Be Still My Heart
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Churchill River accident
Dennis McAllister

It took them only three days to paddle the remaining 150 miles to Port Churchill, the trip's endpoint, arriving on Aug. 20, 1968. McAllister stayed to assist the Royal Canadian Mounted Police recovery mission, which eventually located Levesque's body 40 miles downstream from the falls. Exhausted and famished, Jones left Churchill to take a train back home. "I remember needing to get home," says Jones about his decision to leave. "I got on the train and didn't stop eating for three straight days."

Jones admits now that his "needing to get home" is speculation. He doesn't really know how he felt after the accident or why he left in such haste. In retrospect, he realizes he was probably in a state of shock. He stopped making daily notes on the day of the accident, Aug. 14. Lately, trying to remember, he has started writing down what he recalls of the final days on the river. The entries are marked Day 57, Day 58, and so on. He thinks it's fairly accurate, but concedes that "there's a lot I probably don't remember."

After the accident, Jones found he couldn't continue on at school, so with two-and-a-half years' of college courses in forest technology and wildlife management from UNH, he joined the Coast Guard, ultimately serving a 10-month tour in Vietnam. Released from service four years later, he returned to college, getting a bachelor's degree in biology at Keene State and finishing his UNH associate's degree in forest technology in 1979. Hired by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, he worked for 30 years as their director of land management. (In February 2009, Jones, along with seven colleagues, was laid off.)

In 2007, Jones was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and to prepare himself physically and mentally for surgery, he finished climbing all 48 of New England's 4,000-foot peaks, an endeavor he'd started with Levesque back in college. The surgery, followed by three months of grueling therapy, uncovered long-buried memories, and Jones found himself screaming and then crying like he'd never cried before, the physical pain from the surgery and mental anguish from so long ago somehow streaming together like long-held waters pouring through a breached dam. From then on he has thought of very little else but finding out more about the part of his life he never dared to fully explore.

Churchill River accident

Jones has thought about returning to the river, but he realizes it wouldn't really explain what he needs to know. The 1968 tragedy mirrors the tragedy of the river itself. Fort McMurray, once a sleepy outpost, is now a booming oil town that has been called an "environmental nightmare," with gaping wounds where the petroleum-rich tar sands have been scooped from the ground. Further along, the river has been rerouted to supply water to population centers like Montreal and the northeastern United States.

They were among the last to see the wild Churchill, with its golden eagles, ancient rock paintings and old trappers' shacks. Part of the reason for Jones' persistence might be the realization that he was witness to two deaths: a friend's and a river's. The final 300 miles—from South Indian Lake to Port Churchill—is vastly different now that more than 85 percent of its water volume has been diverted. The wild, rapids-choked portion that the team descended in the final portion of their journey is now a water-starved shadow of its former self. "The bottom line," says Jones, is that "no one can experience what we did...those days are gone."

Churchill River accident
TODAY: Geoff Jones '70 by Packers Falls in Durham.

Tantalizing and tangible reminders of the expedition have surfaced recently. Jones heard from a sympathetic Royal Canadian Mounted Police official, who explained that the file on the accident no longer exists and was most likely destroyed long ago. As a result, answers to the tragedy remain frustratingly beyond Jones' reach. Still, there is some closure in telling the story of their expedition, once and for all, to a writer. What they experienced in the summer of '68—"the nature of the dream" and the undertaking that was achieved—is a story that needs to be told, Jones says, not only to serve as an account of their trip but also to honor Glen Levesque's memory.

It has been a while since Jones has had the dream where his friend appears on a remote river bank. Perhaps, as he's reread his journal and studied the old maps, as he's described what happened and revisited the river in his mind, he has been able to come to terms at last with the realization that Glen Levesque is gone—vanished along with the wild and turbulent river itself. And perhaps, through the persistent act of remembering, of honoring his friend's memory, he has finally found a small but crucial measure of peace. ~

Todd Balf '83, a former senior editor for Outside magazine, is the author of several books, including Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World's Fastest Human Being, and The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la.

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