by Claude Milot
Rare indeed is the day you meet a man so interesting you don’t ever get tired of listening to him. Such a man is Andre François Bourbeau, and I had the privilege of being entertained by his tales of adventure on March 13th.
It all began when I got a call from Jack Atwell who told me that the first “looper” (someone sailing the Albemarle Loop) of the season was down at the marina, his sailboat docked in front of the Dockmaster’s office. “You ought to interview him for Soundings,” said Jack. “He’s very interesting and very talkative.” So, off I went, curious as a cat.
I found Professor (I’ll explain) Bourbeau sheltered inside his tiny 13’10” Paradox boat. I managed to coax him out of his cocoon and into my golf cart for a ride to the Grill Room for probably the most fascinating interview I’ve ever done.
Andre, a short and trim specimen with an unruly beard grizzled with grey, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Quebec where he taught Outdoor Adventure and Wilderness Survival. His exploits include a canoe trip in the Arctic, dog-sled camping in 20 below 0oF temperatures, spruce-bark canoeing in Hudson Bay, crossing the Sahara on a camel, and surviving 31 days in the Canadian arboreal forest in the dead of winter.
This adventure began with him and an assistant being dropped in the wilderness from a helicopter with nothing more than street clothes on their backs. No coat, no food, no knife, not even a book of matches. Their goal was to document a scientific experiment to determine what to do if lost in the forest. First things first: build a fire. Andre said he broke rocks to produce a sharp edge to strip bark from trees and fashion a rope. (He showed me how to make a rope from a paper napkin.) With a thin rope and two sticks, Andre started a fire. Under ideal conditions this might take a little as 4.2 seconds (his personal best), but in the rain it took six hours. With rope he fashioned snares for game and from his zipper tab a hook to fish. While one huddled by the fire to stay warm, the other went fishing or looking for edible roots and plants. They survived to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records and star in a TV series called “Expedition Extremes.”
Andre is most proud of SERA, a program of survival techniques he developed: “S” stands for Search & Rescue; “E” for Energy Conservation and Replenishment; “R” is Risk Avoidance: and “A” is for preserving Assets (rationing food, staying dry, caring for gear, etc.) Andre has written many articles and books on what to do and what not to do when lost. His one book in English, the story of his adventure entitled Wilderness Secrets Revealed, is available from Amazon.
The techniques Andre developed led to many applications. One he is most proud of is something called “therapeutic adventure,” in which kids with cancer discover that they can still accomplish something worthwhile. Another is called emergency risk management, which teaches rescue techniques in crisis situations like avalanches.
At 64 Andre is retired and no longer searching for extreme adventures. Instead, he is now teaching himself how to sail. Right now he is in the middle of a 30-day round trip that began in Franklin, Virginia, across to the Chowan River, down to Edenton, and now Albemarle Plantation. When weather permits, he plans to round Harvey Point to Hertford, followed by a run up the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal to Portsmouth. From there he will bicycle (yes, he does store a bicycle neatly folded into a little space aboard his boat) back to Franklin to retrieve his car, return to Portsmouth to load the boat back on his trailer, and head back to Quebec. No doubt he’ll be thinking about his next adventure on the way. Perhaps an expedition in the Everglades (no, he’s already done that) or an ocean crossing. Who knows. Nothing would surprise me.