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Meet André-François Bourbeau: wilderness survival pioneer

"If I’m suffering it means I don’t know enough."

Photos by Alexi Hobbs.

Professor emeritus André-François Bourbeau is shorter than I imagined him. But the wide smile, knuckle-crushing handshake and woodsman’s garb, complete with sheathed knife slung over one shoulder and across his midsection, are in keeping with my mental image of a man who is a legend among wilderness survival enthusiasts the world over.

“My thing,” says Dr. Bourbeau, “is to put myself in predicaments.”

That may be an understatement. The co-founder and now retired professor of the Outdoor Pursuits and Adventure Tourism program at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (or UQAC) describes many of his dangerous experiences in his 2013 book, Wilderness Secrets Revealed: Adventures of a Survivor. Among them is his 31 days of voluntary wilderness survival in the boreal forest. His Guinness World Record for that adventure has held for 30 years.

Dr. Bourbeau no longer teaches, but he continues to do field work, such as the effort, on view today, to build a dugout canoe from scratch using an old Estonian method. For this project, he’s been camping for a week with fellow survivalist Billy Rioux in UQAC’s experimental forest next to Lac Simoncouche, a half-hour’s drive south of the campus. “If I’m suffering,” he observes while dishing up a delicious lunch of bacon and bannock cooked on a stove in his worn canvas tent, “it means I don’t know enough.”

Born in Quebec and raised in central Ontario’s cottage country, where his father owned and operated a meal-services business for summer camps, André-François Bourbeau started trekking alone at an early age. From the get-go he exhibited risky behaviour, eating unfamiliar berries, plants and roots (luckily he didn’t like mushrooms) and acting out survivalist scenarios with little or no food or tools.

He continued these forest forays in the 1970s as a high school teacher in Thornhill, Ontario, after graduating from the University of Toronto with a BA in math and physical education and a BEd. Soon he started bringing groups of students along with him, frequently running afoul of both the trip guidelines and worried parents when he hadn’t delivered their bug-bitten, sleep-deprived kids by the scheduled time on Sunday. He says he loves “getting students to try things that get them out of their comfort zone.”

He decided to pursue his passion for nature and survival by doing a master’s and PhD at the University of Northern Colorado in the school of educational change and development. Just as he was finishing his doctorate in 1981, he met another Canadian teacher and outdoors thrill-seeker.

Mario Bilodeau was then a young physical education professor from UQAC. “I remember meeting this short, stocky, crazy, funny man,” recalls Dr. Bilodeau, “who was very eccentric, talkative and kind of wild. We hit it off right away.”

With the blessing of UQAC’s dean of undergraduate studies, Dr. Bilodeau convinced his new friend to return with him to the Saguenay region, 250 kilometres north of Quebec City, and replace him while he did his own PhD in adventure education at the Colorado university. Dr. Bourbeau says he took the faculty job to pay off his student loans, only intending to stay for a year or two, but he fell in love with the rugged Saguenay region, with its 15 whitewater rivers nearby and ample opportunities for living in the bush.

Dr. Bilodeau, though, recalls that things weren’t easy for Dr. Bourbeau early on. Coming from Ontario, “André-François had a hard time adapting. His French was good, but not perfect. And he was very outspoken, which meant he had frequent run-ins with colleagues and university officials.” He recalls the first staff meeting. “People were still smoking inside then, and André-François hates smoking – I mean hates. So he walks in and yells, ‘I can’t stand your smoke!’ and opens all the windows. Somebody got up and closed them, but he reopened them.”

That set the tone for Dr. Bourbeau’s often rough ride through academia. Fired with passion and energy to both learn and teach nature survival, he constantly challenged the status quo and pushed his students to do the same. He made headlines in 1984 when he and a friend survived 31 days in the boreal forest without any modern implements, not even knives or matches. Soon he began organizing and leading wilderness camping trips, often paying out-of-pocket for what was then a graded elective course for physical education students.

“André-François has a real voyageur approach to surviving in nature,” says Dr. Bilodeau, whose own interests lean towards the therapeutic powers of nature (he earned his own share of fame by co-founding On the Tips of Toes, a non-profit foundation that organizes wilderness expeditions for teenagers with cancer.)

The two professors developed a unique leadership and teaching approach that led to the launch of an undergraduate program in outdoor leadership in 1995. “André-François was a bulldozer who broke down doors, and I was a carpenter who fixed them,” says Dr. Bilodeau. “We were the perfect team.”

By then, his colleague was organizing and leading increasingly over-the-top field trips. In addition to themed or scenario-based survival outings in all seasons, Dr. Bourbeau led students on a bicycle tour from Colorado to California (students carted books along and visited nuclear power plants) and a canoe trip through a rugged region of Mexico that required participants to learn and speak Spanish. “I like to say that the worst risk is not taking any risks,” he says, neatly summing up his philosophy of both teaching and living.

His wife Lizon Truchon, a teaching assistant at UQAC, accompanies him on wilderness excursions, as does his 14-year-old daughter Veronica, who went on her first canoe trip when she was two weeks old and winter camping later that year. He doesn’t say whether he would do that again, but allows that “I’ve learned there are good risks and stupid risks, and age and experience enable you to know the difference.”

To help pay for his students’ trips, Dr. Bourbeau came up with some unique fundraising activities. For a few years, he had 40 cords-worth of full-length trees delivered to the UQAC campus in the fall and enlisted his students to chop the logs into a massive pile of firewood using chainsaws, hatchets and axes. They sold the wood to faculty and passersby for $80 a cord. Eventually the activity became part of his course on outdoor security, accounting for five percent of the grade.

While at UQAC, Dr. Bourbeau wrote a manual on outdoor risk management that continues to be widely used in Quebec’s ecotourism industry and in CEGEP courses on outdoor tourism. With the help of Dr. Bilodeau and other colleagues, he developed an analysis tool to help people think strategically in a wilderness predicament.

Some faculty members questioned the merits of offering an outdoor tourism program at a university and didn’t warm to Dr. Bourbeau’s colourful antics, but others applaud both the program’s place in academia and Dr. Bourbeau’s research-based approach to wilderness survival.

“The outdoor leadership program [was] a small program with a big profile,” says Cylvie Claveau, a UQAC history professor. In her view, Dr. Bourbeau “helped to pioneer this new discipline, and he did it with original and audacious ideas and notions that conservative people hated but that inspired progressive people, especially students. And, for a teacher, isn’t inspiring your students what it’s all about?”

Dr. Bourbeau and Dr. Bilodeau retired together in the spring of 2011. For their last act, they worked on revamping the undergraduate program they had pioneered.

“When it started, the program was targeted specifically at the tourism industry,” explains Dr. Bourbeau. But today, he says, the tourism industry has matured, and there aren’t as many job opportunities for graduates as there were 20 years ago. Instead, many graduates are using their skills in other fields, where people “live and work in the bush and in the Arctic, like mining and forestry. So we worked on changing the program to create a new structure with a broader appeal.”

The result was Intervention plein air, an undergraduate program that features a half-dozen concentrations, including therapeutic nature, scientific expeditions and outdoors risk management. The fieldwork includes two intensive outdoor sessions and one major expedition. “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world,” asserts Dr. Bourbeau.

Manu Tranquard, the program’s director since the fall of 2013, agrees. He says UQAC’s outdoor programs are in demand by students from across Quebec and beyond: “There is a big and growing need for professionals who can work effectively and safely in the outdoors.” Now, a graduate certificate program is in development, he says, with the goal of creating a full-fledged graduate program.

A native of France, Dr. Tranquard moved to the Saguenay region a decade ago, expressly to study with Dr. Bourbeau. He later earned a PhD in regional development from UQAC. He calls it “a luxury” to be able to bring in his former teacher as a guest lecturer, particularly on wilderness survival. “André-François is a legend, a phenomenon,” he says. “I think the world of him.”

Dr. Bourbeau chose to retire at the relatively young age of 61, while he is still active in the field; he says he needed the time that retirement promised to write two books, Le Surviethon: vingt-cinq ans plus tard (Les Éditions JCL, 2011) and Wilderness Secrets Revealed: Secrets of a Survivor (Dundurn, May 2013).

The French book, in particular, was something he felt he had to do, calling it “the treatise of my life. It’s got the conclusions of all the experiments I’ve done, and analyzes what I did right and wrong.” A required text in the undergraduate program’s survival course, it has a section on survival techniques that provides both “a safety manual and how-to book on the subject of survival.”

Like many retired academics, he continues to research the subjects that interest him. Last year, he built a canoe made of spruce bark to test and compare with the birch bark variety. He also wrote a profile of Pierre St. Germain, a Métis interpreter who accompanied the Franklin Expedition, helping the British team to cross the Coppermine River in a boat made of canvas groundsheets, stitched together with willow branches. He likes to use historical documents “to figure out how people managed to do things that don’t seem possible.”

This year, it’s the dug-out canoe project that saw him spend his birthday cutting wood for 12 hours. He finished the canoe a week after my visit, paddling it successfully on the Saguenay River but concluding it was too heavy and unstable for safe, practical navigation. That didn’t seem to bother him at all. “I’m looking for the secrets of nature,” he says, “and every lesson is worth learning.”

Mark Cardwell
Mark Cardwell is a veteran journalist and author based in the Quebec City area.
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