This September, Muskoka teenager Cailan Laine Punnewaert will embark on her third annual paddle through the heart of Muskoka to raise money for the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. At only 15 years old, Cailin will aim to cover 300 to 400 km of water with her mother, Debbie, and their Shih Tzu, Tinkerbell.
Cailan started her first fundraising canoe trek in August 2020, when she paddled 125 km for the same wildlife sanctuary. We talked to Cailan about her involvement with the sanctuary, what she’s learned through paddling in Muskoka, and what she’s hoping to accomplish through this year’s fundraiser.
How did you first get involved with the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, and how did it become a passion of yours?
My family and I always knew there was a wildlife sanctuary up here, but my involvement started when I took some injured squirrels over. I started learning more about the sanctuary and realized how important it is to care for our animals.
Why did you decide paddling would be a good way to raise money?
I started raising money and volunteering for the sanctuary when I was about 11 or 12. But I soon realized that I needed to go bigger—and that’s when we came up with the idea for the Muskoka paddle fundraiser.
What have you learned paddling hundreds of kilometres over the last couple of years?
I’ve definitely learned the importance of staying hydrated. During our paddle last year, I developed heat exhaustion one day, which was a bit challenging. That was a long day, but I slowly drank water and ate bits of food, and by the next day, I was fine. Another thing I’ve learned is how to get faster and work harder with the paddle, which helps you move more quickly along the water.
What type of wildlife have you encountered along the way?
We always end up following at least one heron! We’ve also seen some weasels and a couple of otters.
What type of preparation is required for such an extensive paddle?
There was a lot of preparation for our first paddle in 2020 because I was really nervous. I did lots of paddling throughout the summer, and I even did drills where I would fall out of the canoe and get back in. I got some serious blisters the first year, which made it very painful. But the second year was better—my hands have toughened up, and now they don’t blister. I find it much easier to paddle now.
Is there anything that concerns you about your upcoming paddle?
Open water. I always get scared on the open lakes. Some boaters are definitely more respectful than others, but accidents can still happen. We’ve almost flipped a few times because of boat wakes. So we try to stick to the coastline as much as possible.
How much money are you hoping to raise for the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary?
My goal is to raise $100,000 before I go to university. So far, I’ve raised about $50,000 through a combination of paddles and other events.
And what do you hope to accomplish with the paddle?
I want to raise awareness and money for the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. They try to put as many rehabilitated animals back into the wild as possible. And without animals, I just don’t know what Muskoka would be. We need to take care of our wildlife—they’re habitat heroes.
You can make a donation to support Cailin and the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary here. All funds go directly to the sanctuary.
You can follow Cailan and her adventures on Instagram at @explore_with_muskoka_girl.