Sian Williams, 43, and her sister, Megan, 40, daughters of Carole and Andy Williams of Kluane’s Arctic Institute of North America and founders of the flight-seeing charter business now known as Icefield Discovery, may have had most unusual childhoods growing up in the considerable shadows of the St. Elias mountains. But to them it seemed routine.
“Megan and I didn’t feel like our childhoods were at all unusual or different than any other Yukon kids,” said Sian. “We went to school in Whitehorse all winter and couldn’t wait to get back to Kluane for the summers. Sheep Mountain was our playground and still is for me.”
“For us it was normal. I don’t really understand why so many people want to live in cities. Cities are fun to visit, but you can have a much better quality of life living out in the wild places.
“My sister and I were always expected to pitch in and help with whatever was going on around us. We were in training from the beginning. I remember a hike I guided on Sheep Mountain with a bunch of university students when I was 14. Everyone ended up on a different route, some students got lost and were stuck in the canyon between Wallace and Sheep. I returned to the station with only half the hikers. My dad was furious that I had let the group run all over the place. I realized then that it was my responsibility to keep things together.”
Megan followed her own star and has been living and working at Old Crow the last 14 years, and Sian gives credit to their mother as the primary motivator and instigator of their independence.
“Our Mum, Carole, is the one who made everything work. We knew we were living a more dangerous lifestyle than most people. We needed our Mum to help sort out the mess when things went wrong. She never overreacted to the many situations we brought to her over the years.”
Sian had a fairly mixed education of formal and practical, taking four years off after graduating from F.H. Collins to travel around South America, Antarctica and New Zealand, but always returning to work at Kluane during the summers to manage the charter business.
“After those years, I went to Selkirk College for a diploma in renewable resource management with a major in great powder skiing.”
Scientists are just regular people with bigger vocabularies and a passionate interest in things normal people take for granted, such as rocks, bugs, ice, bones, fossils, trees, stars, bees, birds, dinosaurs or the meaning of mud. There just happened to be a “beeologist” at the research base while this interview was being conducted when an excited voice rang out near the cookhouse: “I found another new one!”
Six or eight people, including Sian, Lance and their 14-year-old daughter, Bronwyn, converged quickly to look at the discovery, and, sure enough, there was a weird little round, hairy bee that looked like a hippie caterpillar with an eating problem. While Lance leaned in close to get a picture, Bronwyn enticed the bee to walk onto the back of her hand, then started giggling saying “Hurry, Dad! It’s tickling me!” Sian had a quick look, then carried on with the interview as if this kind of interruption was commonplace and happened every day.
“I greatly appreciate the extreme range of people I work with at the research station. If I send a note out to everyone, I will get replies that range from ‘terrible idea’ to ‘great plan.’ No one ends up at Kluane unless they are really dedicated to the project they are working on.”
But Sian is not a scientist herself, nor is she an avid bush pilot like her legendary father, despite spending a great deal of her early years glacier-hopping in small prop planes on skis.
“I always wanted to fly,” she said, “but I don’t really enjoy airplanes. After completing my CPL (Commercial Pilot’s License), I started paragliding. That is the kind of flying I really love. However, it is a complete waste of time and not useful for our business at all.”
Ultimately, it was her marriage to Lance Goodwin, a lifelong hunter, trapper and mountain man from Atlin, himself the son of a northern legend named Dave Goodwin, that completed her metamorphosis from “glacier girl” to modern businesswoman.
“I met Lance at Kluane. He was visiting a mutual friend, Donjek Upton, who was flying with us for several years. Lance and I have complementary skill sets. I needed a partner who would have the strength to handle a fairly demanding life. We’re almost 20 years into this partnership, and I am still impressed with the range of talents my husband has from his artistic side, carving and photography, to practical building, welding, driving machinery, to fun things like snowmobiling, boating, fishing and skiing.”
Between her father’s inspiration, her mother’s guidance, her sister’s friendship, her daughter’s devotion and her husband’s congenial personality and huge work ethic, it was only a matter of time for her to slip into Andy’s large shoes and carry on into the future.
“For about 10 years Lance and I worked with Andy at Kluane, and we felt like we were doing a lot. It wasn’t until we really took over the management of everything in 2010 that we realized how much he had been doing behind the scenes that we didn’t know about. That was when the winter months in Mexico or sailing in Brazil came to an end.
“We are lucky that Andy continues to work with us to keep the planes in the air and the research station on the ground. He is always there to help us keep some perspective with a sense of humour about what we are doing.
“I told him recently that I was having nightmares about a large boulder which was right beside where we flipped an airplane during a forced landing this spring. I kept dreaming about the rock coming through the windshield into the cockpit. He said, ‘We needed that rock to put our luggage on to keep it out of the snow. We landed beside it on purpose.’ (Upside down.) And that was exactly what we had used the boulder for.
“No more bad dreams.”
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.