Mark Rendell

Yellowknifers: The Prospector

Buddy Mercredi is one of the last of the grand old bush guys. He remembers the rough and tumble days of Yellowknife when mining was king. Now it's "Little Ottawa" he figures, a place to wait around until he can get back

Buddy Mercredi was 16 when he landed his first job in the bush. It was 1964, and the staking rush for lead-zinc was taking off in Pine Point, south of Great Slave Lake. Buddy lied about his age to get a prospector’s license, and soon he was cutting blaze lines and staking claims.

“We were getting paid 25 bucks a day, which was a lot of money because a carton of cigarettes was $3.13 and a pair of jeans was around $4.00.”

“It was the beginning of the transistor radio, so everybody in camp had a transistor radio… One guy had six transistor radios, and then the other guy had to outbetter him, so he went to town and came back with 10 transistor radios. There’s antennas all over the camp… There was Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, they’re all coming up.”

So began Buddy’s storied career hunting for gold, silver, you name it, from Bathurst Inlet to Great Bear Lake. For 50 years, he’s traversed the territory by snowmobile, snowshoe and Twin Otter, and he has the well-earned wrinkles and stories to prove it. Once he staked 18 claims in a day. And legend has it he fought off a bear with a hatchet.  At 67, he’s still prospecting and dreaming of hitting the mother lode.

Buddy was born in Fort Resolution and grew up travelling the Slave River with his dad, who worked for a sawmill company. He moved around the territory growing up: two years in Yellowknife, a few in Fort Smith, his teenage years in Hay River. He was 15 when a warm snap in Alberta caused ice to pile up at the mouth of the Hay River, leading to a massive flood. “The water’s coming up, the houses are floating all over the place, everyone is moved to the schools.” Buddy and his family had to be evacuated by helicopter.

Buddy ended up in Yellowknife in 1967. His first place was a shack on Ragged Ass Road, rented from the Rocher clan at a time when the Miner’s Mess served six toast, six cups of coffee, six slices of bacon, six pancakes, three eggs, a T-bone steak and a pile of potatoes for $7.

“There were four of us living in the house and everybody is taking turns going to the bush, one crew would come out of the bush and the other crew would be heading out. So the party went on for just about eight months like that.”

He’s called Yellowknife home since, though he’s never in town very long before heading back out onto the land, where he’s worked every job imaginable: “Prospecting, drilling, everything. I was like Johnny-on-the-spot, I could stake, I could line cut, I could set up a drill, I knew geophysics, I knew how to read the data maps, everything.”

For years Buddy also worked as an airplane mechanic and an ice road builder and trucker – “I got about a quarter-million miles on the ice” – but he’s happiest when he’s out in the bush.

“When you’re out there, for the first day, you just sit and listen, you don’t hear a horn, you don’t hear nobody yelling, all you hear is birds, water and silence. Over every hill there’s something else to see. You sit on a rock, with all your little samples that you gathered all over the place. You find a shady spot, eat your lunch and look at all your little rocks and dream about which one is going to be the one.”

 

What are your earliest memories of Yellowknife?

Yellowknife was really small. There’s the road heading to Con Mine at Northern United. Then there was the Giant road that headed out to Giant, and there was this road [The Ingraham trail] which was one-vehicle wide.

I came back here [in 1967] for the changing of the flag, because I was born under the Union Jack, and they were going to change the flag and I wanted to get a Union Jack – they wouldn’t give it to me.

There was the Gold Range, the Yellowknife Inn, the Old Stope up on top of Pilot’s Monument, which burnt down in 1970 or ‘71. The Wild Cat was boarded all up, wasn’t even a tourist attraction then. There was the Hoist Room, right below the Sushi place, and Harley’s was called the Gondola. It was kind of like a diner, you could go in and order a steak. All the bars had a lounge right next door.

In the Gold Range, there was a drink with seven or eight different types of rum in there, with Galliano and an ounce of Coke and an ounce of something else. There was 12 ounces of alcohol in this glass. If you could drink two of them you got the rest of the booze free.

The police station was right behind the Gold Range, where the daycare centre is. Where my sister works, the Tree of Peace, that used to be the main government office for the Feds and the NWT. Next door was the liquor store, and then there was Hudson’s Bay, which I think was the biggest building. In ’67, the Fraser Tower had just been completed, everybody wanted to get into the tower, even people who had apartments, it was a big thing to have a place in the Tower.

What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

Prospecting and finding bush work, that’s my favourite thing about this town. It’s a mining hub. It was way different back in the ’60s and ’70s. The government was just moving in. I think there was around six RCMP; they had two cars and a paddy wagon.

What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?

The growth, because it’s way different. It’s more like a little Ottawa. All the businesses base their business on the government paycheck, yet 75 percent of the people who live in Yellowknife don’t make the money that government workers make. A dishwasher downtown gets what, 11 bucks? Where a dishwasher for the government would be getting 30 bucks. The mines, they ran the Caribou Carnival. Once the government stepped in, they screwed it up.

What do you do in the winters?

There isn’t too much to do because the land freeze is still on. So the mining is right down to zip. And you can’t go hunting caribou, because that’s blocked off too. If you want to go hunting caribou you have to go all the way up to MacKay Lake, which is halfway in the Barrenlands and nobody likes to be out there. I mostly hang out over at Harley’s. Sometimes my friends will come along and we’ll go to Hay River or go for a ride to Fort Providence.

What do you do in the summers?

This summer, I got two things coming up, and one for myself. One is back at Terra Mines, for a Denesuline company, go up and do two months prospecting there. That will bring me back here in August. September, I’ll be over at the old Thompson-Lundmark mine for a Russian company, so that will give me another month. That will get me into October, and after that I might end up fishing out on the lake with a friend of mine.

What opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you don’t think you’d find elsewhere?

I can still go to work in aviation for Buffalo Air or First Air if I want to. Or I could go to work for RTL – I got 20 seasons in there. For mining, the land freeze is still on, so it’s hard. Nobody wants to spend big bucks like they used to. There’s hardly any staking anymore. What used to happen before the land freeze, you’d go out prospecting for a company, usually before the fiscal year, because they want to dump their money in February or March. So right now you’d be working in the bush staking claims from now till the end of the budget year. You’d get six weeks, $400 a day. But now nobody’s out prospecting while the land freeze is still on. Nunavut is welcoming mines, but they’re way up there, and everything is either brought by a ship or an airplane. And it’s $1600 from here to Discovery Mines on a Twin Otter. That’s only a 19-minute flight, and then you have to pay for the airplane to come back.

Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?

I think I’ll be close anyway. My old friend Johnny Soldat, he’s been here since he was two years old and I think he’s 79 or something like that. I’m just waiting for the land freeze to come off, so I can pick up some of these properties I own. Because they went dead after the land freeze, nobody is allowed to touch them. That’s what I’m waiting for. Then I can go back out and pick them back up.

Buddy on the Ingraham Trail: Waiting to get back out there

See last week’s Yellowknifers profile here.