Listening to Netta Desrosiers is like hearing some Yukon history: not only does she have a lot of stories, she has an eloquent way of telling them. Her enjoyment of people and their infinite variety of behaviour colours everything she says.
Desrosiers grew up in Shuswap, her family leaving North Vancouver after her father realized his kids were getting a hard time at school for being the children of a German-born father during the Second World War.
In those days, Shuswap school went only as far as Grade 8. So, at 15, she applied for vocational school in Vancouver to train as a cook. But she was forced to get her equivalency first. She accomplished this by taking courses at a local college at night while working for a rabbi and his wife, who also gave her room and board.
In vocational school, she supported herself waitressing at night while attending classes during the day.
At 17, she got a job at Capilano Court restaurant. The business was sold six months later and she spent months travelling all over the United States with the owners. They also owned Canyon Court restaurant (years later, the scene of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau’s wedding) and wanted to ensure this talented, hard-working girl would continue to work for them.
While cooking at Canyon Court, she was introduced to John Desrosiers, the brother-in-law of one of her classmates at vocational school, a woman named Belle who was married to John’s brother, Curly.
They began dating, which led to a wedding, which led to John’s announcing, three months after the ceremony, they were moving to the Yukon.
His brother Curly had a game guide and outfitting business and needed a horse wrangler and a cook.
Netta remembers her first sight of Whitehorse: “Streetlights!” She didn’t think the Yukon had electricity.
Three days after their arrival, Netta embarked on a two-day horseback ride into the camp. No electricity there, or running water.
She cooked for 14 men using a little wood stove.
“You couldn’t fit two loaves of bread at once into it.”
She not only cooked and cleaned up, she also cut the firewood and hauled the water, finding out much later that such chores were traditionally those of the horse wrangler. Her horse wrangler had told her the cook took care of the wood and water.
But she loved it; she loved the North and she loved the outdoor life. She didn’t even mind that she went from a paycheque of $200 a week at Canyon Court to $5 a day at the hunting camp.
Returning to Whitehorse after hunting season, the young couple lived with Belle and Curly.
John worked for Ed Jacobs and Netta cooked at the Taku restaurant downtown. She’d never done any short-order cooking before; though the pay was better than the camp, the days were just as long, and hard. One Sourdough Rendezvous her help didn’t show up for work and she cooked 30 dozen eggs in one breakfast rush!
She and Mary Solonick eventually leased the restaurant; Netta was working the day before her son was born.
Their son died at six months — a ‘crib death.’ They decided to leave Whitehorse.
“It was just too sad to stay in that place,” says Netta, the old grief still evident. “We needed to get out of there.”
They bought a property from British American Oil (later Gulf) about 80 kilometres from the town of Watson Lake and beside the Lower Rancheria River. There were three trailers on the place, and an old building; Netta was there to clean and paint while John was prospecting.
Before there was running water or electricity on the place, Netta was approached by John Jamieson and Ray Magnusson from the Department of Highways; they needed someone to cook for their road crew.
These fellows promised to get the water and power happening if she would take on the job. She did, and they did, and soon the Cassiar truck drivers asked if she and John would keep the business open 24 hours a day to accommodate their near-constant traffic.
For the next seven years, the Desrosiers worked. Netta worked days and John worked nights. If there was a tire to be fixed, whoever was up would wake the other. Their business had the highest fuel sales in the Yukon. At one time, Netta counted 40 semis in their yard.
How, I wanted to know, was it possible that they had two children during this time?
“Once in awhile, one of the truckers would offer to watch the grill so we could get some rest,” says Netta, with a reminiscent smile.
The smile is nowhere in evidence when asked if she liked the highway lodge life.
“You couldn’t pay me enough to ever have another lodge.”
Karla, the eldest of the two, started school in Whitehorse, boarding with John and Ruth Jamieson during the week and coming home to Transport for the weekends.
Before the next school year, John and Netta closed the lodge.
They bought a sawmill near Albert Creek. Jack and Flo Christie sold it to them for no money down, payments to be made in lumber and cash. They live there to this day.
When they moved, Netta was pregnant with their fourth child, and that was the year Albert Creek got jammed, flooding their newly acquired property. The trailer they were living in was surrounded by water. Netta was cooking lunch in a skid shack when it, too, was threatened by the flood. John had someone tow the shack to the higher ground by the mill, with Netta holding the food-filled pots and pans on the stove.
Lunch was served on time.
For the next two weeks the cooking was done on an open fire. John slept on the seat of the logging truck while Netta and Dalyce, their second daughter, slept in a crew cab truck. Karla was with the Jamiesons, going to school.
When their son, Lorn, was born Netta refused to go home until John had running water in their home. It was done.
Lorn was a year old when Netta returned to Transport with him to cook for a highway crew of 23 men.
The men were mostly young fellows and liked to have a couple of beer after work. Rancheria Lodge, up the highway, had a little bar and it was there the guys would go for their happy hour. It made them late for dinner. Late for dinner meant a later night for the overworked Netta. With the creative thinking she brings to much of her life, she resolved the problem to everyone’s satisfaction; she got a beer license and offered two free beers for each man before dinner.
Back at the sawmill, Netta was cooking for her family and a crew of seven workers, as well as looking after three kids under 10 and helping out at the mill. John was getting up to drive Karla to school in Watson Lake and then putting in his 14 hours, or longer, every day.
They obtained an agricultural lease and soon were running about 40 head of cattle, as well as raising pigs and chickens. Horses, too, were a feature of the Desrosiers family life, although when there was time to ride them was hard to determine.
“I went riding, didn’t I, John?” asks Netta. Between them, they came up with one occasion when Netta had taken someone out for a horseback ride….
The years were busy and hard, but prosperous. The kids grew up and went away to university and to college, returning to settle and raise their own families in the Yukon.
These days the mill is silent.
“The government shut us down” says Netta in her forthright way.
“In the old days, we would pick where we wanted to log; we would take the forestry guy there and mostly, he would approve it. The logs would be in the yard and scaled as they were cut. Once a month we took our paperwork into town and paid. We didn’t need the big bucks to have an inventory.
Now, we are told where to cut, after masses of paperwork, and most of the time the trees in the designated area are not worth cutting. You have to pay in advance — paying for an inventory before you have it.
The new rules marked the end of the small sawmill operation and nothing has happened to take its place.
“These days we sit around and get our old-age pensions,” she says.
Hardly, I think to myself. This is a woman who still raises chickens, grows a garden, picks berries and mushrooms, cans and freezes food, does volunteer work and happily, dotingly, takes care of grandchildren. Her health may not be what it was, but considering how hard she has worked, it’s better than it could be.
Her spirit, her feistiness and her great enjoyment of life testify to a life well spent.
She’s lived through those times when family was paramount. Friendships were strong, and meaningful. People helped each other even if they didn’t know or like one another and hard work got you the life you wanted.
Although many things have changed, Netta remains loyal to those standards while being tolerant of the newer, lesser ones. She is interested in new ideas and quick to put her own brand of good-humoured common sense into a discussion.
The stories told by Netta and John during this interview would fill a book.
They remind us that we who are not of the land, who arrived here in the last several decades, need the stories of our elders, too.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer who lives in Watson Lake.