Last year I was visiting with friends on Vancouver Island, all of us ex-Yukoners, when an email came from the North that Jim Fowler had drowned on the night of November 16—two nights earlier. We were stunned. I phoned the Fowlers about an hour later and spoke with his daughter Kyle, and then his wife Jacquelin. He’d been out skating on a starlit night wearing a headlamp, they said. The ice had cracked and shifted, and he skated into open water. “He died doing what he loved,” Jacquelin told me.
If anyone knew their way around the ice, it was Jim. He coached hockey and ran camps in the Yukon for many years, and was inducted in the Yukon Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. At 73, he still skated whenever the ice was right and the cold was manageable, often on his own. This time, he’d just gone a bit too far.
I didn’t realize until then to what extent Jim Fowler had enriched my life.
We had been neighbours at Marsh Lake for 26 years, and had worked together as teachers in Whitehorse since the mid-1970s. I knew him as a guy who preferred to steer clear of large gatherings and favoured small get-togethers. Who was totally devoted to his family. Who had an abiding love of the outdoors. Who had a determined, unshakable commitment to keeping fit.
I hunted sheep with Jim one time, up above Kusawa Lake. I took my 12-year-old son John along, and we spent two nights in the high country. Jim and I had both had previous successful hunts, but not this time. On one occasion, Jim and I got up early and sat scoping for sheep from a kilometre away from camp—totally unaware that John’s tent was surrounded by a moving flock as he lay inside dozing.
We went fishing once: Jim, his son Jamie and grandson Riley, and my two sons and I. We were on Little Atlin Lake in Jim’s huge green 20-foot canvas freighter canoe. It weighed a ton—literally. No fish, no matter. Three men and three boys together in the great Yukon outdoors: euphoria.
One time, we went snowshoeing up a trail not far from Jim’s home, above Marsh Lake on the north side of the Alaska Highway. Jim wanted to check out an old burn area for harvesting firewood the following summer. Going in on snowshoes was the best way to explore the area. Except that Jim had an old-fashioned wood-frame pair with gut-webbing, probably about 50 years old, probably from Teslin. I had a modern, state-of-the-art, aluminum pair from Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver. Jim knew best. There is something very humbling about sinking down to your knees in soft snow as you struggle along beside your partner, and then ultimately having to follow behind as he breaks trail.
Jim was an avid cyclist—part of his never-ending fitness routine. Occasionally we joined up for a 44-km roundtrip ride to Jake’s Corner, a rest stop on the Alaska Highway. In the summers he did that trip almost every day, often spotting bear or moose or caribou or deer along the way.
And every night, he’d come home to gourmet dinners, courtesy of his wife Jacquelin who lovingly concocts exotic fare in her kitchen—which of course Jim built, along with the rest of the house.
On many evenings we would gather down by the lake, light a fire, and share drinks and munchies. Occasionally Jim would pull out his harmonica and entertain us with a tune or two. We solved a considerable number of world problems as the summer sun slowly descended.
I skated with Jim just once. One winter afternoon we spent a couple of hours passing a puck back and forth on the outdoor rink at the Marsh Lake Community Club, until it was too dark to continue.
There’s a YouTube video that went viral not long ago. If you google “Hockey at Tagish Lake, Yukon,” you’ll see four young guys out skating, passing a puck back and forth the way Jim and I did. That spot is not far from Jim’s home. The ice is perfect. The scenery too. You’ll understand why Jim was lured out for a skate that November evening.
He was a good guy. I miss him. So do many others.