Marquette and Joliet made the trip in a birch bark canoe.
Almost 300 years later, Ray Christe and Larry Kozak will attempt the same journey using a solar-powered boat.
The two area men, who came together to form the CalypSol Group, began designing the boat nearly two years ago.
After a ceremonial launch at 3 p.m. today at West Beach in Crystal Lake, they’ll soon depart on a two-month journey down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers from Chicago to New Orleans, a route still referred to as the “French Corridor.”
They’ll camp along the banks of the river, sight-see and visit with the people they meet along the way. Every seven or eight days or so, they’ll spend a night in a hotel, they say, for a shower and a good night’s sleep.
They’re doing it out of an appreciation of history, a desire to show off their boat, to emphasize that the journey can be made without polluting the air or water, and most of all, out of a sense of adventure.
“We’ve done a lot of things together,” said Kozak, who has joined Christe on backpack outings in the Alps and Northern Cascades, as well as other trips.
This is not the first or the last journey for the two men, who preferred not to share their ages.
“I’d go to the moon if I could,” said Christe of Lakewood, a retired electrical engineer.
He and Kozak, an engineer from Algonquin, recently took the boat, a 22-foot trimaran, out for a test run on Crystal Lake.
“Let’s get this thing in the water,” Christe told Kozak. “What do you think?”
They say they’ll likely depart from Navy Pier in mid-June but chose to do a ceremonial launch in Crystal Lake.
“A lot of people wanted to be here when we put it in the water,” Christe said.
Requiring more than 1,200 hours of work, the boat basically contains two batteries that alternately run the motor. Both batteries are charged by solar panels and can last 6 to 8 hours.
The boat also contains an on-board computer and GPS navigation system, and the men will carry cell phones. A small storage area allows them to bring along some food and drink, as well as 13 pounds of supplies each.
A sundial designed by Christe provides the best angle to position the solar panels into the sun.
He and Kozak built the boat, finished in September 2011, except for the main hull, which was fused by Melges Performance Sailboats in Zenda, Wis.
“Our number one enemy is the wind,” Christe said, adding that the boat is very light and easily blown.
“It really floats like a feather,” he said.
Other dangers include Asian carp potentially jumping on the craft, large barges that “don’t turn,” speed boats and alligators.
“We’ll stay away from them,” Christe said of the reptiles.
He’ll complete the entire journey, while Kozak likely will take part in the beginning and the end. Throughout part of the journey, a couple of Christe’s friends from Switzerland and perhaps Kozak’s teenage son, Ed, will join him at various points.
The canoe only holds two mariners at a time.
“I’m the captain, so I have to stay on the boat,” Christe said.
He was inspired to create the solar-powered boat after meeting the creators of PlanetSolar (www.planetsolar.org), the biggest solar ship in the world. The ship departed in September 2010 from Monaco and traveled around the world, arriving back in Monaco this May.
“That inspired us,” Christe said.
Once he completes this latest journey, he hopes to market, sell and rent a two-man, solar powered boat for public use.
But the main reason for the trip, he said, is out of a sense of “fun and having a good time, enjoying everything.”
“We’ve been looking forward to this adventure for quite a long time,” Kozak said. “It’s been a lot of work.”