Welch’s aide paddles his way to Capitol Hill

While many Americans tuned in to their televisions in early June to watch Barack Obama claim victory in the Democratic primary on his way to winning the presidency, Paul Heintz was using the moonlight to paddle a canoe on Lake Champlain.

Before Heintz joined Rep. Peter Welch’s (D-Vt.) office this month as the new communications director, he embarked on a 52-day, 740-mile trip on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, taking him through four states and the Canadian province of Quebec.

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He and his college friend — only the 20th and 21st people to complete the trail — spent most of their time “in the middle of nowhere,” says Heintz, 24. But on June 3, when Obama was declared the primary winner, they turned on their radio to listen to the Illinois senator as they paddled across the New York-Vermont border.

“It was just such a cool moment,” he says of gliding through the night waters while hearing news that “our country was potentially headed back in the right direction.”

Not every part of the trip was that serene.

Shortly before the Obama speech, Heintz and his friend survived a whitewater scare on New York’s Saranac River. After hitting a patch of rapids and slamming into a boulder, they flooded and flipped their canoe, sending their blue barrel of gear and Heintz’s friend rushing down the river. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

“We were really lucky, and [my friend] was able to grab most of our gear,” he says.

Aside from that heart-stopping incident, there were the everyday annoyances, like Black Flies (which he describes as worse than mosquitoes) and the constant rain.

“We’d go sometimes for two weeks on end without any pause in the rain,” he says.

They also had to portage their canoe and gear over land several times, including a six-mile trek in Quebec.

Despite those challenges, Heintz speaks highly of the experience and even parlayed it into an article for The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

Heintz steps into the communications director’s role after Welch promoted Andrew Savage to deputy chief of staff and legislative director. Heintz is already familiar with his new boss’s work; he covered Welch as a politics reporter for the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer.

“I’ve always been struck by how energetic, how aggressive and how effective [Welch] is,” he says. “I wasn’t looking at it so much as, ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity to work on the Hill.’ It was more, ‘Here’s a great opportunity to work for someone who I really respect.’ ”

Heintz plans to mix his journalistic background with his Democratic Party credentials. One of his earliest political memories is seeing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) campaigning with her husband, President Bill Clinton, in 1992. He was president of the College Democrats at Dartmouth College, worked on Howard Dean’s and Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaigns, and interned in one of Rep. Michael Capuano’s (D-Mass.) district offices.

“This is a great job because it combines the best of both worlds,” he says.

Heintz’s predecessor, Savage says he is ready to take on his new responsibilities as part of Welch’s legislative time but “loved directing press and working with the Vermont and congressional press corps.”

“I’ll miss that … aside from the phone calls on weekend mornings,” Savage says.