“They’ve got to be kidding; you don’t cut trees that tiny – it would be a shame.”
That was Bill Burdes’ first reaction to the Yukon’s boreal forest.
He had a brand new forestry degree from Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, BC, and a brand new job with a logging company in Watson Lake.
The whole industry collapsed shortly after his arrival, which might have been fortunate.
“I worked for a company that scammed a bunch of people and then left, owing local businesses lots of money,” said Burdes. “I didn’t get paid and I did get frostbite in three toes – my introduction to the logging business in the Yukon.”
When he tells the story there is no bitterness. He is a determinedly upbeat guy who, despite a lot of difficulty and tragedy in his life, shows an unquenchable spirit and an abiding belief things will work out.
He was born and raised in a logging family on Vancouver Island: in fact, in 1904 his father was born in what was historically the first logging camp on Vancouver Island.
His father died when Burdes was still a child, but there was not much question that Burdes would go into the timber industry.
During his years at MUC, he also did a bachelor degree in anthropology to support an interest in ancient Egyptians and the history of the Middle East that continues to this day.
But it didn’t become a career. With three kids to support, he needed to get into something with job possibilities, and forestry was a sure thing, he said.
He met Theresa, another born-and-raised Nanaimo resident, while he was at university; he was struggling with a full load of courses at school and single-parenting his three children.
His mother, who had been helping him with the kids, died in a house fire and Burdes needed a nanny.
Theresa, who was raising her son on her own, needed a job. Three months after she started working for Burdes, she moved in with him and they have been together ever since.
She came north with him and their kids, finding the new location suitable, though the winters are “far too long.”
Burdes, who in Nanaimo coached three lacrosse teams, was disappointed to find he could not create a lasting interest in the game in Watson Lake. He tried, and a few people who up, but not nearly enough to get the sport established.
And the town’s education system wasn’t good for their kids.
“The education system here didn’t serve them well,” said Burdes, of the years his kids attended school.
“If we were to do it all over again, I wouldn’t put my kids in school here.”
He’s currently the airport’s observer/communicator, which he has been happy with, even though it’s a long way from logging or Egyptian studies.
In the beginning, after the obligatory 11 weeks training in Ft. Smith, NWT, he worked for the fellow who had the contract.
In 2004, he took it over, forming his won company, Falcon Aviation Services. Its logo features an eye of Horus— a nod to his passion for Middle Eastern history and legend.
The company broadcasts advisories for pilots using the Watson Lake airport, informing them of wind and temperature and any air traffic in the area. It also does weather measurements for Environment Canada, providing them with the information necessary to make weather forecasts.
In 2008, Theresa was diagnosed with cancer and the life of the couple changed.
She has been forced to quit working, and the aggressive nature of the cancer treatment has been tough on this active, busy woman. These days she works when she is able, landscaping the grounds of their house in Watson Lake and walking the dogs with Burdes.
“She’s stubborn,” said Burdes. “If anyone can beat this, Theresa can.”
They plan on staying in Watson Lake for three more years, the length of time of the contract at the airport, before going back to Nanaimo.
“We have both missed it ever since we left there,” said Burdes. “We like the climate; the land is beautiful. The city is not too big, but offers all sorts of things to do, with lots of great parks for walking and hiking. We have family there, too; it’s home.”
They don’t regret their years in the North, though Burdes admitted they haven’t seen as much of it as they would have liked.
“We both worked all the time. In nine years, we got one vacation – in Las Vegas.”
This year they got married, in Theresa’s mother’s home in Nanaimo.
“Theresa said she wouldn’t marry me till all the kids were gone,” said Burdes with a laugh. “And then, we decided we would wait until the 20-year mark which would have been next year. The cancer speeded things up and we did it this year: 19 years together.”
Togetherness is important to Burdes and Theresa, and never more so as she battles cancer.
“We have two dogs, a Siberian husky and a mutt; they are really a big part of our lives. We walk them every day, going as long and as far as we are able; walking is something we both like to do.
We do yard work and small renovations together. We do the housework and the cooking together – we do everything together,” said Burdes, obviously not wishing to have it any other way.
“About a year ago, Theresa started watching Coronation Street with me. I have been a devout fan for ages, but Theresa always said she found it incomprehensible.
“Nowadays, it’s her that is calling out to remind me its on and to come and watch.”
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer based in Watson Lake.