Residential school runaway remembers harrowing journey that killed his two friends
'At the time, as young kids, it sounded good ... like we were going to make it in a day or 2'
When the highway connecting Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk year-round finally opens in November, Bernard Andreason hopes to be there.
But it will be a celebration tinged with loss and regret.
The 56-year-old lives in Vancouver now, but 45 years ago, when he was a boy at residential school in Inuvik, he walked for more than two weeks to get home to Tuktoyaktuk.
It was a journey that claimed the lives of his two closest friends, and almost killed him.
Andreason remembers the thrill and the excitement of taking off with Dennis Dick, 13, and Lawrence Jack Elanik, 11, in the middle of June 1972.
It started off as an adventure, to run away from Stringer Hall — where the three boys lived while they attended residential school in Inuvik — and into the vast wilderness, to trudge a pathway home to Tuktoyaktuk.
Dick had stolen a pack of cigarettes from one of the dorm supervisors and the youngsters had been smoking them while hiding in the hills behind the school.
"We were scared to go back," said Andreason, who was 11 at the time. "We didn't know what was going to happen … The supervisors weren't very nice people. They were really mean toward us — so mean that we were scared of them."
With just the clothes on their backs, the trio set out north toward Tuktoyaktuk, 130 kilometres away.
There was no road, no path, except for telephone pole lines strung along the half-frozen landscape of bush, tundra, lakes and rivers leading to the Inuvialuit community on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
The first few days were thrilling, said Andreason. They used the pole lines as markers to guide the way, ate berries and had plenty of fresh water to drink. In June, the sun shines for 24 hours a day above the Arctic Circle, so it was warm, he remembered.
"At the time, as young kids, it sounded good ... like we were going to make it in a day or two," said Andreason.
A turn for the worse
But after a few days of walking, things took a turn.
"The excitement started to wear off," said Andreason. "The weather started getting cloudy, windy ... and it started raining. We ran into a large creek and we tried to cross and we couldn't, so we didn't know what to do.
"That's when Jack [Elanik] started not feeling well. He started getting sick, crying all the time."
Andreason wanted to go back to Inuvik, because he was concerned for Elanik. Reality started to kick in: They were in a dangerous situation.
The two decided to stop and rest, but Dick wanted to press on. The 13-year-old continued towards Tuktoyaktuk while Elanik and Andreason stopped to rest.
"That was the last time we seen Dennis," said Andreason.
Too sick to continue
After walking for a little while, Elanik and Andreason took shelter in a cluster of bushes, where they huddled together to ride out a storm that was blowing in and drifted off to sleep.
"The next day, Jack was too weak to get up," said Andreason. "I tried talking to him. He couldn't talk, he was just crying … I didn't know what I was going to do. He was too sick to get up anymore."
After making sure Elanik was comfortable, Andreason started walking again. But he couldn't get Elanik off his mind.
For almost two weeks, Andreason walked alone, following the power lines and crossing waist-deep lakes and raging rivers, where he said he almost drowned.
Because of the constant daylight, it was hard to tell day from night. At one point, he became too disoriented to know which direction to walk.
"There were times where I hallucinated a lot," said Andreason. "I thought people were walking around me. I think I must've been dreaming — I was talking to people that weren't there. That really scared me."
He ran into a couple of figures in the distance that he mistook for women from his home community out berry-picking.
"I got really excited and scared at the same time. I started yelling and screaming and running towards them. Then they lifted up their heads, and I realized they were two reindeer."
Emotionally and physically exhausted, Andreason wanted to give up, but prayer and his determination to get home kept him going.
After falling asleep in a hole at the bottom of a pingo — a large, ice-covered hill formation — he awoke to sounds of civilization.
"It was a chopper. I jumped out of that hole and it was just taking off. They went the other way, they didn't see me."
But when he climbed the hill, relief washed over him. There was Tuktoyaktuk in the distance.
"I fell on the ground and I started crying. I looked back towards where I come from and I was thinking of Dennis and Jack.
"Just for a moment I felt so happy. I wanted to walk back and look for them, then I realized I couldn't do it."
Andreason was flown back to Inuvik for treatment at the hospital. He had lost over 30 pounds, and his shoes and socks had to be cut off because they stuck to his skin. He remembers his feet swelling up so bad he couldn't walk properly for several weeks.
Search and rescue teams explored the area where Andreason said he last saw the other boys.
He had high hopes the three would be united again, but soon received the heartbreaking news that Elanik was dead.
"I went crazy, I couldn't sleep, and I felt really bad.
"I was too young to know about death and stuff like that."
Dennis Dick's body has never been found.
'That was their story'
Darlene Elanik was just nine years old when she learned her brother and best friend, Lawrence Jack Elanik, had died.
"I still get emotional with it," she said. "I was really close with my brother. It was really hard on me and still is."
But she says losing Jack was even harder on her mother, who never really got over the death.
"I remember listening to her crying to my dad ... screaming," recalled Elanik. "I heard everything."
Darlene Elanik doesn't buy the story that the boys were running away because they were afraid to get in trouble for stealing cigarettes.
"That was their story. But it's just a cover-up from the abuse," she said. "It was about more than a pack of cigarettes."
Andreason confirmed there was physical and emotional abuse at Stringer Hall — he said he suffered both — and the three boys were terrified of the consequences they would face for stealing.
"You couldn't fight for yourself," he said. "You live with other people and they're not your parents. Any little thing you say or do — those people weren't very nice."
Andreason never did have to go back to Stringer Hall. For years, he lived with the guilt of having survived the ordeal and believed it was his fault his friends didn't make it.
He ended up leaving Tuk in his 20s to move south to Ontario, and then to Vancouver where he lives now.
For years, he said he lived a hard life on and off the streets, struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol.
After contracting HIV over 20 years ago, Andreason managed to turn his life around.
He said he's now moved past the guilt, but thinks of Elanik and Dick every day.
There's an effort underway to name the new all-season highway between Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk after the three boys who attempted the journey almost half a century ago.
Joe Nasogaluak of Tuktoyaktuk wants to call it "Freedom Road."
"We have to remember these kids," said Nasogaluak. "They were running away, to freedom. To get away from whatever happened or might have happened … they were fighting for their lives, to reach home, for freedom."
Andreason still remembers when, after more than two weeks in the bush, he reached the top of the hill and saw his community that day in 1972.
And he's looking forward to making the long trip home, once again, for the highway's grand opening.
This time, he'll be flying there.
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