Hydrologist Rick Janowicz takes snowpack measurements in the Mary Lake area. (Chris Colbourne/Yukon News)

Colleagues remember Yukon hydrologist Rick Janowicz

The territory’s only hydrologist died May 23. A celebration of life is scheduled for June 21

Rick Janowicz was known for taking work with him wherever he went. Even at an international conference in Italy he could be found with his laptop open analyzing the water levels of Yukon’s Marsh Lake.

“He’s on leave at this conference — presenting his science there, doing those things — but also every afternoon he’d fire up his computer and do flood forecasting for the Yukon,” said friend and collaborator John Pomeroy.

Janowicz, the Yukon’s only resident hydrologist, spent more than three decades studying the territory’s waterways to learn more about the environment and keep Yukoners safe from flooding. He died on May 23. He was 65.

Janowicz spent his career working for both the federal government and Environment Yukon in the territory.

He is likely best known for being one of the founders of the Yukon’s Wolf Creek Research Basin.

Janowicz realized that southern models for predicting water’s behaviour, particularly in the age of climate change, didn’t always work in the North, said Heather Jirousek, director of the Yukon’s water resources branch.

“We needed northern context to study that in and Wolf Creek was that northern context,” she said.

Janowicz spent years advocating for funding to build the research basin, Pomeroy said. In 1992 the federal money was secured.

“The initial vision was a place to test and develop hydrological models for the North and to verify their operation before they were deployed for operational purposes in the territory,” Pomeroy said.

“Then it became so much more. In 25 years we have an incredible climate change monitoring observatory as well because we’ve been able to observe the changes to climate and hydrology that have occurred since the early 90s.”

The site has been used for studies on ground water, trees and ecology to name a few. Even NASA is using it as part of its Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment.

Science done there helps design design culverts, roads and dams in the territory.

The research centre was honoured last year in the Yukon legislative assembly to mark its 25th anniversary.

“Since its inception, the Wolf Creek Research Basin has helped to forge new paths of understanding for hydrology and biophysical processes,” Environment Minister Pauline Frost said at the time.

“Today, the basin is an internationally renowned climate change research area, recognized by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Scientists from across the world gathered in this corner of Yukon to discover how to adapt their work to northern climates.”

Pomeroy, who eventually moved out of the country, said Janowicz always kept the research basin as a priority. He even lived in the nearby Wolf Creek subdivision.

“He was so hospitable. There are literally hundreds of researchers that have come to that watershed over the time from every inhabited continent and they’d always get a warm welcoming,” Pomeroy said.

“Rick would pick them up at the airport, take them out for supper at his house.”

Janowicz was also responsible for saving a fellow researcher from an ATV crash.

In May 1995 hydrologist Ming-ko Woo rolled his ATV and was pinned under the vehicle when it caught fire.

“Rick and two other colleagues pulled me from under the burning machine and spared me the fiery death,” Woo said in an email, adding that he is “forever grateful” to those who saved his life.

Pomeroy said Janowicz “absolutely didn’t flinch for that sort of thing.”

His colleagues said Janowicz still got excited when flood season approached and it was time for flood forecasting.

Each spring he could be found in a plane over Dawson City and Old Crow keeping a watchful eye on the water.

Even as he was nearing retirement, Janowicz still found river breakup an “exciting and powerful phenomenon” Jirousek said.

He had an excellent record of predicting when rivers would flood, she said.

“He would call it a mix of science and art. There was a lot of art — kicking the snow, smelling what it smelled like,” she said.

“It wasn’t just ‘here’s how the water levels are coming up.’ There was art and gut instinct and knowing when he thought the rivers would break up.”

She said the department learned a lot from him.

“I think he was a great inspiration for all of us in terms of the passion that he had for what he did … It was truly cutting edge work that he did and he do so in a very collaborative and professional way.”

A celebration of life for Janowicz is scheduled for June 21.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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