Be Still My Heart
Decades after a kayaking accident, a survivor struggles to come to terms with the tragedy.

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Churchill River accident
Glen Levesque '70 in a snapshot taken during the trip.

FOR YEARS, Geoff Jones '70 has had a chilling dream. His friend Glen Levesque '70 emerges from thickets along the edge of a river, wet and wearing the same clothes he had on the last time they were together—a red felt hat and a red parka. When an overjoyed Jones asks Levesque where he's been, the dream ends abruptly and Jones awakens.

He knows why he has this dream over and over. "It's simple," he says, explaining his urgent need to resurrect the story of Levesque, who died 41 years ago during their 1968 whitewater expedition on the Churchill River in Canada. "To me, Glen's still out there, and I don't know what happened."

As he talks about the kayaking trip that took the life of his friend, Jones sits in a sprawling 1810 white cape in rural Stoddard, N.H., where he is the fourth generation of his family to live. A newly erected woodshed stands outside his back door, neatly stacked with next winter's cord wood. Nearby are deep pine woods, giving the house the feel of a settler's homestead at the edge of the beckoning wild. Recently, he discovered a newborn fawn just a stone's throw away, nestled up against a tree. "It couldn't have been more than a few days old," he says, describing how he raced back to the house for a camera.

He is tall, strong and youthful looking—unmistakably outdoorsy in clogs and an Appalachian Mountain Club 4000 T-shirt. On his computer's desktop is a bucolic hiking photo of his girlfriend and their black Lab in a high meadow. He lights up, his friends know, when he is in a place where he can witness "the natural order of things," as he wrote years ago. It is an enthusiasm that he and his college friends Levesque and Dennis McAllister '68 brought to the Churchill River that summer in 1968. (A fourth UNH student, Gardner Chamberlain '70, started the trip but left halfway through.)

Their plan was to traverse 1,200 miles worth of Boreal and sub-Arctic rivers, retracing in homemade fiberglass kayaks the route of French-Canadian voyageurs. Their trip—which likely hadn't been done in more than 100 years—would take them across storm-strewn lakes and icy, difficult sections of whitewater in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada. In describing a portion of the route, a 1950s canoeist described the Churchill River country as one of the "few places left on the North American continent where men can still see the country as it was before Europeans came and know some of the challenges and freedoms of those who saw it first."

Churchill River accident
RIVER BOUND: In the photo at right, Geoff Jones '70, left, Glen Levesque '70 and Dennis McAllister '68 at Levesque's home on the day of their departure.

The trip is richly vivid to Jones all these many years later, both by day and unfortunately at night. Beyond his recurring dream, where he searches for Levesque below the dangerous Class V rapids, he is tormented by the pressing details he can't recall, and whether, in the catastrophic series of events—a series, he laments, he himself set in motion—there might be something he has forgotten and needs to know.

On his coffee table, Jones has arranged the documentary elements of the trip like courtroom exhibits. There is the 1961 Sigurd Olson book The Lonely Land (the inspiration for their trip) and the 1:250,000-scale maps—primitive by today's standards. A heavy, black leather journal spills forth with letters and notes and newspaper clippings about the trip's tragic ending. The last pages are drafts of the tribute he wrote about Levesque for the 1969 Granite. The yearbook was dedicated to the "memory of Glen Levesque and to all those who seek the natural order of things."

The documents include small snapshots taken at the expedition's start. Some of them are oddly disturbing. In one, there's no visible connection between the three students—Jones and McAllister are looking off camera, Levesque directly at the lens, perhaps nervous or anxious but hardly what you'd call celebratory. Levesque is standing with his arms folded across his chest. "It's kind of eerie the way Glen is looking down," Jones says of another photo taken next to their van. "Like he had a premonition."

Churchill River accident

WHAT HAPPENED on the river for those 71 days has become Geoff Jones' daily obsession. "For the grace of God," he says, "I should've died with him." He's ravenous for information, piecing together photos and journal entries from the past, but also looking for new ways to unlock lost memories and blurry details. Levesque's parents are both dead and he had no siblings. Recently Jones attempted to contact both McAllister, who lives in southeast Alaska, and the Royal Canadian Police at Churchill, hoping to unearth more details and a police report of the recovery mission.

Certainly, he has no trouble summarizing most of the journey. The goal was to photograph and document remote Indian pictographs and pioneer a new way of lightweight river travel. McAllister, newly graduated, had made contact with an editor at National Geographic, and while the magazine was noncommittal, Jones remembers they were determined to bring back a first-rate story. They took an 8-mm video camera and a single-lens reflex, and each kept extensive journals.

The team, all members of the New Hampshire Outing Club, had mixed levels of experience. Levesque, 19, was president-elect of the club and an Eagle Scout with considerable woods savvy, but he was a neophyte in a whitewater boat. Jones, also 19, at well over 6 feet and 200 pounds, was the group strongman; he had also been around small boats and lakes his whole life. He'd never, however, lived out of a kayak for two months, nor had he been on a strenuous expedition outside the country. He was reluctant at first to sign on, mainly because of money and his studies. But after reading Olson's inspiring account, he couldn't resist, and sold his firethorn-orange Ford Bronco to finance his part.

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