Drowned Middleton counselor ‘found his niche’ helping struggling kids

The Middleton man who drowned while kayaking on Lake Superior last weekend was a man of many hobbies, though his friends say his love for helping children reigned supreme.

Robert Weitzel, 57, died on a kayak trip to raise money for a charity that mentors inner-city children through outdoor adventures.

“Bob was a pretty exceptional guy in a lot of ways,” said Tim Keeler, principal at Glacier Creek — the middle school where Weitzel worked as a counselor for 13 years.

“He found his niche here working with kids. I think he really connected with the kids who struggled the most.”

In his personal life, Weitzel would move from one hobby to another. Keeler recalled his ability to learn the guitar, which eventually fell by the wayside as Weitzel took up writing.

Writing became a big part of Weitzel’s life.

On his blog, www.soloingsuperiorinsideout.com, he chronicled his efforts to circumnavigate the largest of the Great Lakes by bike and by kayak.

In a July 2011 post he recounted the moment that prematurely ended his bicycle trip along the northern shore of Superior — he was hit by a car.

He wrote: “I expected the front of the car to smash into the seat of the recumbent. I thought both me and the car would end up twisted in a pile in the ditch … I didn’t think I’d be coming out of the ditch. I thought for sure this was the prelude to eternity … my eternity moment. I’ve always said I don’t want the instantaneous death of a heart attack because I want to know where my life has finally taken me.”

This summer he set out to kayak Lake Superior.

Just last week, he posted a entry that detailed the anxieties of being apart from his wife, Debra.

She had accompanied her husband to Ashland, later meeting him in Bayfield after he spent the day paddling. When the couple departed Bayfield, Debra was bound for a remote costal village in Ecuador on a trip with UW-Madison.

Weitzel wrote: “But it was difficult letting go. I took her picture before I paddled away. When I did, I kept looking around and waving … not wanting the last look to be the last look.”

The couple enjoyed the outdoors together.

Debra, a retired Middleton High School science teacher with a love for the environment, had a partner in teaching Middleton students about nature. “Bob would often help when Deb was doing environmental projects with the kids at the high school,” Keeler said.

They also went on outdoor trips together.

Richard Berling, a former Sierra Club trip leader, spent a week with the Weitzels in 2007 journeying into the Canadian wilderness.

“People in the wilderness are either at their best or at their worst. … Bob and Deb handled themselves so well. I’d have them on any trip,” Berling said.

Weitzel was found Sunday morning by the Canadian Coast Guard in waters near Pigeon Point Bay, close to the Canadian border with Minnesota.

“I think he recognized there were hazards there, but Bob had a zest for life,” Keeler said. “I always imagined he had the skills to get out of trouble. I don’t think he underestimated anything.”

Keeler said Debra Weitzel is asking that donations be made to Big City Mountaineers  — the charity Weitzel was fundraising for on his voyage.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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