Gary Vaillancourt: Musician, houseboater, renaissance man
Friends of Gary Vaillancourt have been paying tribute to the life and legacy of one of the founders of Yellowknife Bay’s houseboat community.
Gary’s sudden passing on January 31, from a stroke, shocked and saddened the community on the bay, who came together in honouring their “fiercely independent, kind, headstrong, innovative, opinionated, warm-hearted” friend.
Gary came north to fly helicopters in 1977. “I wasn’t planning on staying a long time, nobody ever does,” he said while being interviewed for a Canada 150 project.
“I’ve seen the North, I flew all over it. It’s a wonderful place, it’s pure, it’s clean. It’s changing rapidly.”
A visit to a houseboat solstice party was how Matthew Grogono recalled first meeting Gary, who was busy installing an anchoring system for his new raft.
“He was just sitting there under the midnight sun, pondering his next engineering project,” Grogono remembered.
Apart from being a dear friend and associate for the past 35 years, Grogono said Gary was also a renaissance man with a “vast, broad set of skills” – including a memorable job scuba diving to the bottom of Great Slave Lake and following Yellowknife’s water intake line to the Yellowknife River.
An announcement of Gary’s celebration of life, which was held on Saturday, described his many endeavours: pilot, underwater diver, mechanic, craftsman, and then “amateur lawyer, Gurdjieff lover … friend, adviser, and jam party host.”
Gary valued energy as an off-grid dweller, friend Chris Pyke said, and he was conservation-minded. “Often I would knock on his door to visit and Gary would be sitting by candlelight or he’d have the wood fire going,” Pyke said. Grogono said Gary most recently spent time looking into hydrogen research and storage.
An early houseboat dweller and builder, Gary had a vision for the houseboat community he shared with Grogono: that of a semi-autonomous community “providing a low-cost, comfortable, sustainable … home.”
It was a vision he achieved, at least if you look around “Vaillancourt harbour,” as Grogono calls it. Barges, a ship, a raft, and a houseboat named the Peach Palace are all frozen-in at this time of year.
‘Baron of the Bay’
Many houseboaters were introduced to the floating lifestyle with Gary’s advice, and some rented the homes he built. He was the heartbeat around the bay, said Becky Davis, helping to shovel an ice rink and help with advice or maintenance.
“You’d see him come out, trudging out in this big one-piece suit he’s probably worn since 1976,” Davis remembered.
“He was the sounding-board for the houseboat community when common sense or good engineering was needed,” Grogono added.
Gary wanted Yellowknife’s houseboat community to remain as it began, free of what he considered government intervention. In 2010, as the City of Yellowknife was pondering the establishment of a harbour authority, he told Houseboat Magazine officials should just “leave it alone.”
“We don’t want that kind of regulation,” said Gary of what he called a “free zone.”
“This is the last example of an independent home.”
Fellow houseboater and first-term MLA for Yellowknife North, Rylund Johnson, honoured Gary in a speech at the legislature on Friday. Gary’s daughter, Molly MacKinnon, and her mother looked on.
“I think Gary would scoff at the idea of me giving him an address in the Legislative Assembly,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, our last interaction was him yelling at me about where to park my canoe, but Gary deserves this address.”
Johnson said without Gary, the “baron of the bay,” the city would not have its colourful houseboat community.
“In the early 80s, Gary and friends – such as John Alexander, Chris Holloway, Scott Mitchell – built the first permanent houseboats,” Johnson said. “The barges were built out of 50-foot trees, telephone poles, and discarded aviation bales. This was not the last houseboat he would build, rather the start of a floating empire.”
Gary took the mythology of Yellowknife Bay’s houseboaters to TV as a participant in reality series Ice Lake Rebels. The show, cancelled after two seasons with mixed reviews from locals, brought the bay to viewers around the world.
Davis said she met Gary soon after moving to Yellowknife in 2007. Being from Newfoundland and feeling homesick, Davis went with fellow musician Pyke to the Mackenzie Lounge’s open-mic night. The two and Gary met that night and subsequently came together to form the Dawgwoods.
Each member of the Dawgwoods had their own moniker. Gary was “Pappy Dawgwood,” the eldest in the band. Pyke said Pappy was “a pretty wise guy” and a father figure.
“Our sound was kind-of all over the place,” Davis remembers. “He reined us in [and] he was always giving us tips and tricks to make ourselves sound better.”
Though he mastered many musical instruments and also sang, Pappy usually stuck to the bass or fiddle.
“You could just show up and wake him up from a nap and he was ready to go,” Davis recalled. To her, Gary seemed invincible.
“He was like the hawk of the bay,” she said. “He had these big mitts, these huge hands, and I don’t even know how he played bass because his fingers were so thick and big and strong.
“And then when he was playing, he had this infectious smile that would just light up the whole room.”
Pyke remembers his friend as an “incredibly welcoming and loving” person. “I don’t think I hugged anybody else harder than when we met,” he said, remembering Gary as a philosopher who enjoyed the “bigger questions of life” and voiced opinions “openly and fearlessly.”
In announcing his celebration of life, friends said Gary’s “greatest love” was his daughter Molly and the joy of music with his friends.
“I think any time we play music – for a long time, maybe forever – he’s going to be sitting in the room with us, and it’s always going to be a jam for Gary,” Davis said.
Grogono said: “It’s hard to do him justice. He was a remarkable guy. I love him dearly and will miss him a lot.”