Gerry Whitley, who died a year ago on November 11, 2020, wore many hats. To his three younger siblings, Allan, Lance and Holly, he was the mysterious brother who disappeared for a year in Europe. During that time he danced and drank retsina with Greeks, smuggled Slivovitz into Romania, learned Spanish in Marbella, and skied in the Alps.
Back in Canada he wore an assayer hat in the lab at Cyprus Anvil in Faro. Then he returned home to Trail, BC and wore a mountaineer hat, with his climbing buddy Father Joe Smith. Little did he realize that in 1970 Joe would be marrying Gerry to a woman named Mary from, improbably, Maine USA. When he finished wearing the university student hat with a B. Sc. in chemistry and philosophy Gerry lured Mary to the Yukon on the Alaska State Ferry, disguising the fact that they were going oh-so-far-north.
Gerry wore his outdoorsman hat by fishing and hunting in the wilds of the Yukon. But his style was cramped by the beautiful red-headed baby, Moriah, who was born in 1973 in spite of Gerry proclaiming “I’m too young to be a father.”
He changed hats in 1975 taking a job with the feds as their water quality guy. A coworker recently said that Gerry wore his federal gov hat well, knowing how to avoid federal red tape. He was a good supervisor, encouraging people to further their careers by getting the training they lacked.
Daughter Rebecca arrived in 1976 by which time Gerry was accustomed to fatherhood.
Now a family of four, we boated and canoed with mixed results in the southern Yukon.
He wore the driver hat for our under powered 20 foot freighter canoe well, keeping us safe and mostly dry many times. A windy crossing of Bennett Lake challenged his abilities. Years later he had to watch the river carefully to get the canoe, loaded with 500 lbs of moose and our camp, back upriver. His watchword was “look for the dinner plates.”
Few would see the goofy dad when he was wearing the serious scientist hat. But Mary saw that side of him when she returned from a hike to find the family giggling at the supper table eating blue macaroni and cheese. Gerry showed them how to balance spoons on their noses. Gerry also taught his daughters not to believe everything they read and heard. Good training for any age.
After retirement Gerry worked hard at being a thorn in the side of the government which refused to recognize the environmental importance of the Peel Watershed.
Having gained his private pilot’s hat, flying for environmental causes became Gerry’s passion. He flew his Cessna 172 CFXJJ on many missions: to find otter tracks near Haunka Creek, to monitor oil and gas exploration in South East Yukon as well as near Eagle Plains, to find out what colour the downvalley ponds at the former Faro mine were this week, and to document the ice cover at Marsh Lake year after year. He became a CASARA search pilot which requires strict adherence to search parameters.
Mary shared her bird watching enthusiasm with him. Gerry listed each day’s observations with his usual zeal. There were wonderful days watching exotic birds in subtropical countries. Here in the Yukon they welcomed the coming of spring and the avian migrants. In 2019 they drove across Canada with the hope of “seeing some birds.” This was a success as there were flocks that darkened the prairie skies at sunset and turned pastureland white with their numbers. The best day was Gerry’s birthday when there was a surge of birds across Lake Erie with birds flying between the watchers.
People said that he spoke from his heart, softly but with feeling and passion. Of all the hats he wore and the jobs he did, the most precious was loving Mary all these 49 years. He will be missed.
From a note found among his papers, Lessons of the Yukon Trail: The important things are very simple. The simple things are very hard. The easy way is always muddy. If it is stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid at all.
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