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

By Todd Balf '83

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."

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."

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.

McAllister, who dreamt up the trip, was an accomplished technical rock and ice climber and a phenomenal kayaker who could do Eskimo rolls without a paddle. He worked summers as a ridge runner, educating hikers and maintaining trails in the White Mountain National Forest. He and another Outing Club member were among the first to make a winter ascent up Cannon Mountain's famed rock face.

Back at UNH, McAllister, Levesque, Jones and a group of club members worked in the basement of then-college president John McConnell, designing and building whitewater kayaks. The Outing Club was ahead of its time, says Jack Pare '75. Though most New England colleges were involved in down-river racing, the focus at UNH had turned to expeditionary adventures.

In early April, the group took a weeklong shakedown trip on the Saco River to test their gear and practice loading their newly fabricated 13-foot boats. The kayaks, which Pare and McAllister adapted from their down-river designs, were huskier on the bottom in order to survive bracing rock collisions and had a better defined keel for tracking across large windblown lakes.

The boats' design was advanced, but they possessed none of the safety equipment that is common today: they traveled without any communication devices or life jackets, and their boats lacked flotation. Their Department of Mines and Technical Surveys maps were based on surveys and aerial photographs conducted between 1948 and 1961. "Paddling like we did is unthinkable today," concedes Jones. Yet at the time, theirs was considered a high-tech approach—with lightweight camping gear and alpine-style techniques the original voyageurs couldn't have dreamed of.

THEY LEFT LEVESQUE'S HOUSE in Nashua, N.H., on June 7, 1968, traveling by van to Montreal, then by train to northern Alberta, jumping off at the end of the Northern Alberta Railroad four days later at the settlement of Waterways. After picking up supplies, including a .22 rifle, and shuttling to Fort McMurray, they launched on the afternoon of June 11. Jones wrote that their boats, each laden with almost 140 pounds of equipment and food, "felt like...submarines about to go down."

The team paddled 70 miles up the Clearwater River over the next eight days, struggling against a stiff current and swarms of insects. After a week, they seemed to hit their stride. McAllister had luck reeling in a record eight-pound fish, and Jones recalls the team efficiently walking their boats through towering limestone gorges and portaging around the Class IV rapids near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

On their first big challenge of the trip, the arduous portage out of the Clearwater valley to the headwaters of the Churchill, Jones and McAllister led the overland charge, hauling their boats and belongings 800 feet up the sheer ridge. The march ended more than 12 exhausting miles later at Lac La Loche. In a letter home to his parents, Jones recounted an ordeal that lasted three days before all their gear was shuttled to the other side of the divide. "We got so we were tripping over just about every branch, twig, stick, stone and pebble in our path," wrote Jones.

Next was a series of sprawling, gale-whipped lakes, where they encountered 4- to 5-foot swells with whitecaps and winds of 40 to 45 mph. A few days later, as they paddled north on the long, narrow Ile-a-la Crosse Lake, Levesque was separated from the others in the fog. An hour later they found each other, but in the storm-tossed waters they could've just as easily not. "As a result of this experience," wrote Jones, "we tightened up our ranks."

When they arrived at the Indian village of Patuanak, they had amassed some 300 miles. There'd been minor difficulties with the hectic pace and with intermittent sickness from untreated water and a nutrient-poor rice-and-fruit diet. Still, they'd been able to resupply at Hudson Bay posts, which kept their boats lighter and the expedition gently tethered to civilization. The next stretch would be pivotal: a 250-mile leg without any opportunity to provision.

Over the course of the next three weeks, the three enjoyed some of their finest days. They ran rapids almost daily while marveling at the wildlife—birds, including eagles, with deer, moose and a bear along the shore. They photographed stunning thunderbird petroglyphs. At a Chippewa reservation, Levesque conversed with a local chief, who told them about simmering tribal tensions and the price of furs ($35 for beaver). Although a geology major, Levesque found himself drawn to more than just rocks.

On Aug. 7, the team reached the eastern end of South Indian Lake, having been repeatedly battered by cold, wet weather. They had traveled a total of 57 days and 900 miles, but the toughest section yet lay ahead —300 miles of the wild lower Churchill, on portions of largely unexplored river. Jones was suffering from flulike symptoms and demoralizing bouts of diarrhea and stomach cramps. "Food continues to dominate my daily thoughts, no matter how hard I try," he wrote.

As they portaged near South Indian Lake, they met two people who warned them not to proceed down river. They were approaching Class V rapids—the next-to-highest danger level—which today are considered navigable only by advanced, experienced kayakers. Jones remembers that one of them, a young geologist, told them it was uncharted, and foolish to go on. "We listened, but we felt we knew what we were doing," says Jones. "We were confident we could pick our way down."

JONES' JOURNAL has been a constant reference for him in recent years. The detailed 90-page notebook shows a resourceful and ever-maturing expeditionary group, but also one that was exhausted and malnourished at a point when they were about to be most exposed and tested. Once they committed to that last section there was no turning back. In the final week, they would face the harshest weather on the trip and the most grueling portages. As they struggled against cold winds and waves of rain, Jones wrote, "This trip is getting to be more and more like a nightmare."

That entry was written on Aug. 13. The following day, the weather was promising. In a series of successful maneuvers, they portaged, walked empty kayaks around obstructions and ran multiple sets of rapids. After lunch, they scouted a turbulent stretch that led to a spot called Mountain Rapids. They planned to paddle close to the shore, then exit the river for the portage around the main rapids.

McAllister went first, followed by Jones and Levesque. As Jones remembers it, he knew he was in trouble almost immediately. "I misjudged the speed and strength of the current," he recalls. "I paddled to beat all hell, but it was useless." Jones ran into a wide ledge in front of the rapids. After ramming the rock, he lost his balance and capsized.

McAllister, having made it to safety, tried to reel Jones in, shouting at him to grab hold of McAllister's boat and kick for the shore. But neither man could overcome the strong pull of the racing current. The river had a firm grip on them, quickly pulling them towards the upper lip of the rough, heavy waters of the rapids.

With options running out, McAllister told Jones to let go and hang onto his own boat, yelling that he would be able to ride it out. Jones floated downstream backwards, hanging onto his kayak. Ice left over from the winter lined the banks; the water was 30 degrees. Out of the corner of his eye, Jones glimpsed Levesque, who had been trying to come to Jones' aid when he too capsized. Like Jones, Levesque was immediately drawn into the rapids. For a mile, Jones was thrashed in the booming Class V rapids, gasping for bites of air in the troughs of the 8-foot standing waves. He lost sight of Levesque.

At the bottom of the rapids, Jones was able to maneuver himself and his boat to the shore. He'd lost his paddle, and was dimly aware that McAllister was continuing on, trying to help Levesque. Somehow McAllister had not only stayed afloat but had made it through the rapids, a feat Jones described as "truly magnificent." Sometime later Jones saw McAllister returning along the shore. Frantically, they conferred. Neither of them had seen Levesque. "Dennis searched up and down the southern shore, covering every step, finding nothing," Jones says. McAllister told Jones to recover Levesque's boat, which McAllister had pulled onto a sandbar. But there was still no sign of Levesque. That night Jones and McAllister made camp on the rocky shore with what was left of their equipment and kept a fire burning brightly as a hopeful beacon.

The pair spent three days looking for Levesque. As time passed, they reluctantly concluded he had drowned. Devastated, they also had to contend with trying to survive themselves. Food became an issue. In a chilling description from the journal, Jones recounted racing along the river bank at a dead run and grabbing two geese. "Like a madman, I broke both of their necks," he wrote, "almost tying one into a knot."

They supplemented their lone remaining paddle by making one from a hand-hewn spruce tree, and contemplated staying put and trying to signal a plane flying overhead. Ultimately they decided the only way they were going to get out and get help was on their own initiative. Jones recalls McAllister saying, "God helps those that help themselves." As they raced through the last stretch of river, they came across Levesque's gear strewn on the rocks, including his paddle and a rucksack containing a watch, money and logbook, heart-wrenching reminders of their lost friend.

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.

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."

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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