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The Chillicothe Voice

Chillicothe’s Hometown Hero: Bill Dwyer Inspiration – Canoe Man

Nov 27, 2023 12:17PM ● By Gary Sharp

There is no life as happy as that of a Voyageur. Why do we humans often yearn to dare, calculate, and risk, to do the seemingly undoable? Is it simply curiosity to see what’s behind the farthest star or around the bend in a river? Is curiosity the engine of life that moves us toward success? In order to discover, you must have the opportunity and that’s just what happened to Bill Dwyer and seven men on May 17, 1973—the opportunity of a lifetime for all of them. Their challenge, to retrace the route taken in canoes, 300 years prior, by explorers employed by the French government to search for riverways from Lake Michigan to The Gulf of Mexico headed by Father Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Jolliet, some 103 years before the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

Bill was born on April 14, 1944 to Walter and Catherine Dwyer in Weaksville, NC but they moved to Chicago where he graduated from York High School in 1963. In 1964, Bill enlisted in the Air Force until 1968. He was stationed in Dayton, Ohio at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. He worked on B-52 bombers containing highly sophisticated equipment. After his discharge, he attended Rock Valley College, in Rockford, IL, for more aircraft maintenance training from 1968-70. From 1971-73 he worked at  Sundstrand Aviation on aircraft turbine components for the Concorde jet program and jet fighter emergency turbine components. In May of 73, Sundstrand gave Bill a temporary leave of absence to do the voyage for four months. 

The two main organizers of the reenactment Tricentennial canoe voyage were Ralph Freze and Reed Lewis. Ralph owned a canoe shop in Chicago and handcrafted two 20 foot fiberglass canoes and Reed a 32-year-old French Teacher, organized the details. He also was a participant in the voyage. Others who volunteered were as follows: Father Charles McKenery 37, Jim Phillips 42, Lee Broski 29, Dean Campbell 38, Jeff Leclair 14, Ken Lewis 33, and Bill Dwyer a 29-year-old engineering technician in charge of photography and canoe maintenance. Their historical voyage started at St. Ignace, Michigan where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan join on May 17, 1973. They followed the western coast of Lake Michigan southward toward Green Bay. 

At each small town along the way, they received warm greetings and supplies in exchange for songs, historical performances, and stories told at campfires of Marquette’s and Jolliet’s adventures with the Indian populations. This was a common occurrence throughout the voyage. The Fox River led from Green Bay through Lake Winnebago to Portage, Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River which led to the Great River to the west of the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. It is estimated that some 30,000 people were entertained along this route, where children and parents at parades, lined up to see the strange voyageurs from the river and wanted to learn about an epic struggle in the early history of America. The big river took them to Quincy, IL and finally, St. Louis MO, where they all ascended to the top of The Arch and celebrated. 

None of the volunteers had faced this kind of challenge before. Each one financed their own way on the trip with some help from the many towns’ people along the route, who sometimes provided warm showers and hot meals. They would perform some 165 times and sometimes as many as five per day. 378 miles south of The Gateway City, was Memphis, TN. Each canoe man could pull 60 strokes per minute for one hour and then rested 10 minutes. 154 miles later they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River near Rosedale, MS and turned back north for the return leg of the voyage. This meant paddling against the current and even though the distance back to Green Bay was about 325 miles shorter, the physical aspect doubled. 

For fear of being confronted by the Spanish and unfriendly Indian tribes, Marquette and Jolliet headed north and heard glorious stories of the Illinois River passage. During the 1973 trip, the crew camped at night 126 times and used the overturned canoes as a shelter with tarps stretched across and plenty of mosquito netting. On or about July 17, they started to retrace the Mississippi from Rosedale to Grafton, IL to the mouth of the Illinois River, some 597 miles away and as they said: “damn hard paddling.” Everyone told them, they could not go against the current but they would not be denied. They forged ahead 177 miles to Peoria and Chillicothe, then Lacon, Ottawa, and on to Joliet where the Illinois River became the Des Plaines River then Chicago, Portage, and Summit. At last, finally back on Lake Michigan. Evanston, Waukegan, and Kenosha with stops in between on September 9th. Then Milwaukee, Manitowoc, and Green Bay covering the last 210 miles. 

At a Packers home game, on the 50-yard line at Lambeau Field, Bill Dwyer and his tired crew of Voyageurs were honored for their achievement that took four months and two days and approximately 3500 miles to complete, a feat that will probably never again be accomplished. Bill and the Magnificent Seven faced down a challenge and made their own mark in American history that can not be disputed or taken from them. 

Bill returned to Rockford and his old job and married Miss Priscilla Carlson, a now-retired schoolteacher with 32 years in the IVC school district, on March 12, 1977. They have one son, Justin, born April 21, 1984. Bill was laid off in 1976 from Sundstrand and was then contracted by CDI to work at the Mossville Caterpillar Tech Center. They moved to Rome, IL in mid-1977 for nine years and to Chillicothe in 1987 for 36 years to date. Also in 1976, Bill led a bicentennial voyage from Dubuque to St Louis. After 28 years he retired from Caterpillar in 2007. 

The lifestyle of a serious canoe man and Voyageur is obviously not for everyone but in those early years of river exploration, it was commonplace and the blood that ran through their veins is the same in Bill Dwyer. Any soul, who makes their own historical contributions that benefit mankind, can be known as a hero. In 1987 a hero came back to the shores of the Illinois River at Chillicothe to stay. There have been and always will be Hometown Heroes in Chillicothe of different walks, occupations, and stature and now Bill Dwyer joins those ranks. Your ventures and exploits have added color and distinction to our town’s legacy. Thank you Bill for your Service and may your canoe always follow the course set in your heart and calm waters pave the way.

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