It was quite the show when Dorene Rocher beat Buddy Essery at leg wrestling on Ragged Ass Road. There they were, lying on their backs, hip to hip in opposite directions, each with a leg in the air. While the crowd cheered, and none louder than Dorene’s husband, Lou, the count-down commenced; on the command of “Go” the two locked legs and then, away went Buddy – flying backwards through the air.
In the ‘70s, Dorene was Mother and Auntie to us all and Lou was the King. There were lots of kids in the Rocher family – Donna, Jeff, Mark, Bones (John), Shelley (five years old at the time) – and they were looking after Pie and Christina Larkin, who had recently lost their father in a plane crash.
The Woodyard had sprung up as a bunch of little rental shacks on the shores of Yellowknife Bay next to the willows where Lou had once piled the cordwood that he cut and sold. It was the fall of 1975 when I first entered the Rocher’s quonset hut on Ragged Ass Road to ask about renting one of these shacks. I was greeted by the scent of baking apples smothered in butter and brown sugar. (I still have Dorene’s recipe.) Lou himself was seated at the end of a large oval table sheltered within the curved wooden walls that gave form to his igloo-shaped castle. He had dark curly hair, twinkling eyes, and a winsome smile. “Have a seat, young lady,” he said. “Make yourself at home.” Yellowknife has been my home ever since.
“Of course you can rent the little red shack at the end of the Woodyard – $60/month and don’t expect repairs,” he said. A sip or two of Old Sam Rum sealed the deal, and his eyes lit up. “Do you know that the birch tree in front of your place will be dropping yellow leaves every day until October, and then you’ll be walking the golden carpet to your palace.” I imagined a regal entrance to my 15-by-15 foot home, carefully avoiding the honey bucket closet.
My friend, Nancy Magrum, had a less comforting first meeting with Lou. Somehow she had already moved into the white shack beside the Rocher’s potato garden when she met him. He wasn’t happy – there’d been some miscommunication, she would have to move out, the place had been rented to someone else. After considerable negotiation it was agreed that she could stay and Lou was heading off to feed the chickens. That was when Nancy decided to ask him about repairing the broken porch window. Lou turned slowly, looked her in the eye, and said: “I’m not a Landlord. I’m a Rat!”
Perhaps a grumpy vole sometimes, but always a gentleman. “Lou never again mentioned our first meeting and I never mentioned repairs,” Nancy remembers. “He was my charming landlord from that day forth.” And he became the guiding star for many of us “bush hippies” as we naively set forth to explore the wilderness of the North.
Lucky for one friend, Cynthia Brown, she was forewarned by Lou about the dangerous temptation of the “big rabbits on the tundra.” In March of ’77, Cynthia was cooking at a six-guy camp out in the Barrens. Early in the morning the guys would strap on their snowshoes, take their compass readings, and head out onto the treeless landscape where whiteness was infinite. One strange day a couple of stakers appeared from out of the wind and snow – Freddie Furlong and Lou himself!
Lou Rocher with his son John, also known as ‘Bones’.
The next day the geophysical guys found a package on their survey trail wrapped in flagging tape and addressed to Cynthia. Inside was a bottle of Old Sam and a note: “ You can have a hot one while you are peeling potatoes (to keep your feet warm)… But don’t drink it all at once cause you might be out chasing them big rabbits and the white fox chasing you.” I’ll bet Lou was chuckling when he wrote that. Animals and humans were closely aligned in his world and just who was chasing who was left to the imagination.
“I looked up to Lou,” Cynthia now says. “Getting that note (and the bottle of rum) was so encouraging, like I was accepted as a bush person. He signed it, ‘A friend, Lou’, and that was an honour.”
Often during that first winter of ’75, a dogteam was tied up outside the quonset hut next to a sled filled with perfectly dressed whitefish for sale. Inside, around the Rocher table, were grizzled prospectors, Cree fishermen, local Dene, philosophical hippies, (actually, grizzled one and all), some of their children – maybe Shelley or Mark – and Dorene listening to stories of the bush. Lou told of the silvery whitefish emerging from the ice holes where he had set his nets; of the little red foxes who were curious and took turns scampering closer for a sniff. I could imagine the warmth of the cabin’s airtight woodstove welcoming a fisherman after a day of minus 40 on the ice of Great Slave Lake.
The spell was cast around that table and in the fall of ’77, five of us Old Town girls moved to Gros Cap to live in the bush on the shores of Devil’s Channel on Great Slave Lake.
Many of the old-timers, fishermen, prospectors, and local Dene helped us out – we had plastic on the windows and tar paper on the roofs of our two cabins by the time the lake froze; we had a cord of wood cut, and a couple of brew pots bubbling. But we hadn’t quite figured out how to set fishnets beneath the ice, and fish was our staple. Our other food stores were running low.
In late November we got a net set in Goulet Bay for two weeks, but then one of us cut the anchor line and we lost that set and had to start all over again. In the minus 40 days of December, we were chiseling through two-and-a-half feet of ice every day trying to open 10 holes in a row so we could thread a rope tied to a willow pole 25 yards beneath the ice, then pull through a net. After several failed efforts I was pretty desperate, scared of starving like John Hornby… (the British explorer whose starvation in the NWT had been carefully chronicled by his nephew, who then also starved to death.)
But all was not lost for on one clear day, a plane flew over and landed at the mouth of Devil’s Channel. Pilot Jim McAvoy was transporting a “jigger” – a wooden tool that travels beneath the ice pulling a rope with a “clicker” to help locate and retrieve it – from Lou and a note that read: “This is a jigger that’ll help you women catch fish. Make sure you dress them fish pretty so they enjoy the parties at Gros Cap!”
Freddie Furlong, who happened to be visiting, helped us set the net and it quickly filled with whitefish. We dressed those fish real pretty, we had some wild parties, and then we ate those fish all up.
Lou moved uptown in the ‘80s, but continued to share knowledge and a sip of rum when his tenants came to pay rent. His family rents out the little shacks in the Woodyard to this day.
Lou was a northern sovereign who reigned with love over the land and waters, the animals, his family, and his friends. In my early northern life I was lucky indeed to have walked the golden carpet illuminating his kingdom.