Jacques van Pelt, a longtime Fort Smith operator of ecotourism company SubArctic Wilderness Adventures, birdwatcher and champion of the Northern environment will be remembered next month in the South Slave town. His family is hoping to reconnect with many friends and acquaintances from his many decades of life in the North.
photo courtesy of Karla Williamson

At a time in its history when the Northwest Territories is promoting eco-tourism as a way to help diversify the economy, a leading Fort Smith pioneer and adventurer will be remembered this summer for his longstanding devotion to the outdoors.

A memorial is planned on July 13 at the St. Joseph Cathedral at 1 p.m. for Jacques van Pelt, a former outfitter, naturalist and owner and operator of SubArctic Wilderness Adventures from the 1970s to the early 2000s. For decades Van Pelt was known as a champion in the South Slave town for his work in protecting and promoting the Northern outdoors and his love of the environment.

Van Pelt, died last November at the Northern Lights Special Care Home in Fort Smith after a bout with Alzheimer’s at the age of 85-years-old.

Karla Williamson, one of Van Pelt’s daughters, who is based in Calgary, said members of her family are still reaching out to people who may have known him well during his almost 60 years of living in the North.

“He really loved the North and it was who he was,” Karla said, pointing out that Jacques’ academic research as an outdoor education student at Michigan State University carried on into his life as he sought to make eco-tourism work for Northerners.

“He did his Masters degree in the United States and his thesis was on how to make eco-tourism work locally for the North. “He was always trying to help bring tourism to locals and he always tried not to be the one running it all.”

Van Pelt married twice and is survived by his wife Ruth, as well as four children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Born in Helmond, Netherlands, in April 1933, van Pelt came to Canada in 1954 as a sponsored immigrant to work in Terrace, B.C. as a lumberjack. After a period of studies in the United States, he was a physical education teacher in Fort Simpson from 1960 to 1963 and then worked with the GNWT as a community recreation director for most of the sixties.

But most of his life was spent in the Fort Smith are and up to the end of his life he was promoting eco-tourism during the final portion of his career.

Part of his career involved being an avid bird watcher, particularly his volunteer work beginning in 1974 to monitor the pelican rookery on the Slave River,  one of the smallest and most northern in the world.

His keen attention to the bird species earned him the nickname Jacques van Pelican.
He also had a broad ecological knowledge of the South Slave, including Wood Buffalo National Park, where he often provided tours for visitors.

Natalie Kramer Anderson, a river scientist affiliated with the Slave River Paddlefest stated in an email that she got to know van Pelt later in his life, but that she used much of his knowledge for her PhD thesis and photographs that he had developed over 30 years of the Pelican Island Sanctuary because of his involvement with the Pelican Advisory Circle.

“When I met Jacques, I quickly realized what a unique individual he was,” Anderson stated in an email.

“He took me on a fascinating tour of his river memorabilia. His love for the river and the birds and people was deep and profound. He always emphasized ‘our’ and ‘we’ over words like ‘us’ and ‘them’ and encouraged and supported the gathering of people together. I carry his love for the river with me and am inspired to continue his legacy of caring as I go about both my scientific research and paddling.”

Octagonal home
Williamson said her dad was known for his “quirkiness” as the family lived in an octagonal home he constructed on Pine Crescent in Fort Smith.

According to his children, the home was often visited by random people seeking to get a tour on the spot due to its unique look.

“I can’t tell you how many people knocked on our door on the off chance they could have a tour,” Williamson stated in an email. “And my parents never said ‘no.’
“They even had a wedding cake in the shape of the house when my mom and dad got married in 1971.”

The family is hoping to reconnect with many friends and acquaintances of van Pelt over the years.

Please watch the Northern News Services website or updates and more photos of van Pelt’s life.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...

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  1. I give tribute to my mentors and he was one. We were fortunate to call him Uncle. His huge smile and never ending song will live on forever as we carry forward how we felt in his presence. Remember it is not what you say that makes a mark in this world it is how people feel when they are around you.