Thirteen-year-old Cailan Punnewaert won’t be just sitting around the house this summer. She’s decided to embark upon a kayak adventure in hopes of raising an astounding $100,000 for the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. And she’s looking to her community to help raise the funds by sponsoring her cause.
The Grade 8 student plans to depart by kayak from Huntsville on August 16 and paddle more than 100km through multiple waterways until she reaches Arnold’s Bay on the Moon River.
She is doing this to raise awareness for the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, and ultimately to raise funds to feed and care for the animals in proper habitats.
“I think the most important thing for people to know is that wildlife sanctuaries are not government funded. They are funded by donations, and mostly run by volunteers,” she says. “I like that someone is out there to help the animals that are injured or orphaned. So as much as I love animals, I love these people even more.”
The Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, located on 460 acres of natural habitat in Rosseau, was privately established in the early 1970s in an effort to help rehabilitate orphaned wildlife. According to their website, their mandate is to rehabilitate animals to eventually return them to their natural habitat, and to provide education to the community about co-existing with wildlife.
Punnewaert is quick to point out why there is such a need to rehabilitate animals, and why the funds are so desperately required at the sanctuary to help maintain balance in the environment.
“We are cutting into more of their habitats, and there are way more cars—and unfortunately the animals are paying the price,” she says. “I think people can learn so much from animals. Our ecosystem depends on wildlife and we depend on our ecosystem. Each and every animal has a purpose that creates a balance in our ecosystem, and I find that so incredible. I find it scary that in losing a species we start a snowball effect, and at the end of it is us—humans.” She offers some sage advice in that regard: “Nature and wildlife could do just fine without us, but we wouldn’t do well without them.”
As the largest wildlife sanctuary in Ontario, Aspen Valley looks after over 500 native species per year, and its acreage enables them to care for large animals such as bears and wolves, as well as aquatic animals like otters and beavers. Five dedicated staff members, and many volunteers, allow the sanctuary to run year-round. The sanctuary reports that in 2010 they had an 87 per cent success rate in rehabilitating admitted animals.
When asked to name her favourite animal, Punnewaert is hard pressed to do so, but rather sees the importance of all the different species cared for at the sanctuary.
“Animals that you think are pests really have an important job to do. Raccoons spread seeds when they go to the bathroom, planting more trees and berry bushes. Opossums eat ticks that cause disease. Bats eat mosquitoes that cause disease. Without one species, others may get too large in numbers and throw off the balance,” she says. “There is a circle of life, and it’s important to keep the balance. As Mufasa [from The Lion King] says: ‘Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance’.”
So how did Punnewaert come up with the idea of kayaking to fundraise for the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary? “We like to kayak and do quite a bit during the summer. We prefer to go into places we’ve not explored before to keep things interesting,” she says.
She expects it to be challenging, but she’s ready for that. “We have paddled through Moon River into Arnold’s Bay before. It was hard, [with] lots of chutes and waterfalls, but it was an amazing trip,” she says.
The proposed route will take Punnewaert from Huntsville, down the Muskoka River to Mary Lake, on to Bracebridge, eventually traversing Lake Muskoka and through the Bala River to Moon River, arriving at Arnold’s Bay.
“There’s probably 20 portages and waterfalls. It’s not going to be an easy trip, but what better way to raise awareness for wildlife and nature than … appreciating it for what it is today and hope that it will stay this way forever,” she says.
The teen won’t be completely on her own, as her mother and dog plan to accompany her, and possibly some other supporters along the way. Punnewaert estimates it will take her six to seven days to paddle the more than 100km route. “If it’s rainy, rough, and windy, crossing Lake Muskoka will be hard and could add several days to our trip.”
Debbie Punnewaert fully supports her daughter’s endeavour, as well as her impressive fundraising target. “Normally she’d be going door to door, raising money and attending events,” she says. “We are late getting the word out because with COVID, the time just was never right—and it may not be now either, but it’s a cause that can’t be ignored, so we are pushing on, trying to get the word out to raise the money so badly needed.”
Her fundraising aspirations are high, but as Punnewaert points out on the sanctuary’s website fundraising page, she has confidence in her community. “I hope to raise $100,000. It’s a big number but I think it can be done. Muskoka is a big community that pulls together when needed, and so many people come here to enjoy the beauty that Muskoka has to offer. I’m reaching out to each and every one of you that love Muskoka as much as I do to help me help Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.”
To find out more about Cailan’s Kayak Adventure in Support of Wildlife fundraising event, or to donate, click here.
For more information on the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, visit aspenvalley.ca.
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