Standing up to adversity

Terri Skerget is on the phone when I arrive for our interview. Normally unflappable, Skerget seems to be suffering some sort of stress that has her voice nearly quavering, so I tactfully occupy myself while she

By Tor Forsberg

Special to the News

Terri Skerget is on the phone when I arrive for our interview.

Normally unflappable, Skerget seems to be suffering some sort of stress that has her voice nearly quavering, so I tactfully occupy myself while she finishes her conversation.

“It’s Spencer” she tells me “he’s stuck overnight in San Francisco; he’s going to have to get a hotel room and get himself on the other flight they’ve booked for him tomorrow.”

When I am led to understand Spencer is her 15-year-old son, I understand her concern.

“He’s going to Hawaii for a holiday with some family friends and there was some screw-up and now he’s in a strange city all by himself.”

She comforts herself in describing her son as a quiet, shy boy.

“Now if it were Nicholas,” she says, indicating her other son, busy at a nearby computer, “I would be even more worried. He’d be out looking around the city.”

Her youngest child may have inherited some of the sense of adventure that brought his mother to the Yukon many years ago.

Skerget was raised by her aunt and uncle in Christina Lake. The family gas station/garage also housed the local post office, run by her grandmother.

“I hear some people here talking about moving to Grand Forks, and I know of some who have already done it, and I wonder ‘Why?’” says Skerget, who says she herself would not be remotely interested in going back there to live.

She would, however, be more than happy to return to Calgary, where she went to live with her mother when she was 15.

City life was good for her, and she may have been there yet if she had not found herself in a Katimavik program right after graduation.

“I wanted to be a vet,” she says, wistfully “but that dream blew up when I was told my biology marks weren’t good enough.”

Katimavik seemed a good stopgap: the program was nine months long; all expenses were taken care of, there was a dollar-a-day allowance (really hard on the smokers, Skerget remembers with a smile), and for each participant who successfully completed, there was $1,000, an goodly sum in those days. There was also the lure of far-off places; Skerget and her best friend started their tour in Quebec.

“Quebec was sort of scary; we didn’t speak French and though the billeting family was supposed to help us with that, we didn’t have the best of billeting experiences.”

The worst, though, was the death of her friend in a motorcycle accident. The Katimavik co-ordinators broke protocol to allow her to go home to Calgary for the funeral before rejoining her group in Saskatchewan.

“They were really understanding and supportive; I don’t think I could’ve gone back if they hadn’t been. And the Saskatchewan part was good; the family who billeted me there were amazing, and I still get a Christmas card from them every year.”

The group lived in an old monastery, all 22 of them, a learning time for everyone.

“There was one guy there I started off really hating, but we ended up friends. Everyone had to learn to get along to survive the experience.”

Some of the members stayed in touch for years.

The third and final portion of the program was Watson Lake, where they arrived in January of 1982. It was 50 below zero. The group by this time was down to eight, and they were housed in a trailer in the forestry compound. All Skerget really remembers about that part is how cold it was.

The co-ordinator had a liking for liquor, using money from the gas budget to keep himself warmed. This meant the kids walked through the bitter cold to their jobs. Skerget tutored at the elementary school and was lucky in having one of the teachers give her rides.

Then, for a week, she and her friend Jeanette were billeted and given a work experience at the Desrosiers lumber mill.

“We were so scared of Netta”, Skerget confides. “She was so incredibly tough, and could do so many different things, and all of them well. The week I worked on that mill, I was bruised and sore from head to foot.”

One night she and her friend went to a party in town and stayed out later than their curfew. Skerget says the next morning she was afraid to get out of bed and face Netta.

Then there was the time Netta asked the girls to go in and check on some meat in the oven.

“We pulled out the rack and there was this big thing covered with tin foil; we peeled it back and there was a whole caribou head on the tray.”

Another time, going to use the bathroom, she discovered a halibut in the bathtub.

Katimavik was in Watson Lake until April. Skerget and Caroline, having no other plans, stayed on, having been offered jobs in a gift shop. Terri eventually became store manager.

She met Pete at a square dance. A Northwestel technician, he’d been transferred from Inuvik to Watson Lake. He asked her to dance and she said no; he was too scruffy, she says.

Flying back to Calgary for Christmas, they ended up seated beside one another; Pete’s beard was gone and his hair was cut; they talked for the entire flight. When she returned to Watson Lake, they began living together.

The job at the gift shop came to an end and Skerget went to work for her friend Caroline’s mother who was a dog breeder. From there she went to Oshawa to take a dog grooming course. Terri had always liked dogs (she still does – there are four in her household) and it seemed obvious to combine this interest with making money.

She and Pete kept their romance going; he visited in the summer, she met his family, they did a motorcycle trip together. In l985 Skerget flew north to spend New Year’s Eve with him; she never went back.

They decided to get married. So taken with the idea were they that they got married twice. The date they decided on was August 16 and they would be married in the Catholic church in Calgary, attended by both their families. The year would be l986.

Then they heard of Northwestel’s offer of help for employees who wanted to purchase a home; in order to take advantage of it they got married by a local JP, Barry Hinde, who was also the postmaster. This marriage took place December 12, l985.

When the children started to arrive, they bought the Cedar Lodge Motel.

“I didn’t want a daycare raising my kids” Terri says “and I liked the idea of being my own boss. The motel business has been good for the kids; they’ve learned to deal with the public and to handle money. They’ve learned how to do all the various tasks involved in running a motel.”

It also provided Terri with the opportunity to be a hands-on Mom, volunteering with the swim team so much that she was voted Volunteer of the Year in 2006. She chaperoned dances and field trips, and attended all school events.

“If my kids were involved, I was there,” she says.

She’s been an active member of the 4H club and is the president of 4H Yukon.

“I got into 4H for myself, for the dog obedience and agility training; all four of my kids followed me into 4H.”

She is also on the executive of the Watson Lake Rodeo Association and is on the board of the Community Club, maintaining a reputation as a person whose volunteer efforts describe her commitment to her community.

A community in which she has witnessed many changes. “This used to be such a happy place to live,” she says. “Yeah, there was more money; the economy was better, but also people were friendlier, more open, and more willing to get out and get together more often. It seems its harder now for people to work together, to be more honest with each other in their communications.”

With the kids growing up and moving away, she would move from Watson Lake now, with Calgary being the ideal choice, because these days, Terri deals with new challenges.

She has been diagnosed with AZOORS, a rare and debilitating eye disease. Driving is now impossible and a balance problem makes walking problematic. Living in a place without public transport, on the outskirts of the town, she is mostly housebound, a situation hard on a woman who has been involved and active in her life. “Some days are better than others; I try to keep busy and not think about my condition too much. Go with the flow.”

There is something about this woman that suggests she will not be defeated or brought down by AZOORS or anything else life may throw at her. She relishes the successes of her kids, and loves family life. Her sense of humour is paramount in everything she says, a willingness to see what amusement can be wrung from any situation.

When asked to tell us something people may not know about her, she surprises once again: “Most people don’t know I am partially deaf; I have been for most of my life.”

Did she teach herself to lip read? I ask, marveling at how she has learned to live around such a handicap.

“No, and a good thing, because now that I am going blind, I can’t see lips.” She laughs, “I just got good at positioning myself so that I can hear what I need or want to hear. Like, at a dinner party or in a bar, I always put Pete on my right because I pretty much know what he has to say and I want to hear everyone else.”

Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer who lives in Watson Lake.