rofessor 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 predic-
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 teach-
er 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
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 doctor-
ate 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.)