreed to donate two 16-foot, specially rigged canoes for the journey. The company realized the trip could be good publicity. Kodak agreed to supply film for a photographic diary of the trip. They ended up taking about 2,400 photos.
The men undertook some intense training that spring and launched from Denver at 32nd and Fox streets on May 1, 1957.
“Several Aspen residents traveled to Denver to see the modern-day explorers off,” The Aspen Times reported May 2. The Colorado governor gave them letters of introduction for the other governors along their route.
Despite the fanfare, Hewey recalled an inauspicious launch on the South Platte: “We started in the mud,” he said with a chuckle.
That was a hint at the hardships the men would face as the route wound along 20 rivers, two of the Great Lakes and numerous smaller lakes. They portaged an estimated 100 miles, according to notes Hewey took. Hewey said they would borrow a trailer when they could, load the canoes and harness themselves to pull it along. The canoes and equipment weighed up to 400 pounds apiece.
Accounts in Life and the Bangor Daily News, supplied by Hewey, said the men limited themselves to 15 pounds of gear and two changes of cloths each.
They crossed the Colorado plains and Nebraska on the South Platte. Hewey recalled the river being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They hooked into the Missouri River at the high-water mark of the spring and covered ground fast. The Life story said they made 68 miles on their best days. The trip down 611 miles of the Missouri took only 11 days.
Then came the mighty Mississippi. From St. Louis, the group headed upstream to north of St. Paul, Minn., to hook into the St. Croix River. The 616 miles on the Mississippi River required 31 days of travel.
Hewey said they would find sloughs and other backwater routes where they didn’t have to fight the current.
A photo spread in Life shows the four well-conditioned men with muscles rippling everywhere. “We were in good shape before,” Hewey said.
In one photo in Life, they are out of their craft tugging the canoes over logs jammed in a Mississippi River slough. In another, they are paddling across a water surface as smooth as glass. They looked like true adventurers, complete with burly beards.
Hewey said his fondest memory is how they were treated. People were kind to them along the route, providing a hot meal or a warm place to stay. News of their trip often proceeded them, and they were hailed as heroes. Indian tribes in northern Wisconsin, Canada and the Northeast adopted them.
Not everyone was hospitable: While paddling in secluded locales, Hewey recalled, the calm was interrupted a couple of times by bullets hitting the water. They never saw who was shooting but figured someone was having fun at their expense rather than trying to hurt them.
From Wisconsin, the route took them to Lake Superior and Sault Ste. Marie, across Canada to Montreal, up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec and eventually to the Penobscot River to Old Town, Maine.
The 5,000-mile journey ended on Nov. 11, 1957, six months and 11 days after it began.
Hewey said the men enjoyed one another’s company and worked well together. Disagreements were few and far between. Nevertheless, they weren’t close friends and seldom saw each other after the journey. Vestal and Soderstrom have died. Rickers lives in Mexico.
Hewey returned to Aspen after the canoe trip. He soon met the woman who became his wife. Roz, who came to Aspen from Sun Valley, Idaho, and Jerry raised their family in Aspen, and both were well-known on the slopes.
The Heweys sold their home this spring and are renting in Denver.