A nearly 40-year journey that started on a high school trip down the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories brought a Norman Wells outfitter to Buckingham Palace earlier this month.

The story starts in 1977, when a group of students from Lakefield College School (a private high school in Ontario) went on a canoeing expedition on the Coppermine River, an 854 kilometre waterway that runs from the North Slave region of the N.W.T. through Nunavut's Kitikmeot region.

 Among the students was Al Pace, who was transformed by the trip and continued to visit the N.W.T. He started Canoe North Adventures, a Norman Wells-based outfitting company, 25 years ago.  

"That original trip as a school boy... really captured my imagination," he says.

Another student on the trip was a young Duke of York, England's Prince Andrew, who was an exchange student at the high school for two semesters.

1977 Coppermine expedition Prince Andrew

Prince Andrew, Duke of York, third from right, and Al Pace, far left, were among a group of high school students who went on a canoe expedition in 1977 on the N.W.T.'s Coppermine River. (submitted)

"He's a huge fan of the canoe, the Canadian culture," Pace says. "He's been a huge friend."

Pace kept in touch with the Duke of York, who has joined Pace for another five canoeing trips in the N.W.T.

"He's a very, very keen paddler," Pace says.

British students head North

Last year, when a school in Britain contacted Pace about bringing a group of students on the Coppermine River, he told his old classmate.

"I had let my old school chum, the Duke of York, know," he says.

The 22 students from Malvern College had what Pace says was a "transformative" expedition on the Coppermine last summer.

"We had, really, an epic three week journey."

Malvern college coppermine river

Students from Malvern College with Al Pace, far left, on the N.W.T.'s Coppermine River last summer. (submitted)

The Duke of York reached out to Pace and suggested a trip reunion at Buckingham Palace, which happened earlier this month.

Pace and the Malvern College students joined Prince Andrew at the palace to show him photos of their N.W.T. trip.

"He was very keen to see a slide presentation that the students had put together," says Pace.  

He and Prince Andrew compared the "high-tech" gear the students have now to what they had back in the day.

"We really felt like pioneers back in 1977," he laughs.

He says the experience at Buckingham Palace was surreal.

"It was really a lot of fun," Pace says. "It was just a fantastic coming together."

2017 reunion planned

Prince Andrew NWT

Prince Andrew, Duke of York, speaking at Canoe North Adventures during his most recent trip to the N.W.T. in 2011. (submitted)

Pace says he and the other members of the 1977 expedition, including Prince Andrew, are planning a reunion trip next year.

"These are private holidays deeply valued by the Duke of York and the guys we went to school with. It's a real special time," Pace says.

"I think he finds on these expeditions the kind of solitude and sanctuary that he would rarely get in his own life, so it's very, very cherished."

Pace says it's not easy to get everyone together for these trips, but he's hopeful it will come together. 

"It is a 40-year journey."

Prince Andrew

Al Pace , back row, second from right, on a reunion trip with friends from Lakefield College School. Prince Andrew is back row, third from right. (submitted)