In A Métis Man's Dream, we see Gordon as a teenager, embarking on his first venture on a tugboat.
Starting as kitchen helper and cleaner at age 15, Gordon made the MV Malta, a small tug owned by the Canadian Department of Public Works, his home for two summers. Operating out of the port of Hay River on the south shore of Great Slave Lake, in Canada's Northwest Territories, Malta's chief duty was to move and support a dredge and its related pieces, a scow to haul dirt and a house barge to provide accommodations for its crew.
Dredging - that is, digging or sucking up the mud and sandy silt from the river channels which provided crucial transportation links in the wilderness of Canada's northern river transport systems - was the less glamorous but vitally important support system for the tug-and-barge companies operating on the Mackenzie and other rivers which drain northern Alberta and Saskatchewan and carry freight to the Arctic Ocean and beyond.
After nearly sinking in a big storm on Great Slave Lake and thus ending Gordon's life in only its 16th year, the Malta sunk the next year in the rush of the Sans Sault rapids, well down the Mackenzie River between Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope.
By that time, Gordon had moved on from his exciting and life changing apprenticeship on a tug boat to schooling to become a mechanic and welder. He eventually went back to the boats, running them then fixing then building which took this gentle, humble man to the top of the marine construction business in the north and later to the acme of crane services in the Alberta oil sands, counting Syncrude among others as clients.
Gordon's career trajectory in the marine transport industry in Canada's north would take him from lowly kitchen worker to ship engineer, in charge of keeping his particular boat's motors running and systems functional. This took him throughout the NWT and across the Arctic for many summer seasons, working first for Canada's Department of Public Works, and then Yellowknife Transportation (YT).
In due course, after serving on the DPW's MV Malta as a messman and bull cook, figuratively the lowest level in the shipping world of northern tugs, Gordon could lay claim to working at the lowest literal level - down in the engine rooms of various vessels - as an engineer's assistant, second engineer, then as the top man in charge of the engines.
Gordon Gill's experience as an engineer was almost entirely on ships of the YT line. These included the following, all with the initial designation "YT" in their name: the Expeditor, Richard E, Marjory, Husky and one not found in photos or most memories, the Scamp. He also spent three and a half months as chief engineer on the Arctic Lady, the last wooden transport boat serving Great Slave Lake. Earlier owned by the Hudson's Bay Company and operated under the name Dease Lake, during Gordon's time, the ship was captained by Earl Harcourt who was also president of YT.
Later, when YT was purchased by Northern Transportation Company Ltd. (NTCL), these - except perhaps the Scamp - became NT boats, the initials on the bow being about all that changed, and Gordon became an NT employee.
As an NT man, Gordon served on the MV Watson Lake, and on the last run of the long time NT flagship, the Radium King. One trip involved work on the Athabasca River division of NT, where Gordon engineered one of the vessels operating out of Ft. MacMurray. He doesn't now recall if it was the Radium Prospector, Radium Miner or Radium Trader, not surprising because they are basically three identical tugboats, built at the same time for service in NT's southern division primarily for the Lake Athabasca mines trade.
Gordon's last incarnation as a ship engineer was on the Norweta, a vessel designed as a river cruiser for tourists wishing to explore the majestic Mackenzie and which in the boom years was chartered out to oil companies drilling in the Beaufort Sea.
Once with NT, Gordon stayed on in the winters, where he used his welding qualifications to work in the marine shop, repairing ships and barges.
Then when it seemed necessary to Gordon that he be at home with his young family and not out cruising rivers and high arctic waters, he converted to full time welder. In that role, he repaired tugs and barges, the floating megaliths of the government-owned Northern Transportation Company Limited.
Still later, after the intervention of John Pope, Gordon went private, opening Northern Arc Shipbuilders Ltd. followed by Northern Arc Shipbuilders (1987) Ltd. which he built to great success, in the boom and bust industry that was northern marine shipping in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Fabricating large vessels from steel and welding rods, Gordon's companies constructed barges, tugboats, a gold dredge, various scows, artificial islands, drilling platforms and oil exploration equipment. He also built the northernmost ferry in Canada (at least) still in use on the Peel River south of Inuvik. Then, the federal government's National Energy Program and the pulling of government supports led to the demise of the Arctic petroleum boom and the Panarctic Oils era and the big business honed by Northern Arc.
Gordon's boating world was primarily that of tugboats. These northern work horses were built with prominent 'pushers' at the raised bow and lower rear decks. The real job of the tugs was to deliver the actual cargo carriers, their collection of steel barges, to northern communities. These barges were the lifeline of the north, delivering trucks and drill rigs, groceries and liquor, and a world of other commercial and personal supplies.
Tugs did 'tug' the barges, towing them along behind the tug by cables, on lakes and the Arctic Ocean, like a series of ducklings behind their mother. But mostly, the barges were pushed down river. There were various kinds, and Gordon's companies made or repaired them all - open, flat tops, to carry fuel inside and cargo on top, house barges with protective cladding, reefers, for the refrigerated freight service offered by NTCL, and specialized housing and crane equipped barges for oil and gas exploration. These were the bread and butter of the transport fleets on the rivers and lakes and along the Arctic Coast in Gordon's time.
All except the Expeditor were purpose built as tugboats. The Expeditor was, on the other hand, a US Navy WW 2 vessel used initially as a freight and passenger carrier. It was purchased by YT and initially, as I recall, used for the same purpose. Around 1957, it was converted to 'tug' status by lopping 60 feet of the long open bow off, and adding big pushers on the much more abrupt (and short) front section. When I last saw the Expeditor, it was pulled up on large wooden huge slipways at Bell Rock Camp, about 8 miles northwest of Fort Smith. That was 1969.
These ships were in use on the Mackenzie River, and for Gordon occasionally on the Slave, Liard, and Great Bear rivers. Some trips crossed the Great Slave Lake and others went to the Arctic Islands or along the coast east past Cambridge Bay and Coppermine and west, especially in the drilling frenzy years, to Alaska. They usually (but not always) overwintered in Hay River, NWT and thus necessarily crossed Great Slave Lake to get to the Mackenzie.
Hay River was where Gordon, and Treena and their two boys made their home, and where Gordon's life sprang into maturity and purpose. It was there Gordon evolved from being a poor student (except in math) into a trained mechanic keeping engines running and a welder repairing ships and barges and eventually an entrepreneur and businessman whose life in the hectic times of Arctic exploration focused on being the builder and, his best feeling, the employer of men.
To top off the Gill story, it was to lift the massive steel plates for his fabrication business that Gordon first became familiar with the increasingly large cranes which he acquired, then learned to use and finally shifted into entirely, building his crane services company into a major success which secured him his retirement, and which continues now in its service to businesses in Alberta.
A big shout out to accomplished writer Patti-Kay Hamilton whose "In the Wild: Pi Kennedy Stories of a Lifetime on the Trapline" was published in 2023 and is already a wonderfully successful Canadian best seller!
Patti-Kay worked for CBC for 30 years and is an award winning and nominated writer. Her subject is 97 year old life long trapper, Pi Kennedy, from Fort Smith, NWT.
We are happy that Métis Arts Supply (www.metisartsupplys.com) of Red Deer will be offering A Métis Man's Dream; From Traplines to Tugboats in Canada's North for sale. For more information on this amazing entrepreneurial, heritage retailer, online supplier and training business, check Jenelle's website above or Métis Art Supply on Facebook.
Thanks to Larry Ring and the good folks at Ring's Pharmacy in Hay River, NT for taking 8 copies of A Métis Man's Dream for sale in their store!
Many, many thanks for purchasing A Métis Man's Dream! The Story of Gordon Gill has, in its first year, sold well over 1000 copies! "A Métis Man's Dream" is clearly a Canadian Best Seller in the self-published area and Gordon and I couldn't be more proud!
Fresh deluxe, colour supplies of this oral and biographical history of an amazing man and his life and times in the Hub of the North, #Hay River, have just been shipped to Ring's Drugs in Hay River, and the Hay River Tourism and Visitor's Centre. Copies have recently been sent to The Book Cellar in Yellowknife, Indigo at South Edmonton Common, West Edmonton Chapters, and Audreys in downtown Edmonton. More copies are also on the way to Rocky Mountain House Museum.
Remember, the proceeds of sale (net of book store commissions) go to non-profits supporting Literacy and Métis education!
Thank you for your great reviews, kind words and very valued support.