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Sacre Bleu! An Illinois Teacher and His Students Retrace La Salle's 1682 Expedition

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Explorer René Robert Cavelier, sieur de la Salle, was 39 in 1682 when he paddled with his voyageurs from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico and claimed all of America’s heartland, from the Alleghenies to the Rockies, for France and Louis XIV.

Reid Lewis is only 36, but in more important ways he is much like La Salle, whose historic adventure he has just re-created in an eight month, 3,300 mile expedition with 22 latter-day voyageurs from the Chicago area.

“A dream burned in La Salle,” says Reid, “and he refused to quit.” The other members of La Salle: Expedition II, now unwinding after reaching the Gulf, agree that a dream burned just as hotly in Lewis, a French teacher, historian and passionate Francophile. How else could he have persuaded 15 high school students, five teachers, a playwright and a Franciscan priest to train for two years, sew their own costumes, re-create in harrowing detail the 1682 expedition and perform educational skits in 127 communities along the way?

The trip took them up the St. Lawrence, through three of the Great Lakes and down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. It was at least as arduous as La Salle’s, and the weather was worse. Off Washington Island, Wis. one of their six canoes—fiberglass since Lewis feared the effects of pollution on birch bark—was swamped by six-foot waves in 39-degree water. “Our survival training paid off,” he says. “The crew stayed with the canoe and away from the island so they wouldn’t be crushed into it.” One day in Indiana a howling gale held their progress on land to two miles. “I was so cold I ached,” said one crew member. The severe winter also froze their river route from Chicago to St. Louis, forcing them to portage 525 miles instead of the expected 120. It also brought them close to tragedy.

In January they were walking beside a two-lane highway south of Chicago. A cattle truck slowed for a look and was rammed from behind by a semi—right into the voyageurs. Four were hurt; one almost died. Two are still in casts but refused to drop out. They traveled the rest of the route in a van with the liaison team that moved ahead of the group to coordinate its public appearances. The voyageurs never walked beside a road again; river ice was much safer. But there was no thought of abandoning the project. “By unanimous vote,” says Lewis, “we kept going.”

That, he believes, is the real spirit of youth today. “Adults don’t give kids enough credit,” Reid says. “This proves that if you give a kid half a chance, he’ll live up to anyone’s standards.”

Chicago born and reared, Lewis inherited “a spirit of adventure” from his parents, who loved to travel. He escaped to the woods with the Boy Scouts, took a B.A. in French at the University of Illinois and later studied in California and France. In 1971 he answered a newspaper ad and became a diver on a team that searched for the treasure from Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind in Ecuador. Two years later he helped organize a reenactment honoring La Salle’s 17th-century Jesuit predecessors, Marquette and Joliet. Then he began planning the La Salle voyage with financing from such sources as France’s Committee on the American Bicentennial. (The trip will end up costing $500,000—which includes salaries for the teachers and $1,000 scholarships that Lewis promised each student. He has already taken more than $30,000 in personal loans to help meet the expected $250,000 deficit.)

The voyageurs of La Salle II sang the French songs of their 17th-century precursors, talked with French accents and addressed one another by French names, each taking the identity of an original adventurer. But the esprit de corps faltered at times.

“The physical difficulties were trying,” says Lewis’ brother Ken, 39, who wrote the voyageurs’ educational skits. “But the psychological problems were twice as difficult.” Lack of privacy created great strain. “It was quite tense at times,” says one teacher. “There were some tremendous egos. If it weren’t for our psychological training—how to deal with anger without coming to blows—it would have fallen apart.” Daily temptations were complicated by amorous girls who sometimes followed them 150 miles downriver. (Women were banned from the trip for reasons of historical accuracy.) Lewis tried to discourage fraternizing with the local females: “It’s not a moral judgment,” he explained with a smile, “but you can’t go raping and pillaging.”

After the Gulf of Mexico, the real La Salle continued his explorations and was eventually killed by his own men when he got them lost in Texas. Lewis has more cheerful plans with his wife of two years, Jan, who traveled with the liaison team. They will spend two weeks camping in Colorado—the man’s appetite for the outdoors seems unquenchable. And then?

“Well,” Lewis says, “some people have suggested that I reenact the Crusades.” He has decided against it.