Ice road trucker, prisoner of war and amateur physicist Adolf Duesterhus is now memorialized in a local scholarship.

Offered through the Yellowknife Community Foundation, the scholarship grants $2,000 to any student who has spent two years in Yellowknife and plans to enter a post-secondary STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program. The deadline is May 15.

Adolf Duesterhus seen on Nov. 25, 1954.
Photo courtesy of NWT Archives

Rosella Stoesz, executive director of the foundation, said the organization had little information on Duesterhus beyond a 2012 assembly statement from then-Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley.

“This is a little bit of a different fund than what we’re normally putting out there,” Stoesz said. “It came to us with absolutely no parameters.”

She said the organization knew little of Duesterhus, and may revise the criteria in the future if it learns more.

According to a 2012 Yellowknifer article, Duesterhus worked as an aircraft armorer before he was captured during the Second World War. A Soviet prisoner, the article reported that American troops set Duesterhus free at the end of the war, leaving him to to walk home from the Eastern front with “a little can of butter and a pocket full of sugar.”

He arrived in Quebec City in 1953, according to the article. His arrival was the culmination of a five-year dream, quoting from his unpublished memoir, Driving Northern Byways: Memories of Northern Ground Transport in the Fifties and Sixties.

Duesterhus taught himself English by reading short stories and referencing a dictionary each time he found an unfamiliar word, according to the article.

When he arrived in Canada, he had eight American dollars and a train ticket to Edmonton, where he saw a job ad for Giant Mine. “I had made it!” Duesterhus wrote in his memoir about finding a job at Giant Mine. “Less than two weeks after arriving in Canada I had a job.”

After his work at the mine, he moved onto Curry Construction, where he ran equipment and supplies on the ice roads.

Adolf Duesterhus, seen in 1961 or 1962, leans against a truck.
Photo Courtesy of Adolf Duesterhus

Bromley was Duesterhus’s neighbour, and he fondly recalled “many of his hair-raising tales of too-heavy equipment on too-thin ice.”

He also noted Duesterhus’s passion for self-taught physics, complex mathematics and theory. Bromley stated that Duesterhus contributed to scholarly journals and was “always at work on explanations of phenomena few of us are aware of, let alone understand.”

Yellowknifer’s article describes Duesterhus as an introverted and deeply private ice road trucker. Bromley called him “eccentric,” but also an ever-ready community participant and helper.

In a news release, Robin Greig, president of the Yellowknife Community Foundation, said  Duesterhus played a key role in the early development of the city.

Duesterhus, who has two nephews in Germany, reflected that sentiment in the closing words of his memoir. With his parting statements, he aimed to salute the early residents of the city.

“All of these good people helped make Yellowknife and the surrounding region what it is today,” he wrote. “I salute them all — those who have passed on and those who, like myself, are still lucky enough to be here to enjoy what we worked so hard together to build.”

Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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