The Hanbury And Thelon Rivers

Tim Kotcheff
Former vice-president of news for CTV and CBC-TV
Made three canoe trips with Pierre Trudeau between 1979 and 1996.

Tim Kotcheff, Pierre Trudeau & Craig Oliver

I’ve always admired Pierre Trudeau from the very first day I met him at the Liberal leadership convention in 1968. Here was an unconventional individual who raised the bar dramatically for all aspiring leaders who dared to follow. He was flamboyant, fluently bilingual, exceedingly intelligent, and impishly irreverent. But did anyone really know Pierre Trudeau? Somehow I doubt it, because Pierre Trudeau was an intensely private person. But I was fortunate enough to get a personal glimpse of this Canadian icon on three separate canoe trips, the first in 1979.

My long-time friend Craig Oliver, CTV chief political correspondent, and I had been plying Canada’s Arctic rivers since 1974. Over the years, we began to recruit other outdoor enthusiasts to join our annual summer pilgrimage to the far north, and our group eventually came to be known, jokingly, as the “Arctic and Rideau Canal Canoe Club”. The title was not serious. But the trips were.

Just after the Liberals lost out to a minority Conservative government in 1979, Pierre Trudeau accepted an invitation to join our eight-man canoe team for an expedition down the Hanbury-Thelon rivers in the Northwest Territories. Joining Pierre, Craig, and myself would be Peter Stollery, John Gow, Jean Pelletier, John Godfrey, and David Silcox.

Helen Falls

The Hanbury – a rugged river

The Hanbury is a beautiful but fitfully rugged river that, in one instance, meanders through miles of sand dunes, and at another passes over a spectacular falls. At yet another, it cuts its way through an awesome canyon. Difficult rapids and dangerous rock gardens make passage down the Hanbury extremely hazardous.

But Dickson Canyon posed one of the greatest hurdles. Not only was it unnavigable, but bypassing it involved a brutal three-mile portage over rough terrain. Could we handle it? Better still, could sixty-year-old Pierre Trudeau handle it? Those thoughts would trouble us until the day the canyon stood in our way. In his more youthful days, Pierre had canoed the legendary Nahanni River, known to many as “the dangerous river.” But that was then. This was now.

Twin Otter

Our group assembled in Yellowknife in preparation for a Twin Otter charter flight to the headwaters of the Hanbury River, and met in a hotel restaurant to discuss arrangements for the morning lift-off. As we sat at a bare table, munching cold sandwiches and sipping warm beer, a mood of apprehension and even a little tension swept over us. Like any trip into the Arctic unknown, the emotional roller coaster begins early. And frankly, as silly as it seems, sitting beside a living legend like Pierre wasn’t easy. People had packed the entranceway to the restaurant just to catch a glimpse of, or perhaps even to touch, this political celebrity. Someone sent over a bottle of wine, which was gratefully received. Others could be heard shouting his name. While we were intimidated, Pierre seemed totally unperturbed.

First Campsite

Sifton Lake

We flew out the next morning and, after several hours, landed in Sifton Lake, gateway to the fast-moving Hanbury River. The plan was to navigate the Hanbury, which converges with the Thelon River, pass through a game sanctuary named after the Thelon, and end up at the historic cabin where the legendary John Hornby and two companions starved to death in the late 1920s.

We had no intention of suffering a similar fate. We had enough food and drink to support a small army. We boasted that we operated the best restaurant north of the Arctic circle. About this there was no doubt. Amid the splendour of an Arctic sunset, what could be finer than a rum daiquiri, followed by smoked salmon, charbroiled lamb chops, saffron rice pilaf, and a glass of 1967 Chateau Lafitte? And, oh yes, a snifter of cognac and a high-class cigar to round out the evening. There are purists who will probably scoff at the mere thought of haute cuisine on the trail. If Pierre was such a purist, he never let on. In fact, he enjoyed his meals immensely and seemed quite impressed with their high quality. Initially, he said he didn’t want any alcoholic beverages, but soon he, like the rest of us, would line up, cup in hand, for his daily ration of rum and wine.

We spent a couple of days at our landing site getting acclimatized. Pierre was now sporting a beard. It made him look older. I watched him fussing with his camp gear. He was clearly not himself. He seemed distant, aloof, and contemplative – perhaps still feeling the sting of rejection at the hands of a fickle electorate. Our first night was filled with small talk and not much else. A first night for any Arctic traveller can be unnerving. As the last echo of the departing charter plane fades into the distance, the vast, desolate sweep of the tundra offers precious little comfort. Fear of the unknown, self-doubt, and a sense of melancholy all begin to rise uncontrollably: there is no turning back.

Pierre and Jean

It was time to get our sea legs ready for the challenge ahead. But we still harboured nagging doubts about Pierre. What would he be like on this long and difficult journey, an experience that can bring out either the best or the worst in people? How fit was he? Could he manage the dangerous rapids and portages? And what would happen, heaven forbid, if he … well. . . drowned? Someone joked that the final words of the headline would read “there were seven others on the trip.” But, believe me, we were firmly resolved that nothing of the kind would ever happen on our watch. Seasoned Arctic travellers like us could never stand the humiliation of such a catastrophe.

Pierre Washing Up

Within a few days we got the answers to many of our questions. Pierre took his turn like everyone else with the camp chores: he was by far the best dish-washer, fire-maker, and camp organizer. He put some of us to shame. As for the whitewater, he never failed to meet a challenge but was never reckless. He would examine each difficult rapid carefully, weigh the risks, and then take the plunge, moving his canoe gracefully and resolutely around rocks, ledges, and other obstacles. He often led the way. Not only was he fit, he turned out to be one of the best canoeists and sternsmen in the group. If anyone succumbed to the elements, it wouldn’t be Pierre. He was just too savvy. For instance, on another trip with Pierre in 1995 on the Stikine River in British Columbia, I recall running a very dangerous rapid. Craig and I bucked five-foot standing waves, ran clumsily into a rocky outcropping, before threading a precipitous gap through a cliff wall into roiling water. Not a pretty manoeuvre on our part. After all parties, including Pierre, had negotiated these rapids safely using a smarter route, we were easy targets for criticism. Amidst the post-run heckling, Pierre gently reminded everyone that Craig and I had gone first, acknowledging that a lead canoe navigating a rapid faces the most danger and those that follow are then “schooled” on the correct route and strategy to employ. Pierre’s comment put an end to the harping and I felt good for the rest of the day.

Hanbury Caribou

But back to the Hanbury. Pierre was a hard, steady paddler and often kept his canoe ahead of the pack. One might conclude that staying in front is where born leaders want to be. But seasoned Arctic travellers know it’s the lead canoe that gets to see the most wildlife. Bears, caribou, and other animals have long disappeared by the time the other canoes catch up. Pierre always wanted to be the first to capture the beauty of such splendid virgin territory. I admired him for that.

After days of tricky rapids and heavy water, we beached our canoes to prepare for the arduous Dickson Canyon portage. We were still heavily laden. Pierre carried more than his share of the load, which included an eighteen-foot canoe. Try carrying one of those on your back for three miles over a terrain strewn with rock, bog, and bush, and you’ll know what it’s all about. We were impressed, to say the least.

By now Pierre had begun to open up, to relax. Gone was the tenseness, the grim determination. He was now … well, almost “one of the boys,” and wonderful company. We were all relaxed, too. And there was some manly ribbing and joking along the way.

“What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?” someone pondered. To which Trudeau quickly replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t give a damn.” And then quickly rejoined, “What’s the difference between fear and panic? Fear is when you learn for the first time you can’t do it the second time. Panic is when you learn for the second time you can’t do it the first time.”

He was considerate, kind, and helpful. He surprised everyone with his reservoir of knowledge of the little things and the important things for survival in this remote and barren region of the Canadian North – about maps, weather conditions, plants, and wildlife – he knew, but he never presumed. Although we sensed he could never be our “buddy,” he was the best companion you’d ever want on a hazardous trip like this.

Along the way a small private plane appeared out of the clouds. As it dipped to take a closer look at the group, someone wondered aloud why the plane had come. Trudeau quipped it was probably someone coming to tell us that the Joe Clark government had overthrown itself. (It did shortly after.)

I vividly recall one special day, a warm, sunny, lazy day, as we drifted aimlessly down a broad expanse of the Thelon, canoes lashed together, chatting amiably about this or that. For a moment we completely forgot that we were with one of this country’s most dynamic leaders, a Canadian political trailblazer, who was destined to become a permanent part of our history. We were kindred spirits enjoying a perfect moment in a Canadian wonderland.

Someone once said that the Arctic is a lonely place, but the absence of human traces makes you feel like you understand it and that you can take your place in it. I have never returned from the Arctic without feeling renewed. That I have strayed but have now found my place. Every day is a challenge. Every day is a challenge met. What follows is a grand feeling of achievement and a sense of physical and mental renewal.

At ruins – Hornby Cabin

The Hanbury and the Arctic brought out some of the best qualities in Trudeau – his love of the outdoors, his personal courage, and an amiability not often seen by the public. I believe this Arctic adventure also served to revive his spirits, rekindle his physical and mental energy, and ultimately paved the way for his dramatic return to politics.

We reached the cabin where John Hornby and his companions had died in 1927, leaving a diary, a dramatic testament of their last horrible days. And there we stood before three simple wooden crosses that mark the site, and raised a toast in their memory. We also toasted the end of our own historic journey. We had blazed our way through some harrowing rapids and exhausting portages. We had shared our meals and a drink or two. We had bonded.

This Arctic journey had left me with a sense of exhilaration for what had been achieved. But it also left me with a profound sense of disappointment that these remarkable days on the Hanbury had in fact come to an end.

There was another memorable moment at the end of our 1995 trip down the Stikine River, which starts in northern British Columbia and ends in Alaska. We were sitting at our final dinner in Terrace, British Columbia, in the heart of the far west. As we rehashed the best and the worst times of our trip, a rough-looking man stood up at the opposite end of the restaurant and started moving menacingly toward our table. Things grew tense.

But as he approached he held out his hand and said, “Mr. Trudeau, I would like to shake your hand and thank you for the wonderful service you have given this country.” He then walked away. It was just a brief moment but extraordinarily moving. It seemed to reflect the feelings of so many people in every part of this great country.

Our final trip with Pierre was on the Petawawa River in 1996. He was seventy-five and, while he was still in remarkable shape, he seemed a little frail and distracted. The sparkle in his eyes had dimmed somewhat, but the determination was still there. As we neared the top of a major set of rapids, we drew our canoes to shore for a portage.

Pierre had stepped shakily out of his canoe into waist-high water that threatened to sweep him away. He accidentally dropped his paddle, and as he reached out for it, he faltered and at the last moment his canoe partner grasped him by the arm, thereby preventing a serious mishap. The contents of his canoe drifted down river, and it took us an hour or so to gather up the soggy equipment. This was Pierre’s last canoe trip. I never saw him again.

Helen Falls, on the Hanbury River – August 1979

L-R Back: John Gow, Peter Stollery, Craig Oliver, Jean Pelletier, John Godfrey. L-R front: David Silcox, Tim Kotcheff, Pierre Trudeau.

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