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>  News Releases >   2003 >   February

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Posted 02/14/03, by Tamara Steinert

Bohler '03 and Brewitt '03 at a runestone along the Upplandsleden in Sweden
Two Dartmouth students follow the adventures of John Ledyard

John Ledyard's adventurous spirit has long appealed to the imaginations of Dartmouth students. The annual Trip to the Sea, a re-creation of the explorer's 1772 canoe trip down the Connecticut River to the ocean, is just one College tradition that recalls his life. Last spring, Peter Bohler '03 and Peter Brewitt '03 attempted an even chillier adventure—retracing a 1787 trek that Ledyard made from Stockholm, Sweden, to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Bohler and Brewitt had heard Ledyard's name around campus but didn't know much about the explorer until a conversation between Bohler and Weyman Lundquist '52, associate director of the Institute for Arctic Studies, inspired the two students to learn more about Ledyard's northern journey. The explorer apparently intended the 1,200-mile trip around the Gulf of Bothnia and east to Russia to be the first leg of a trip around the globe. However, his arrest by Russian soldiers in Siberia ultimately cut the trip short. Very few other details are known about the trip, but Lundquist suggested clues to Ledyard's life might be found in town archives and libraries along the original route.

Bohler and Brewitt, who are active in the Dartmouth Outing Club and have been friends since they met on their freshman trip, decided they wanted to try to re-create the trip and find what evidence they could of Ledyard's travels. They applied for and received two Stefansson Fellowships from the Institute for Arctic Studies, as well as funding from the Leslie Humanities Center and President Wright's office. After approximately a year of planning, they set off for Sweden at the end of March 2002.

"The thing that really sparked my interest was that there are no direct sources about this episode in his life," says Brewitt, a history major. "We had visions of finding Ledyard's name signed into church logs and inn guest books. As it turned out, due to the scanty records available from 1787—fires seem to have been endemic on the Swedish coast in the early 19th century—we didn't find anything like this."

By talking to local officials and consulting old maps, the two students eventually constructed what they believe to be Ledyard's probable route along a road system built by Sweden's King Gustav. With the exception of a train ride between Helsinki, Finland, and St. Petersburg, the students made the entire trip either on foot or by bicycle in a little more than three months. They originally planned to walk the entire route, but snow up to their knees in late April slowed them down so much they decided to buy used bicycles to speed things up.

"Our pace was such that we weren't going to be able to make it the whole way. That was discouraging," says Bohler, who is pursuing engineering modified with studio art as his major. "I'm the type who likes to map out things and plan everything ahead of time. The experience helped me learn that sometimes you have to do whatever you can at that moment, and then you just have to step back and trust that it will work out."

Their experience trekking in snow and muck much of the way demonstrated that it was unlikely Ledyard could have completed the entire trip on foot in seven weeks as he claimed. Again, their historical research proved helpful.

"We found out that King Gustav built a series of guest houses along the road where people could stop and get fresh horses. We think Ledyard probably made use of these and hitched rides along the way," says Bohler.

In St. Petersburg, the young men finally uncovered a source that shed some light on Ledyard's life. A book by a Russian author citing a number of obscure Russian sources explained Ledyard's trip was likely an attempt to learn more about the lucrative fur trade, which, at the time, was dominated by the Russians. This economic explanation for Ledyard's arrest makes more sense to Bohler and Brewitt than an espionage charge.

"If the Russians had really thought he was a spy, they would have confiscated his journals, but they didn't. And they deported Ledyard to Poland rather than sending him to the Pacific, which would have put him closer to his destination in Russian fur-trading territory," Bohler explains.

Although the long hours spent hiking with each other last spring might have been too much for many friendships, now that they're back in Hanover, the two young men share a house together, along with several other students. Their northern venture has inspired both of them to look toward careers that will enable them to do similar travels, perhaps doing adventure journalism or leading groups on similar treks.

- Tamara Steinert

Bohler and Brewitt have posted an online chronicle of their trip at activities/ledyardtrek.html.

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