Haute Cuisine

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.

Sommelier John Godfrey

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.

Burnside Muskoxen

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.

Trouble Ahead

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.

The Falls

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.

Death March

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.

Happy Hour

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.

Into the rapids

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.

John Macfarlane

The Burnside River Team – August, 1983

Burnside Team

L-R: Ted Johnson, Tim Kotcheff, John Macfarlane, John Godfrey, Peter Stollery, Craig Oliver, David Silcox, John Gow.

Burnside River – 1983

Burnside River

L-R: Ted Johnson, John Godfrey, John Gow, John Macfarlane, Craig Oliver, David Silcox, Peter Stollery.

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