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The Wild Rivers Survey: 50 Years On

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In June of 1971, some two dozen young canoeists camped out on the shore of Lake Laberge on the Yukon River waiting for the ice to clear. The ice was delaying the 640 km downriver trip to Dawson City, which marked the beginning of Parks Canada’s Wild Rivers Survey. Although it could not have been known at the time, the trip became the precursor of the Canadian Heritage River System.

By the time this three-year, Canada-wide survey was over, it covered 65 rivers and some 10,000 km by the four-person crews. Today, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this significant national achievement which led to the establishment of the CHRS in 1984.

Both ends of the canoe out of the water on the Liard River in 1973.
Both ends of the canoe out of the water on the Liard River in 1973. Photo: Roger Beardmore


A more immediate result was the publication of eight booklets describing the rivers, their history and geography, and the canoeing experience itself in order to assist and guide modern day wilderness travellers. The booklets filled a need for such information at a time when interest in wilderness and northern canoe travel was at a high.

The idea of the survey was borrowed from the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program of the US National Parks Service. Close to 30 university students were hired by Parks Canada to survey Canada’s wild rivers across the country. The Yukon River trip was the shakedown run to sort out the survey technique and coalesce the crews. Following it, pairs of crews in two canoes were sent on other Yukon rivers in the first year. Parks Canada hired crew members with a background in the natural sciences, an interest in wilderness travel, and canoeing skills. Physical and mental strength, courage in the face of danger, and an ability to work and live within the tight confines of a canoe and a tent proved to be valued personal attributes. Some youthful bravado and a dollop of invincibility proved to be important, too.

The Wild Rivers Survey team, Steve, Harry, Roger, and Dave, who paddled the Liard River in 1973.
Part of the Wild Rivers Survey team, Steve, Harry, Roger, and Dave, who paddled the Liard River in 1973. Photo: Roger Beardmore


Despite all the preparations and precautions, the rivers exacted a toll in damaged and lost equipment. There were swamped and broken canoes, other mishaps and countless close calls verging on disaster- all that was to be expected canoeing Canada’s most remote, fiercest, untamed rivers. These rives were renowned for monstrous rapids, fearsome standing waves, and roiling hydraulics. These same rivers have taken lives both before and since the Wild Rivers Survey, but it is a testament to the impressive skills, endurance, perseverance, and plain luck that no limbs or life were lost during the entire survey of the 65 rivers. To see this in proper perspective, it needs to be remembered that the survey was carried out prior to GPS, satellite communications, and cell phones. The crews were entirely on their own in the far reaches of Canada's wilderness. Their safety and survival was entirely in their own hands, dependent on completing the journeys on time for pre-arranged pickups by float planes.

The crews were made up of exceptional young men and women, which was proven in the years to come. All the crew members achieved notable success later in life. Some gained national recognition as professionals, artists, and entrepreneurs; several stayed in Parks Canada to follow a career. Taken in sum, their accomplishments are truly impressive. Many claim that participation in the survey was a transformative experience. This can be easily appreciated when realizing that such a survey will never be repeated. It will thus remain a unique experience in the history of Parks Canada, as well as in the lives of individual crew members.  

Navigating the Liard River in an aluminum 17’ Grumman canoe. Photo: Roger Beardmore
Navigating the Liard River in an aluminum 17’ Grumman canoe. Photo: Roger Beardmore

Reflecting on the times, it was befitting that Parks Canada decided on a comprehensive review at the country’s untamed rivers. The National Parks and National Historic Sites programs entered a period of expansion, riding the wave of an emerging and confident conservation movement, based on a growing concern for the natural environment and in response to the major northern resource development proposals of the day. Within the framework of the newly introduced Byways and Special Places program, there were ambitious plans for the creation of new National Parks and Historic Sites, goals that are still with us today. The focus on Wild Rivers was just one of several new program initiatives for Parks Canada at the time. Other initiatives during the 1970s included National Landmarks, Canal System Extension, National Marine Parks, Historic Waterways, Historic Land Trails, and Scenic and Historic Waterways.

The true legacy of the Wild River Survey is the federal-provincial-territorial Canadian Heritage Rivers System, a cooperative program consisting today of 41 rivers in nine provinces and three territories, many of which were first identified in the Wild Rivers Survey. A program such as CHRS is essential in light of the importance of the rivers and lakes of Canada. They are part of our immense natural heritage, unmatched in size and beauty. Our rivers and lakes have played and continue to play a central role in the lives of First Nations and in Canada’s history and culture. They have been the vital connecting waterways since time immemorial, before and after this land became the country of Canada. Thus, rivers were and remain vital to our existence and national identity. It is through CHRS that their significance is recognized, protected, and celebrated.

Paddling the rapids of the Liard River. Photo: Roger Beardmore
Paddling the rapids of the Liard River. Photo: Roger Beardmore

In this 50-year anniversary celebratory note, the names of the crew members—the essential players in the survey—needs to be mentioned, with a great shout of congratulations and thanks to all. They are:

Ian Donaldson, Campbell Day, Fred Cramp, Sue Cramp, Jean de Groisbois, Priidu Juurand, Dave McClung, Malcomb McIntyre, Bill Pisco, Tom Wallace, Roger Beardmore, Harry Collins, Steve Paul, Carson Herrick, Ramona Herrick, Allan Ballack, David Wilford, Gerry Fassett, Caroline Boucher, Vahe Guzelimian, Robert Amos, Jim Lavalee, Claude Thériault, Tom Perry, Greg Ewart, John Horrick, Derryl Peck, Diane Rocheleau, Robin Barber, Juri Peepre (RIP 2018), Daniel Laroque, Ronald Jean, and Alexandre Napess.

These now aged adventurers carry with them a storehouse of personal anecdotes, reminiscences and experiences that remain largely untold, but the history of Canada’s rivers is more vibrant because of these fearless few.

Survey crew member, Robert Amos, draws this image while paddling the White River on the north shore of Lake Superior in June 1973. Credit: Robert Amos
Survey crew member, Robert Amos, draws this image while paddling the White River on the north shore of Lake Superior in June 1973. Credit: Robert Amos

To complete the story of the survey, a mention must also be made of Gerry Lee, then of Parks Canada, who was the originator of the survey and secured funding for it, and of Priidu Juurand, who played a key role as logistic and river crew chief in the field.

In a gesture to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wild Rivers Survey, Molly Demma of CHRS hosted an online conference call on October 22, 2021 that drew in more than 20 original crew members from across Canada and as far away as Norway. It was a joyous event, the first such reunion in half a century.