This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 30, 1998. Partner content is not updated.The moment, lifted from a documentary, was played and replayed on television: a good-looking young man in sunglasses and dark hair coolly tooling across a blue lake in a speedboat.
Trudeau Search Suspended
The moment, lifted from a documentary, was played and replayed on television: a good-looking young man in sunglasses and dark hair coolly tooling across a blue lake in a speedboat. His mother, sitting behind him in a yellow bathing suit, laughing, tosses her chestnut mane against a brilliant blue sky. How different from the images in a video brought back by a police helicopter flying over British Columbia's Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park last week. Those showed a gash-shaped lake of glacier water, grey as slate and walled in by mountains so steep and bare their danger was obvious even to city slickers. Ice was closing in on the lake, drawing an indifferent veil over what, for the moment at least, is the young man's grave.
On Nov. 18, the encroaching ice forced police to abandon their attempts to recover the body of 23-year-old Michel Trudeau - five days after an avalanche swept down on the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, 79, and three friends as they crossed Kokanee Lake's precipitous shoreline at the end of a backcountry ski trip. The Trudeau family participated in the decision to suspend the search - taken at an RCMP planning session in Nelson, B.C. - through Michel's older brother Sacha, 24. It was a decision that less-famous families face with heart-wrenching frequency - especially in outdoors-mad British Columbia.
But that did nothing to diminish the sorrow for the Trudeaus. Michel's father and mother, Margaret Trudeau Kemper, 50, were joined by Sacha and eldest son Justin, 26, all visibly shaken, in St. Viateur Roman Catholic Church in Montreal's Outremont quarter on Friday for a private memorial service attended by Gov. Gen. Roméo LeBlanc as well as politicians past and present, along with family and friends. The elder Trudeau read a passage from 1st Corinthians and his sons spoke of their love for the youngest brother. "I remember [Michel] with a smile on his face and a dangerous, mischievous glint in his eye that meant anything could happen, and probably would," Justin later told reporters after the 65-minute service.
Earlier, the forbidding terrain in the police video made evident the challenge facing searchers after Trudeau's three companions were airlifted to safety on Nov. 14. The next day, clouds over Kokanee Lake, nearly a mile higher than Nelson and rimmed with knife-edge mountains, prevented even a reconnaissance flight. Twenty-four hours later, open skies allowed aircraft to drop 15 explosive charges on the slopes overlooking the lake, dislodging buildups of snow that threatened further slides. That cleared the way for RCMP divers to reach the area on Nov. 17. But by then, ice was already so thick at the lake's edge that the divers' light inflatable boat had to be towed over it by a helicopter to reach open water. There, the 1,900-m altitude limited each diver to less than 10 minutes in the ice-cold water. In the end, the effort proved futile: the team returned without the body - but with Michel's Labrador-shepherd cross, Makwa, and a second dog belonging to the girlfriend of another member of the group.
The following day, searchers made an attempt to probe the lake's 100-m depths with a miniature submarine. But clouds again closed in, nearly trapping a helicopter moments after it dropped off an advance team. The team was forced to retreat, retracing the path of Trudeau's ill-fated group along the lake in a 4.8-km hike back down the mountain. With that setback, the search ended - at least until ice on the lake is solid enough to support travel, and possibly until next spring's breakup. At the discussion where the decision was made to suspend the search, Sacha Trudeau "expressed the family's desire that no one else be put in danger to search for the body," according to RCMP Cpl. Randy Koch.
The family's sorrow was no less real among residents of Rossland, B.C., the ski town where Michel Trudeau had lived for the past year. After failing in his first attempt to get a job as a ski lift attendant because he looked too scruffy - "He was virtually a bushman, with a big bushy beard and scraggly hair," remembers Christa McLaughlin, the lift manager who turned him down - Trudeau tried again. This time, shorn and shaved, he got the job and quickly won a reputation for being hardworking, cheerful and outgoing - with a touch of his father's charisma.
He seldom mentioned his background. When he gave his father's name as Pierre Trudeau on a job application form, McLaughlin thought it was a joke. Michel's anonymity took a mild beating when his father came to visit and ski with his youngest son last March. But, said a bartender at a hangout favored by Rossland's young ski crowd: "We didn't think of him as the prime minister's son. He was just Mike."
If the young Trudeau had made his life his own, its end came in circumstances that have become increasingly and tragically familiar to British Columbians. The growing popularity of extreme outdoor sports of all kinds has been matched by a steady increase in the number of people overtaken by the inherent risks. On the same weekend Trudeau died, 52-year-old photographer Uwe Meyer perished while kayaking in the torrents of the Capilano River in North Vancouver. And another avalanche, this one in British Columbia's Yoho National Park, claimed the life of an 18-year-old hiker, University of Calgary student Susanna Donald. A distraught friend posted a notice on her residence door. It read: "Susanna loved the outdoors, and the possibility of danger would not have kept her inside." The words could just as easily have been written about Michel Trudeau.
Maclean's November 30, 1998