It’s not an easy task to get Tim O’Brien talking about something other than hunting and fishing; those are the reasons he came to Watson Lake and those are the reasons he’s staying.
This is not your average hunter. For example, he doesn’t like ATV use.
“I don’t like what they do to the land,” he says. “They do a damage that lasts for 100 years. If packing out meat is too hard on you, horses work just fine.”
Before moving to the Yukon, he was in the NWT—lured there by high wages and a dream to hunt polar bears.
The high wages worked out well, but he gave up the idea of bagging a polar bear when he learned of their plight vis-a-vis climate change.
He hand-loads his ammunition and is a skilled archer, often choosing to hunt the hard way—with a bow and arrow.
His youngest daughter Rachel, at 11 years old, is already learning archery.
Cheryl, his wife, also loves the outdoor life, though Tim says she likes her comforts in the bush.
Tim grew up in Viking, Alberta, fifth in a Metis family of 11 kids.
Farming was a good lifestyle, but he knew it was not the best choice economically for him.
He left home at 17 to do an autobody apprenticeship, a choice of work he enjoyed and still enjoys, though he no longer does it for a living.
Arriving in Watson Lake, a stop on his way south from Inuvik to visit his folks, he immediately recognized it as an outdoorsman’s paradise.
He got a job with CP Collision and settled into a community that he remembers as being busy and fun, not what he sees now.
“Everyone’s too occupied with their computers and their TV sets to get out nowadays, I guess,” he says. “When I first lived here, there was lots going on and it seemed everyone was involved in some way or another.”
He was living in Watson Lake, a father but not a husband, when Cheryl came to town to help her sister who’d just had twins.
“Love at first sight for me,” Tim says, “but not for Cheryl. I had to do some serious courting. Had to do all sorts of things I didn’t really enjoy, like going for walks in the snow and stuff. She thought I was too hairy; I had long hair and a beard then.”
The walks in the snow worked; they were married in l996 and Rachel was born in 1997.
Cheryl is one of the leading volunteers in the community, devoting a lot of time and energy trying to bring back some of that feeling of involvement and commitment that Tim remembers. Tim is there at each and every event she helps organize, as are the rest of their family.
“We believe it’s important to raise kids to love their town, to have a feeling of responsibility and care for the community,” Tim says.
Rachel is not only also actively on the scene with her parents at community events, but she also is a member of the swim team as well as the 4H club.
They are a modern family: Tim’s oldest daughter Robyn and her half brother Dustin are well integrated into the family Cheryl and Tim have created.
Robyn is a graduate of the art school in Dawson City and plans to attend the Emily Carr School of Art in Vancouver.
Dustin works for in Watson Lake for his grandfather, Dave Kalles.
There is a nephew with a wife and two small kids who will be moving into the O’Brien household next month; the nephew came north for a job, bringing his family and they can’t get housing here.
Tim’s household will stretch and accommodate, as it does, and it is his role in that household that reveals who Tim is other than the huntin’ fishin’ bush man.
He is, first and foremost, a family man.
He clearly adores his wife, his kids and being a father.
The family is going on a vacation this summer, leaving Tim at home, and he is already aware of how lonesome the house will be for him with them gone.
“I don’t much like being here when they’re not—it’s kind of boring.”
How does he express his devotion? He bakes: cookies, muffins, and cakes, though pastries are his specialty.
“My best ingredient is love,” he says.
The fruits of his kitchen expertise often find their way to the elementary school breakfast program and are a staple at many community events.
“It’s good to give the baking away; the family are round enough,” he says. “And I do a lot of baking.”
The outdoor life is good here, but Watson Lake also offers a safe and healthy place to raise kids.
“Everyone knows your kids,” Tim says. “If there is any trouble, they’ll help out and they know who to call. It’s a good feeling, not to have to worry too much when your kid rides her bike to her friend’s house to play.”
For the last three years Tim has worked at the local post office, a job he finds suits him well.
“I like having a little visit with people when they come in to get their mail. I like the people I work with, and the job isn’t stressful.
“I feel like I’m living my dream these days, with all my family in one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
The bush has produced some strange events, and given Tim some great stories.
“I saw a Sasquatch,” he says with total seriousness. “Dustin and I were on the Robert Campbell Highway near the first Frances River bridge. At first, Dustin thought it was a bear and I figured it was a person. There is an old campsite there and sometimes there are people camping.
“At 50 yards, I knew it wasn’t a bear or a person. It crossed the road in front of us, in about three strides. It was about seven feet tall, walking upright and covered with black hair. I knew what it was when I got a good a look at it.”
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.