It’s late May and around 30 degrees as I drive down the Liard Highway in southwestern Northwest Territories to meet Wes Pellissey. He’s an entrepreneur from Wrigley, a tiny town where the Mackenzie Highway ends, and he’s on a job clearing brush around Blackstone Territorial Park.
When I arrive at the park after 6 p.m., Wes is crashing through the forest with his mulcher, leaving a trail of tree stumps and willow stubs. He is a broad, tall man and seems bigger still in his work boots, thick dungarees and gleaming orange hardhat. He’s been mulching “C2” (combustible brush that helps wildfires spread) with his partner Steve for the last eight days. He’s been doing this kind of work for the better part of a decade.
Wes shuts the mulcher off with a big smile and his chest out toward the path he just blazed. The early evening shade combined with warm temperatures brings hungry spring mosquitoes, and I’m swatting a fraction of the bugs that are biting me. I excuse myself for forgetting bug dope, but it was only 14 degrees in Yellowknife and I hadn’t seen a mosquito there yet.
“You ever heard of feng shui?” Wes asks.
I have, but I don’t really know what it means. So I say no.
“Now the wind can move through the trees,” he says. “This place has the proper energy.”
Ancient Chinese philosophers used feng shui to orient spiritual buildings to stars, water bodies or compass points, I’d learn. I never thought there’d be much use for ancient Chinese philosophy in the bush, but then again, there sure are fewer mosquitoes where we’re standing now. And we can see the Liard River, and the mountains behind, too.
Wes has rented a cabin at nearby Lindberg Landing while he works at the park. The old homestead is spread out along the bank of the Liard, with log cabins and tractors interspersed on grass. It’s one of Wes’ favourite places to stay. I wonder if feng shui has something to do with it.
He fires up a small generator to power the few light bulbs in his cabin, and uses a propane stove inside to make us supper: Kraft Dinner and hot dogs. “When I first started working with the fire service we used to just make eggs and meat and rice in a pot and boil it all,” Wes says. “I know it doesn’t sound like much but when you’ve been in the bush all day, it’s all you need.” He gingerly steps over a bee that’s landed on the floor, puts it on a piece of paper and lets it go outside.
Wes grew up in Yellowknife but stayed connected to his hometown of Wrigley. His grandfather, Wilson Pellissey, was a medicine man from Pehdzeh Ki (clay place—the South Slavey name for Wrigley.)
“My grandfather used to walk to the Yukon from Wrigley. Over the Mackenzie Mountains, to Ross River,” Wes says. “One day I asked him: ‘How do you do it? How do you walk to Ross River?’ He said, ‘I don’t. I just walk the first day to that mountain over there. Then the next day to the next mountain.’”
When his grandfather passed away, Wes lost not only a dear relative, but also a guide. He turned to books. There’s a pile stacked at the dinner table, mostly of the philosophy and self-help types.
Wes spent 19 seasons fighting forest fires, starting at age 16, and worked his way up to an air controller for the bombers. “I always used to complain when I first started working because everybody made me do all the hard work because I was the young guy,” Wes says. “Most of the crew were elders. Our crew boss was a Chipewyan elder. There were two Dogrib elders on our crew and then a Slavey elder. One of the guys one day, he said, ‘Wesley, I never told you this, but your grandfather’s a good friend of mine, and if I told him about how you were complaining about this good-paying job you have, he’d be really upset with you. Just do your work and be quiet. Now, go get this pump.’” Wes did and kept his complaining to a minimum, gradually moving up the ranks.
In 2009, with three kids and another on the way, Wes needed to make more money, so he got into the slashing business. His first job was clearing brush by hand at the Taltson Dam near Fort Smith. His crew had made it 25 kilometres, but were wiped and refused to go any further. Wes called his wife Tamarah in Hay River, ready to give up too. She said he should take a break and regroup. He took her advice. Later, he saw an ad for a mulcher on Autotrader. Coincidentally, like something out of the Monopoly game, a bank erred in his favour. “I took that as a sign,” Wes says. “The guy who was selling it was so amazed by the story, he took $3,000 off.”
But he’d never used a mulcher before and broke the thing almost immediately. Wes used every cent of that $3,000 repairing it and then worked 16-hour days to finish his job at Taltson.
“I don’t think about the hours,” Wes says. “Not when it’s your own business. If you love what you do, you’re not working.” Wes scribbles notes all over his books. Once, while at another difficult job, he wrote a thank you note on the back cover of a book he was reading. A thank you for everything he had: A wife, kids, a job, and a house.
After dinner we make our way down the river to Steve’s cabin to get some mosquito coils. He lives here full-time with his friendly black dog. Wes’ work takes him from Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, and everywhere in between, often staying in bush camps.
“Have you ever read the book The Art of War?” Wes asks.
Again, I say no.
“This one general says, don’t bring your food with you when you conquer a place. Use the stuff that’s there instead.” Wes has ‘slashers’ all across the territory. When he goes to Fort Resolution for a job, he hires guys from Fort Resolution. When he’s near Fort Smith, he uses slashers from Fort Smith. More eastern wisdom in the Northwest Territories.
Wes calls his business Brave Adventures, after his philosophy of taking risks and rolling with the punches. Instead of basing himself in a regional centre, he works out of his hometown of Wrigley, where he has a homestead and cabins he rents out to visitors. The town of 100 people doesn’t have a grocery store, and is cut off for weeks every year by the freezing and breakup of the Mackenzie River.
The possibility of the Mackenzie Highway getting extended north would be a boon he wants to be positioned to take advantage of, he says. But something tells me, for all the knowledge Wes carries with him, his connection to Wrigley is from the heart.
“I’m trying to set an example for the younger generations there. To plough through and show them that you can do anything if you really set your mind to it,” he says.
“And never to give up. Because giving up is not the way. If our ancestors gave up, we wouldn’t be here today. For us to honour our ancestors we have to work hard, and make a good life for ourselves and our children.”
I spend that night in Wes’ cabin at Lindberg Landing. The next day will be another hot one. We’ll be up at the crack of dawn—me to drive back to Yellowknife, and he to fell trees and clear brush at the park for 12 hours straight. As I crawl into bed in the next room around midnight and turn out the light, I can see the glow of a reading lamp from Wes’ room. And I can hear the flipping of pages.