The Burnside by John Macfarlane
That the Rideau and Arctic Canoe Club paddled twice with Pierre Trudeau—once on the Hanbury-Thelon in 1979 and again on the Stikine in 1994—is well known. But in 1983 a future Canadian prime minister accompanied us down the Burnside River in Nunavut, although not in person. Four years earlier, John Turner, his wife Geills, children Elizabeth, Michael and David, and three friends canoed the river from its headwaters 480 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife to its mouth at Bathurst Inlet. Turner, who would become prime minister briefly in 1984, kept a diary of his nine-day adventure, and Ted Johnson brought a photocopy on our trip as an additional navigational aid.
The Burnside was my first Arctic river. I’d been invited to join the group following a weekend audition on the Dumoine in western Quebec the previous fall. While I was inexperienced, I must have measured up, but not before learning a valuable lesson in the waterproofing of packs; after an afternoon paddling in the rain I spent a miserable night in a wet sleeping bag.
The Adventure Begins
Now, here I was in a La Ronge Twin Otter flying over the Canadian barren lands—a northern desert dotted in mid-summer with hundreds of thousands of lakes and ponds. There were six of us on board – John Godfrey, Tim Kotcheff, Craig Oliver, David Silcox, Peter Stollery and me – plus our provisions (including two cases of fine wine and $350 worth of meat), packs and three canoes. John Gow and Ted Johnson had decided to fly separately in a Cessna 182 (carrying the fourth canoe) so they could stop on the Hood River en route to look for a wristwatch John lost in spill three years earlier. It was a $1,500 watch, so they figured the detour was worth the additional $300, but when they joined us on Lake Kathawachaga, where our trip was to begin, they were empty-handed.
Like Turner, who referred to himself as JNT in his diary, we canoed about 30 kilometres on our first day. The Burnside is known for its prolific wildlife – musk ox, wolves, caribou, grizzly bears, peregrine falcons, golden eagles – and before lunch we had seen two musk ox (there would be two more in the afternoon). I was bowman in the Silcox canoe, and Silcox was both an accomplished canoeist and a good teacher, so I was soon over my nerves and enjoying the bolder gardens we ran that morning. I remember a pool at the bottom of a riffle with lake trout so abundant we could have scooped them out of the water with our hands (there would be fish chowder for dinner that night). After lining parts of the Ballanca Rapids in the afternoon we found a campsite on an esker so beautiful – it reminded me of the Scottish highlands, and, according to his diary JNT ( pronounced “Jint”) had camped here, too – we decided to stay and hike the next day.
And what a day it was. We set off after breakfast, the weather perfect for barren-land hiking: warm, with just enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Eskers are glacial deposits of sand and gravel, ideal habitats for burrowing wolves, and as we made our way back to camp in the afternoon we saw one loping away from us, leading us away from its den. After dinner, as we were going to bed, we heard one howling. On a nearby hill, a lone musk ox lay down for the night, as if watching over us.
Stollery usually rose first, making coffee while the rest of us lingered in our sleeping bags. On the morning of the fourth day I heard him declare loudly, ” The last thing I heard last night was the first thing I heard this morning: Kotcheff complaining.” On another morning, he announced, “The greatest women in the world are Latin American. The fucking champs.” To which Oliver, still tucked in, responded, “I met a girl in Buenos Aries who lived in a bath tub.” And then, from Gow’s tent, “Craig, you have the morals of my fucking Malibu.” And so it went, day after day, and especially before dinner when Oliver made rum daiquiris. While he bought it, the rum, like all our provisions, was paid for by the collective, and happy hour inevitably occasioned a chorus of complaints about the size and alcoholic content of his servings. There was even speculation that as quartermaster he might be helping himself on the side. This was all in good fun, of course, but it belied a genuine concern that we might run out of booze before the trip ended.
Days five, six and seven passed without incident, as we settled into a routine. By the time we rose, ate breakfast, washed up, and broke camp, it was usually late morning. We would paddle for a few hours, stop for lunch, and then move on, making about 20 to 30 kilometres a day. As the afternoon wore on we would begin looking for a campsite. When the lead canoe spotted one that looked promising there’d a be a rush to shore to claim a tent-site by throwing down a hat or life jacket. A good tent site was a) dry, b) flat, c) rock-free and d) far enough away from the others to escape the snorers. Occasionally, circumstances forced us to spend the night in less than perfect conditions. Such a site was usually referred to as a “shithole.” I noted in my diary that on day six I’d slept on a piece of ground “like six bowling balls.” Bathing was a problem wherever we camped, the river so glacially cold that immersion was out of the question. Just squatting in water knee-deep was torture. And as for bodily functions, finding privacy in a terrain devoid of trees was only the first challenge. Mosquitoes, it turns out, are attracted to bare bottoms.
But even the worst of situations—a lousy rain-soaked camp site – was made tolerable by the food. Weeks before we embarked, chefs Kotcheff and Silcox had worked out elaborate menus for each meal. Breakfasts included bacon and eggs, sausages and pancakes, oatmeal, red river cereal, toast and Stollery’s coffee. For lunch we’d have an assortment of cold cuts, cheeses, peanut butter and nuts.
But the dinners…well, the dinners were unlike any dinners ever served in the wilderness north of sixty. Delmonico steaks with fresh corn. Fresh fish chowder with salt pork. Lamb kabobs with rice pilaf. Kotcheff burgers with fresh salad. Pasta with home-made pesto. Filet Mignon. Ham steaks with pineapple and mashed potatoes. Pasta in creamy smoked salmon sauce. One night we had strawberries and ice cream for dessert. And all this washed down with bottles of excellent wine.
Noting that the chefs and Godfrey, their assistant (aka bull cook), were absolved from the messy job of washing dishes, I resolved to apply for work in the kitchen in years to come. In the meantime, Gow was teaching me how to make fireplaces. We made of game of rating them on a scale of 1 to 10. An 8 would have a rock bottom, rock sides and back, and a level grill. I was told that Pierre Trudeau made excellent fire places.
The canoeing itself was thrilling, the river at times dropping so precipitously we could see it running downhill. Day six was the only day we didn’t see wildlife. The musk ox, in particular, were plentiful. One day we encountered a herd of 12 to 14 of them. We discovered we could get within 20 feet before they lowered their heads and snorted a warning, spray from their nostrils shooting two feet into the air.
We knew that day eight was going to be difficult. Our maps indicated that in the stretch of river leading to the portage around Burnside Falls we’d face fast water, big waves, boiling eddies, and currents crashing into rock walls. It was here, as JNT recorded in his diary, that two of his party’s canoes swamped, losing emergency rations and all their cooking utensils. “Trip was no longer a luxury paddle,” he wrote, “but now a survival course.” After breaking camp that morning, our group had already run several sets of tough rapids, the waves two to three feet high, when Gow and Stollery swamped. By the time we reached them, their canoe was submerged, their packs floating, their tempers raw. With some difficulty we managed to tow them ashore where, because it was a warm, sunny day, they were able to dry out.
Back on the river, we survived another tricky rapid. Oliver said it would be the last of the day. But on the next right turn, which looked routine, we found ourselves in waves four feet high. Silcox yelled, “Back paddle, back paddle,” but the troughs between the waves were so deep my paddle was pushing air. We turned sideways. “Get your balance!” he screamed. “Brace.” I felt the canoe shudder and thought, “We’re going in.” And yet somehow we got through it, and miraculously so did everyone else. Astonished, we went to shore to reflect on our good fortune.
But the day was far from over. Setting off again, we came to an island and taking the left fork found ourselves in fast shallows. Silcox and I were about a hundred meters from the far end of the island when we ran up on a rock and began taking in water. He cried, “Get out, get out,” so I did. “Grab the bow line,” he added, but I missed it and the canoe shot forward into four-to-five foot standing waves. Riding the swamping canoe into the foam, Silcox looked like Slim Pickens in the last scene of the movie “Dr. Strangelove,” a cowboy on a bucking bronco helpless to do anything but hang on. Most of the packs were tied in, but I watched as mine floated down the river (and eventually, thank goodness, to shore). For the second time that day we stopped to dry out, reflecting this time on our good luck. Had we dumped when the weather was less forgiving we’d have been in rough shape. Our goal now was to look for the takeout above Burnside Falls where we’d camp before setting off on a six-kilometre portage the next morning.
The ‘Death March’
Day nine would come to be called “the Burnside death march,” although not because the terrain was difficult. The first kilometre was uphill, but after that it was flat or downhill. The problem was that to get our four canoes, eight personal packs, communal packs, two wanigans and freezer box from A to B would require not one trip but three. By the end of the day we’d have to walk 36 kilometres, not in itself a big deal, but every step of it would be made carrying 40 to 50 extra pounds. Having made one trip we considered canoeing to the top of the falls, cutting the portage in half, but on inspection the river proved to be impassable. On the second trip, Stollery volunteered to take both a canoe and a wanigan, carrying one a few hundred metres and then doubling back for the other. The rest of us staggered off under the weight of whatever we were carrying stopping to rest every few hundred metres and sometimes exchanging loads. The first time I lifted a canoe onto my shoulders I thought I’d collapse after ten paces, not so much from the weight, but from the effort of trying to balance it walking on bog and rock. The second trip took four hours, and we still had to go back for a third.
It was eight o’clock by the time we finished and nine before we had our tents pitched, a fireplace made, and preparations for dinner begun. We were exhausted, and yet I realized that even as I’d prayed for it to end the portage was something I’d proved I could endure. Was this the war none of us had had? That was Godfrey’s theory. In any case, there were extra rations at happy hour that night, and after dinner Godfrey passed around a beverage he called “white lightening.” Earlier in the day we’d seen what might have been the tracks of a bear, otherwise known as “the man in the fur coat,” so Gow decided to sleep with flares at his side. “Have you ever seen a bear attack a man with a burning flare in his hand?” he asked.
End of the Line
The first Franklin Expedition came into Bathurst Inlet in the summer of 1821, but the Inuit had hunted there for centuries. In 1983 a community of two dozen still lived there year round. Bathurst Inlet Lodge had been opened in 1969 by Glenn Warner, a retired Mountie, and his wife Trish in a former Hudson’s Bay Trading Post. For a few weeks every summer they and the Inuit offered tourists, mainly birders, an opportunity to experience the beauty of the Canadian Arctic, its flora, fauna and culture, first-hand. We calculated that if we could reach the settlement early enough the next day, we might be able to call in a regularly scheduled flight from Cambridge Bay to pick us up, thereby saving $1,400. Kotcheff and Gow had agreed to get up at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour paddle, allowing the rest of us to sleep until 7. (Before going to bed a somewhat inebriated Kotcheff had decided to carry a canoe down a dangerously steep hill to the beach where they’d set off.)
The Warners and their Inuit neighbours were already attending to the needs of Kotcheff and Gow by the time we stragglers arrived at Bathurst Inlet at midday. While we waited to be picked up for the flight back to Yellowknife, we had hours to wander inspect the settlement followed by curious Inuit children. I remember barking sled dogs and char drying on racks. A few of us accepted an invitation to go for a boat ride during which our Inuit guide discovered a dead golden eagle at the water’s edge. I was photographed holding it aloft by one wing tip, the other barely touching the ground. It was my last encounter with the wildlife of the Burnside, and while I didn’t think of it at the time it seems fitting now. The eagle was dead. Our Burnside trip was over.
On day five we had composed a song to the tune of Joseph Scriven’s hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
When this Burnside trip is over,
Oh how happy I will be,
No more Johnson, Godfrey, Silcox,
Best of all, no Stollery.
I’ve seen trials and tribulations,
Scorn and mockery,
I’ll take my troubles now to Turner,
JNT will take good care of me.