Pierre Trudeau and Seven Others by John Gow

John Gow

In my mid twenties I fell in with dubious company, a gang of Ottawa and Toronto based canoeists who each year paddled a different Arctic river, usually unknown and almost never travelled by recreational canoeists. The leader of the group was Craig Oliver, CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief, while in the bow of Craig’s canoe was Tim Kotcheff, VP of News for the same network. The balance of the group was a curious band of “media dinks,” politicians, and others (see below). I was the only westerner and pretty well the only one not engaged in the political arena.

Some of the group faithfully made the annual trip for more than twenty years, while others, myself included, were more “on and off”. I managed to show up about every second year, and through a happy coincidence of good timing, was absent for a few trips that were more fiasco than fun.

Craig suffered from poor and steadily deteriorating eyesight, not a great attribute for sterning a canoe in big rapids, but with Tim in the bow calling out directions, they squabbled and nattered their way through some very difficult white water. Craig and Tim maintained they always stayed dry and upright, claiming to have never dumped. There was though an occasion on the Burnside River where they stood knee deep in fast water watching their crewless canoe disappear downstream through the rapids. I’ll let the reader decide that one.

Into the Rapids

To say there was a leader of this group would be pushing the point. It was rabble democracy in which all eight members of the trip would weigh in on any and all decisions, from campsites to portages. This dysfunctional system ought to have led to disaster, but with a lot of kibitzing all seemed to come together.

In 1979, the governing Liberals managed to lose the general election to Joe Clark’s Conservatives. Pierre Trudeau, now Opposition Leader, joined us on a two week trip on the Hanbury and Thelon Rivers in the central Arctic. Trudeau was an accomplished canoeist and a strong addition to our party.

As we were assembling our gear for the Hanbury-Thelon trip in the lobby of the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife, one of our group spotted the local newspaper with the lead story entitled “Pierre Trudeau and Seven Others to Paddle River”. From that moment on we lesser mortals dubbed ourselves “The Seven Others”, knowing that if we screwed up badly enough to make the national press, our names would never appear.

John Gow & Peter Stollery

That morning, after stuffing most of our gear and three canoes into a Twin Otter on floats with the remaining canoe strapped onto the struts of a Cessna 185, we were soon setting up camp on the shores of Sifton Lake. It sits in the middle of Canada’s spectacular Barren Lands, where the winter climate is so harsh, vegetation is limited to tiny, stunted willows, hardy grasses and sedges, mosses and lichens.

Flowing through a series of shallow lakes on its upper reaches, the water is warmed under the midnight sun to the point that in sunny weather a daily swim is a pleasant option. At the higher elevations the land is bleak, with little shelter from cool evening winds. Dropping down river though, the land becomes softer, greener and more hospitable. At several points the Hanbury cuts through eskers, the winding remnants of sandy river bottoms that flowed across the continental glacier ten thousand years ago. They made some wonderful beaches.

As we reached Hoare Lake a strong north wind stirred up formidable waves, giving us serious pause. Our loaded canoes had little freeboard, and a dump far from shore would be serious. We shadowed the shoreline to the west, reaching a narrows where the crossing would be cut to one kilometre and the waves a little smaller. Someone asked, “What do we do if the canoe behind us dumps?” Considering the difficulty of turning around, beam onto the waves, in freezing water, with no capacity to take on survivors, “Sing louder and paddle harder” was Pierre’s quiet advice.

Muskox in the bushes

In summer, wildlife abounds on the Barrens with the annual caribou migration flowing southward in early August. Muskox herds roam the tundra with lone bulls often seen in willow groves along the river. Relaxing on a small island for lunch on day three, we were treated to a true wilderness symphony. A wolf pack on the east side of the lake broke the silence with an eerie series of howls lasting for some minutes. Moments after they stopped a pack on the opposite shore took up the chorus, seemingly in reply.

Back on the river we drifted silently around a horseshoe bend and there, at the base of an esker, were nine wolves. The leader was enormous, half again as large as the other adults. As the river carried us silently toward them, the wolves calmly followed their leader in single file up the esker. They stopped at the top, silhouetted in a line against the sky while peering down at the strange creatures on the river below.

A few major portages add challenge to the Hanbury, the longest being the kilometre and a half long Dixon Canyon, which takes almost a full day of hard work. At vertical Helen Falls we avoided a portage by lowering our canoes and packs down the sheer fifteen metre cliff to the pool directly below our camp.

Peter Stollery & Jean Pelletier – Sailing

As we approached the confluence of the Hanbury and Thelon Rivers we were enjoying a tailwind, so with four canoes rafted together we rigged sails with tent flies and paddles. Our last hour on the Hanbury was very jolly as we sat back and sang smatterings of old voyageur paddling songs. An easy morning’s “work” found us at the Thelon River.

The remainder of the trip saw the Thelon flowing through a mosquito infested swamp, tall sedge grass growing from a continuous bog to left and right. We paddled on through the Arctic twilight, hungry, tired and discouraged. Sitting on the hard aluminum seats of our Grumman canoes becoming almost unbearable. Finally at about midnight we spotted a small hillock on the right bank and pulled out to end our ordeal. “Alligator Camp,” was about the worst we had ever seen. There wasn’t a flat tent site, rocks stuck out almost everywhere, and water seeped from the ground. The mosquitoes had a field day. We choked down a cold dinner and hit our lumpy sacks.

As we waited for the aircraft for the trip back to Yellowknife, we discussed plans for next year’s river. The entire group, including Pierre, were keen to return to the Arctic. That was not to be for him, as during the winter the Clark Government fell.

Pierre’s retirement plans were shelved as he went on to lead the Liberals to a majority government. Prime Ministers can’t disappear into the wilds for two weeks at a time. It was not until nine years later that he rejoined the “Seven Others” to paddle the upper Stikine River in northern British Columbia.

John Gow

Media Dinks, Politicians & Others