Yellowknifer: The Rescuer

More then a decade ago, a story about a missing man in the local paper sparked Tom Girrior’s interest in search and rescue operations.

“I read it and I thought, ‘There’s an issue here,’ but from reading the story I could tell where the guy was found,” says Girrior, now the head of Yellowknife Search and Rescue.

“I called up the organization that had lost their guy and asked them to walk me through what happened. It turned out they knew where he was, but the whole strategy of the people looking for him was odd. So, I called up the Search and Rescue guys to see if they needed help.”

What stood out to Girrior was a general lack of knowledge of the local area. Having spent two years riding trails while creating a map of the area for snowmobilers, he felt his understanding of the lay of the land would be an asset.

In his more than decade of service, Girrior says the most recent case of missing Japanese tourist Atsumi Yoshikubo is one of the more memorable operations.

“We spent a lot of time looking for her, and ultimately we found her,” he says. “We,” he clarifies, was a combination of Search and Rescue, RCMP, various volunteers and regular citizens out walking their dogs or hiking while keeping a lookout.

“She was missing for five days when we got the call, essentially the same time RCMP got the call. We had information about what direction she was heading, and based on that information, made some decisions about where to search. We were actively searching along with RCMP, and in a helicopter with Search and Rescue volunteers in it,” he says.

“We searched until it became clear that there was no point in continuing to search at that time in the year. I approached RCMP and said as soon as the snow is off the ground, we will resume the search if you want us to.”

Had she not been recovered, he says, Search and Rescue would have again been out this summer.

Other operations haven’t had a resolution.

“We spent two years looking for Angela Meyer,” he says.

“Two full summers looking for her and trying to eliminate areas she could be in.”

Dog breeding and new starts

Originally from Antigonish, N.S, Girrior first visited Yellowknife as part of the Katimavik program. He was one of three leaders, with a group of 30 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 21. Girrior’s group was tasked with the Eskimo Dog Project – an effort by the City of Yellowknife and Bill Carpenter to repopulate the breed.

“The gene pool became so diluted to the point that there was no more Eskimo Dogs,” Girrior says.

“[Carpenter] established the project to re-establish the breed and bring it back into the communities.”

After the Katimavik project wrapped up, in 1978, Girrior came back to Yellowknife. He wasn’t the only one.

“We could have all stayed up here. When I was here, my wife came up at Christmas to visit and had a job two days after she got here,” he says.

“There were about 15 Katimavikers that came back up. It was probably unprecedented for that program to have that many young people who found Yellowknife to be a sufficiently attractive place to live that they all came back.”

During his earlier days in town they had about 15 houseguests.

“There was no housing here, so if you didn’t have housing you were in kind of a pickle, so a lot of places hiring younger people had staff housing,” he says.

“YK Inn had housing in the basement. It was like sex, drugs, rock and roll: it was very entertaining.”

Girrior worked at the hotel as a janitor for about two months while waiting to hear back about telecommunications jobs. Eventually, the phone company sent him to Hay River, where he spent two years.

Now, after about 30 years in telecomms, Girrior will retire in April.

“I intend to go fishing,” he says. “Which is a euphemism for ‘I’m not going to do anything.’”

Even he admits that’s unlikely.

A busy retirement

With volunteering commitments ranging from Search and Rescue to sporting organizations to working with the NWT Foster Family Coalition, Girrior’s post-retirement schedule still looks busy.

In his experience, whether coaching – which he did regularly for about 20 years in Yellowknife, Tai Kwan Do in particular – he says quick promotions and added responsibility seems to be the way.

“My life sucks as far as being a volunteer goes, because I never get to volunteer,” Girrior claims. “I’m always running things.”

Also heavily involved in the YK Multisport Club and running field operations for the Frostbite 50, Girrior says there are about 50 or 60 people in town who take on the majority of leadership roles when it comes to volunteering.

Eventually, Girrior says he got too old for coaching.

“My wife told me to pick a date – I told her I’d retire from coaching at 55,” he says.

“Then all of a sudden I was a year away from 55 and I was like, ‘I have to stop coaching,’ Then I started with Search and Rescue… She figured I would be a volunteer and I’d only have to do stuff once every couple of months.”

That wasn’t the case, he laughs.

What was your first impression of Yellowknife?

Driving out of the airport and seeing those high-rises in an area that I thought was going to be little wooden cabins and people on snowshoes.

I had this whole 1950s black-and-white drawing of Yellowknife in my mind – birch-bark canoes and all. It was quite an eye-opener to land here.

What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

The people and the friendships I’ve made over the years.

What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?

I honestly can’t think of any least favourite thing.

What do you do in the summer?

Hike, canoe, do volunteer work. A lot of outdoor activities. These days most of my stuff is hiking because I have two dogs that are very demanding.

What do you do in the winter?

The same things I do in the summer, and snowshoeing, snowmobiling, winter camping, hiking. I was that guy, with a few buddies, that spent two years every weekend out mapping snowmobile trails.

What are some opportunities you’ve found here that you might not find somewhere else?

There are certainly lots of opportunities here to jump into things in whatever role you’d like to be. Whether leadership or a volunteer opportunity, there’s opportunities to get involved in just about anything.

Are you a Yellowknife lifer?

Well I’ve been here for 38 years. I wasn’t born here. I am retiring in April but I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

I don’t see myself as a lifer in the sense that I wasn’t born here, but I’ve certainly lived here a long time, I like the people in the area and don’t see any reason to leave.

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