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Archie had decided in the early 1990’s to start serving the Yellowknife and Hay River markets with fresh fish from Great Slave Lake. He and his partner in life and business, Nancy Buckley (Bowrin), operated Great Slave Fish Products Ltd. on Back Bay in Yellowknife. “What’s your business plan?” I would ask. And he would offer: “It’s the best damn fish in the world. I’ll catch it, Nancy will sell it, and everyone will eat it.”
“Keep it simple, no BS, John,” he would say. He calculated everything in boxes of fish. One box was $75. If he needed $1,500, then he needed 20 boxes. A barrel of gas was two boxes; the power bill, 10 boxes. Simple but effective.
Nancy, who was no wallflower either, held the knife, sold the fish and did the books while Archie pulled the nets. Teamwork at its very best. They were both very proud of their business and, true to form, never ever flaunted their success. A hard-working couple. Archie could fix anything, make the sorriest tangle of wires, pumps, engines hum like new in a couple of hours. Nancy would haul her daily fish offerings in tubs with ease and always, always had a smile on her face. They were fiercely independent souls, hated asking for help and if they did, were forever grateful.
One time Nancy and I conspired about approaching Archie with an idea. While visiting, I suggested to Archie that he should consider developing a logo and advertising his business.
“NO!” was his immediate response. “If I do that everyone will think I’m rich,” followed up by “You think I’m crazy,” and “You are out of your bloody mind.” This carried on for another five minutes.
Having been through this more than a few times, I learned first to never take offence and, second, go deaf after the first minute or so. So I looked over to Nancy and surrendered the thought.
Nancy then piped up, “Archie, we could use a sign, tell people where we are.”
With reluctance and deference to Nancy, Archie agreed, but with conditions. “Okay, a small sign that says Fresh Fish, and don’t put my name on it!” After a moment of reflection he added, “paint on the sign my red ball cap. Everyone knows my hat.”
True to form, his cap was his trademark; I never saw him without it.
Sometimes simple is best. A piece of worn plywood, paint, a nail, a convenient power pole and, yes, the red ball cap. And yes, his strategy worked.
At the age of 77 years, Archie departed this world, following Nancy who had passed prematurely three years earlier. Proud, independent, stubborn and courageous to his end, Archie left the world with his red ball cap in hand.
To find out where you can purchase NWT Fresh Fish from Great Slave Lake or download some tasty local fish recipes, click here.
There are many who have made a living on Great Slave Lake.
The names are etched on the islands, the pull-ups, the docks, and the harbours around the Lake. These include those who are still fishing and those who aren’t, but they are all legends in their own right. Speak of the Lake and you will generally come around to speak of these fishers who never relented in this pursuit of what the Lake had to offer. These are the fishers who built this fishery, during the long hot summers and blistering cold winters, supplying markets around the world with freshwater fish from the most pristine waters in Canada. Morin, Richardson, Buckley, Nault, Sinclair, Maurice, McCallum — only some of the names of so many men and women who toiled on this Great Slave Lake, and who boast with pride of catching the very best fish in the world.
There are many stories and, yes, many legends.
Archie Buckley was one of these legendary fishers who came to the Lake to pursue a living. His stature and appearance belied his age, even later in life. He stood ramrod straight, not a grey hair in his head, and always had a look of a man on a mission. Archie, like his compatriots (both men and women), was unrelenting, tough as nails, never satisfied, highly competitive and extremely proud. Want a character-building exercise? Stand out on the ice of this Lake with a howling wind and pull soaking fish nets through the ice, in the dark with bare hands at -30 Celsius. THESE PEOPLE DO THIS EVERY DAY DURING THE WINTER MONTHS.
Like all of us, Archie had his faults. He was no saint, but that comes with the turf. Archie wasn’t “book smart” or a master of the King’s English, but he was one of the smartest men I ever met. He was worldly wise, as they say. Archie had seen it all.
You didn’t get into a discussion with Archie, unless you were willing to agree with him. Pity the poor wretched soul who disagreed. The wrath and fury of Archie’s temper was impressive and volcanic. No slow burn for Archie; he could go from calm and cool to furious in a blink of an eye. Now, if you held firm to your position and he eventually agreed with your point of view, once the storms had settled, he would look you in the eye and say, “Damn, you’re right.” This admission wasn’t always immediate. It could come a minute, an hour, a day, a week or a month later, but when he knew you were right, he did admit it.