I’m at 1,900 metres on a British Columbia mountain when I find out Father Mouchet has died. Part of me feels gutted, but another part feels a deep building joy. The classic track I’m skiing on is hard-packed today and deep groves of fresh corduroy glint like crocodile teeth against the sun. I make a bid for the summit.
The legend of Father Mouchet is widespread throughout the North. He was a French Oblate Priest who fought Nazis on a pair of skis during the Second World War. He immigrated to Canada after the war and in the mid-1950s was sent to Old Crow to convert the Gwich’in people to a Western concept of God.
Finding the Anglican church doing a thorough enough job, Father turned his attentions to another form of conversion and instead taught the people of Old Crow to cross-county ski. In 1960s he formed the Territorial Experimental Ski Training program with heavy wooden skis donated by the U.S. Air Force and a big, drafty warehouse in Inuvik as a home base. By the 1970s, the Canadian National Ski Team was filled with athletes Father had produced between Old Crow and Inuvik.
Twenty years ago he received the Order of Canada “in recognition of his half-century of dedication to the people of the North.” Until last year people in Whitehorse could glance him on cold early mornings shuffling on his classic skis up and down the grueling 7.5-km trail. He was 96.
Glenna Tetlichi Frost was with Father when he died. Their relationship began decades ago when Father Mouchet taught her mother how to ski in Old Crow.
“I don’t know how he got the equipment but he lobbied someone and got it. They were so heavy, we called them army skis,” she remembers, laughing.
It wasn’t long before Frost and her friends were skiing. In the First Nation people, Father found natural athletes. As he once recalled, “they were trappers, they were hunters. They were living in the very cold climate doing ordinary work, like cutting and packing wood and going down to the river to bring water up. It gave them the right components.”
They had the physical talent, but for athletes like Frost, skiing with the TEST program was about something greater.
“Skiing was like fun for us,” said Frost. “Not like the other hard physical work that we had to do. When we started travelling for races, what a gift that was. We got to see that there was an outside world. That experience prepared us for when we had to leave our homes for school in Whitehorse.”
Angus Cockney was another TEST athlete who began skiing with Father Mouchet in Inuvik in 1963. He remembers him as being an odd priest.
“He didn’t look like a priest. He dressed like a human being. In residential school it was really hard to trust anyone, but when Father came in … we thought he was different from the others. It didn’t take long for us to trust him.”
Cross-country skiing became an incredibly important part of Cockney’s life. “For me back then, being in that system, skiing became my escape hatch from the abuse that happened at that school. For me skiing was a way out. I adopted it as a lifestyle and I’m glad my kids did, too.” Cockney’s son, Jess, now races regularly on the World Cup circuit.
Gary Baillie, a former National Ski Team athlete who began skiing with Father at the age of eight, recalls the tough lessons of the TEST program. “It was all character building. The aim of the TEST program was to develop character in young children through cross-country skiing. People who have good work ethic, and know how to be healthy and how to live well will be successful in their rest of their lives.”
Bailey is now the coach of the Kwanlin Koyotes. He credits Father for changing his life in a positive way.
In a time when Canada’s relationship with religion was growing increasingly tenuous, Father Mouchet established relationships of profound respect that would last lifetimes.
“I’m getting a lot of phone calls,” Frost said. “A lot of people are mourning for Father Mouchet in their community. We’re grieving. We’ve lost a family member. That speaks for itself. That’s how much he impacted Old Crow.”
Here on the side of this snow-blown mountain, I’m struggling through the last section of switchback trail. At this elevation my breath comes in short bursts, white in the cold morning air. In the last two weeks of his life I was fortunate enough to see Father every day. We shared breakfast and spoke about trail conditions, about the athletes we’ve known over the years, and of course, about skiing.
In our last conversation before I left to meet my ski team in Silverstar, B.C., Father reminded me that skiing was another form of prayer.
When I crest the summit the sun pours out, lighting the clouds below me with fire. The First Nations say when a respected elder passes away and arrives in paradise, that person sends days of sunshine to where they left. Today it seems that both Father and I have skied our way to paradise.
When my team – a pack of laughing teenagers who love skiing – find me, we descend the mountain together. Saturday they will race with Whitehorse’s Knute Johnsgaard, one of Father’s last athletes. Angus Cockney will join us, and in Europe his son will race another World Cup. In Whitehorse, the ski club will be packed and on the trails he built himself, Gary Bailey will go for a ski.
Father’s legacy continues to live and breathe on ski trails around the world.
Pavlina Sudrich is a born-and-raised Whitehorse skier and coach who, like many in the North, first learned to ski with Father Mouchet. She is now the head coach of the Ontario provincial ski team.