The Incredible True Story Behind Disney's The Incredible Journey

Ambitious, creative and in love with Canada's outdoors, Lakehead resident Sheila Burnford wrote one of the most beloved children's books of all time.
Port Arthur Local Lakehead radio newsman Ron Knight, holding a microphone, interviewing Port Arthur’s famed children's author Sheila Burnford at the November 1963 premiere of the Disney film The Incredible Journey

November 4, 1963. Thousands of people line the streets of Port Arthur (one of the two cities that is now Thunder Bay). Flashbulbs pop in the early evening darkness. There are fur coats and tiaras, evening gowns and tuxedos, a costumed Mickey Mouse, a parade complete with a marching band, and banners proclaiming “Three against the wilderness!” For one night only, the small northwestern Ontario city of Port Arthur is getting a good look at Hollywood glamour with the world premiere of The Incredible Journey, a Walt Disney movie. Sheila Burnford, the Lakehead resident who wrote the bestselling book of the same name, waves to the crowd at the Odeon Theatre at the corner of Park Avenue and Court Street South—it was she, after all, who insisted that the movie premiere take place in her adopted hometown. If you loved the book or the movie, read on to learn more about Burnford, a truly remarkable woman.

The Early Life of the Famous Author

a black and white photograph of a young Sheila Burnford, smartly dressed in a stylish black gown with her hair set.
Sheila Burnford // Photo credit Thunder Bay Museum

Burnford was born Sheila Philip Cochrane Every to a comfortably well-off family in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1916. There, she enjoyed plenty of countryside walks and was educated in English and French boarding schools, plus a school term abroad in 1933 Munich when Hitler came to power (a time her children say she never discussed). Once out of school, she trained as an ambulance driver, became one of the first female pilots in Scotland and hiked across Europe during the simmering tensions of the summer of 1939. In 1941 she married David Burnford, who was serving in the Royal Navy. During the war, Burnford worked as a VAD nurse for the British Red Cross, as well as an ambulance attendant and driver.

By 1944 she was living on her own with her two small daughters, close to David’s naval base in Portsmouth, as bombs rained down and fighter planes flew overhead. It was there that she developed an especially close bond with her bull terrier Bill. “He kept me company in the long blacked-out nights of war. I relied on him for companionship and security, more than one probably would have in normal times,” remembered Burnford. “I used to read to him in the evenings, excerpts from the papers and long sessions of Anthony Trollope, there was no one else to talk to. My children were only babies, so the terrier became my captive audience. Also, during those long evenings, if I played the piano and sang, in a kind of howl he would join in. We had some wonderful musical sessions together.” She recounted how her children “would use Bill's collar, his tail, even his long-suffering ears to pull themselves up. That is how they learn to stand. He was their constant companion and self-elected guardian.”

The Move to Thunder Bay in Canada—Her Adopted Homeland

A printed flyer advertising the 1963 premiere of Walt Disney's The Incredible Journey, written by Sheila Burnford. The flyer reads "3 against the wilderness!" and features a picture of 2 dogs and a cat walking together, with a small side picture of an angry bear they encounter. It advertises "personal appearances, bands, searchlights, celebrities".
Sheila's life experiences as well as her relationship with her own beloved terrier would help to shape her famous work. // Photo credit Thunder Bay Museum

In 1948 the Burnford family, now with three daughters, their nanny, and Bill the dog, sailed to Canada aboard the RMS Aquatania. They settled in Port Arthur, where David, a medical doctor, established his pediatric practice. In her memoir Without Reserve, Burnford wrote of “the lakes and rivers and logging trails of that wild and lovely land beyond Port Arthur and Fort William, with ‘the shores of Gitche Gumee/By the shining Big-Sea-Water’ almost on my doorstep, and Nanabijou, the Sleeping Giant, stretched across the horizon of Thunder Bay.” She adds “I fell in love with my new land, with its timelessness, its endless quiet peace, its clear heady air.” With limited interest in a young matron’s conventional life of social calls, cooking and housework, but with an enduring love of the outdoors, she explored the area’s lakes, rivers and forests with Bill by her side.

When Burnford met artist Susan Ross, they became lifelong friends and fellow adventurers. In Without Reserve she goes on to write that Ross “had been born here in northwestern Ontario and was as much at home in the bush or in a canoe or an outboard on the lake as I had been in my own country on moors and hills and sea…Susan’s idea of purgatory, like mine, was a timeless round of tea parties and small talk.” When the two friends became involved in a local puppet theatre—Burnford writing scripts and Ross creating scenery—Burnford found her passion for writing. “Then one day, triggered off by a puppet play or script that had to be written, I started to write. And with the first piece published, with the sight of my own words, I became a kind of print addict and could not stop. I wrote thousands of words about everything under the sun in northwestern Ontario…” she remembers in Without Reserve. These works were published in The London Times and The Glasgow Herald.

The Print Addict’s First Book—A Blockbuster

A black and white photo of a huge crowd lined up outside the theatre at Port Arthur to see the 1963 premiere of The Incredible Journey. The lit box office sign above the crowd reads "world premiere tonight: Walt Disneys 'Incredible Journey' by Sheila Burnford".
The bustling world premiere of The Incredible Journey. Over 10,000 people lined the streets for the parade preceding the showing. // Photo credit Thunder Bay Museum

That “print addiction” led to her first book, The Incredible Journey, published in 1961. (According to her daughter she had trouble finding a Canadian publisher, suggesting that she needed to add a “love interest.”) The heartwarming but unsentimental story of three family pets—a young Labrador, an elderly bull terrier and a Siamese cat—who trek across the northwestern Ontario wilderness to reunite with their humans, was inspired by Burnford’s observations of her own pets’ interactions with each other, and by her desire to memorialize her late, beloved Bill.  And while the real-life pets only made the journey in her imagination, the territory she based the story on stretches from Whitefish Lake to the southwest of Thunder Bay, to Loon Lake (site of the Burnford and Ross family camps) to the northeast of the city, a distance of about 115 kilometres as the crow flies. In the book, they encounter Anishinaabe wild rice harvesters, Finnish settlers, treacherous terrain, and local wildlife ranging from a black bear and a moose to a wolf, fox, fisher, beaver, mink and marten. However, the film was made in the Toronto area.

An original Odeon Theatre ticket for the Incredible Journey Premiere in 1963, showing November 4th at 8:00 PM, with a picture of Port Arthur in the centre.
An original ticket to the premiere. // Photo credit Thunder Bay Museum

The book initially sold modestly (and Burnford always maintained it was never intended as a children’s book) but she received many fan letters from readers of all ages. The Incredible Journey soon caught the attention of two movie studios. Walt Disney himself sent her a letter with a copy of the book, “in the hopes that you will inscribe it to me for my personal library.” Burnford accepted the Disney movie deal and the film debuted in 1963, bringing the story to generations of viewers and readers. The book "The Incredible Journey" became a bestseller, won several awards and has been translated into more than 20 languages.

Famous author Sheila Burnford waving and smiling in an elegant gown and fur shawl on her way into the Port Arthur 1963 world premiere of the Walt Disney movie The Incredible Journey, based off her book. Interviewing Port Arthur’s famed children's author Sheila Burnford at the November 1963 premiere of the Disney film Incredible Journey. Sheila and 4 other smiling people, one with a microphone, all wearing formal wear.
Sheila attending and being interviewed at Walt Disney's world premiere of The Incredible Journey in Port Arthur in 1963. // Photo credits Thunder Bay Museum

The Legacy of Sheila Burnford and The Incredible Journey

In 2017, Thunder Bay film company Sheba Films made a documentary called Long Walk Home about Burnford and The Incredible Journey. “We stumbled across the story, the fact that Sheila lived here, which was amazing to us,” says filmmaker Kelly Saxberg. Burnford had died in 1984 and her daughter Jonquil wanted to make sure all the documents, photos and memorabilia were properly cared for, says Saxberg, so the family shared the archives with ShebaFilms as well as historians at Lakehead University, and Jonquil helped narrate the documentary. Originally intending to do just one film about Burnford’s life and legacy, ShebaFilms is now planning on six, due to the richness of the material and fascinating details of Burnford’s life.

In addition to The Incredible Journey, Burnford wrote Without Reserve (her account of her and Ross’s time spent with Indigenous people in remote reserves), One Woman’s Arctic (Burnford and Ross’s sojourn with peoples of Pond Inlet in Canada’s Arctic), The Fields of Noon (autobiographical essays with a focus on her love of nature), Bel Ria (the story of a circus dog caught up in war-torn England and France, drawing on her experiences as an ambulance driver) and Mr. Noah and the Second Flood (her only children’s book, written in 1973 and startlingly predictive about the effects of plastic pollution and climate change).

The Incredible Journey is "a real love letter to northern Ontario,” says Saxberg. She describes Burnford’s own life as “incredible,” adding in the documentary description “there was a great deal more to her life than this one book.” The Thunder Bay Museum is the new home of Sheila Burnford’s archives. In the summer of 2024, don’t miss its special exhibit chronicling the work of both Burnford and Ross.

A number of items behind glass at a museum. Some old books with museum cards explaining their significance are visible. A selection of paperback books on a wooden table. An old metal typewriter.
The Thunder Bay Museum is the new home of Sheila Burnford’s archives. In 2024 the museum offered a special exhibit chronicling the work of both Burnford and Ross. // Photo credits: Thunder Bay Museum
About Bonnie Schiedel

Bonnie Schiedel is the founder of, which covers fun family-friendly attractions, events and restaurants in Thunder Bay. She enjoys canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing and travel, and you can read more of her award-winning work at

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