Thank you to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for granting permission to the Park Warden Service Alumni to post this interview on our website.
This Oral History interview was funded in part by a research grant received in 2019 from the Government of Alberta through the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation.
In Person Interview with John Flaa
December 5, 2019 – 10:00 am, Revelstoke, BC
Interviewed by Susan Hairsine
Part one: 3:01 pm tape 00:05
Place and date of birth? John was born in Regina, Saskatchewan on March 13, 1952.
SH: Where did you grow up?
John: I lived in Regina until I was about ten, and our family moved to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and then lived there until about Grade 9 and then we moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, and I finished my schooling there.
SH: How did you become involved in the Warden Service? Which national park did you start working in?
John: Well growing up in Lethbridge I had some friends who had relatives in Waterton and lived there, so we’d go down, and we met a group of people there, which was another guy you might want, Dave Carnell, was the older brother of Craig, who was my friend. Dave is a year or two older, and Tom Davidson was there as well, and Tom Ross, his dad was the Superintendent there then and he’d been a warden in Jasper. We just skied there in high school and a little bit after high school, a fair while after high school. We also had friends who ran the stables there and we’d do horse work with them and I was working on trail crews and maintenance crews in Waterton in that period after high school.
SH: So where did you go to school for your warden training? Lethbridge?
John: Well what happened is I didn’t go to school for quite a while. I’d been ski bumming and stuff like that in Rossland and coming back to Waterton pretty much every summer and doing different jobs there or working in Lethbridge. I wanted to go travelling, and living on the east slopes of the Rockies, to me that was a pretty nice spot. So, I just wanted to go do a bit of traveling around the world and see anything comparable that would sort of tickle my fancy. So I did a year traveling, came back and went back down to Waterton and worked there, and I then thought that the Warden Service was a good job. I knew Brian MacDonald, and Clair Israelson was probably there then, though I didn’t know him. And Doug Martin. Max Winkler of course, was the Chief Warden and we were kind of the party animals, and he was chasing us around the park all the time. Brian MacDonald, he was quite a friend and he was a good guy. So, I thought okay, what do I want to be? In the Warden Service, and what was the most expeditious way to become a warden and that was to go back to school to get the Resource Management and Wildlife Technicians Diploma from Lethbridge Community College so I did that and graduated from that around 1979.
(Tape 3:11 pm)
John: We were ski touring during that period, hiking, not really technical climbing, but just scrambling in the mountains down there. We were doing a lot of horse work and pack trips with different friends. The people that I knew that were in the Warden Service at that time like Dave and Tom. I looked at them and thought that sounds pretty good. And I thought I’ll do it. So, I went to school and got out. The first summer I got a job with a creel census in Waterton. And Dave Gilbride, also, we went to school together. He got a job there. So we were doing creel census in Waterton mostly at Cameron Lake. Do you want me to interject a little story here?
SH: Sure, go for it.
John: One day …. Well Bertha Lake was one of the few places in Alberta where you have huckleberries. So, it was very popular with the grizzly bears and was often closed. And at this time it was closed … I can’t remember but I think it was a female and cubs that were hanging out there. So, they closed Bertha Lake, so Max (Winkler) who was the Chief Warden … formidable, intimidating guy, and he said “Okay you two, you go up to Bertha Lake, have a look around and see what the bear is doing, clean anything up that has to be cleaned up and that’ll be your day.” So, we had one radio and hiked up the trail and walked around …. I can’t remember exactly what happened but, walked around the lake and all of a sudden…. There’s a little campground there with an outhouse and my memory is it’s Gilbride who had to go to the bathroom and had a radio in his back pocket. I’m sure of it, though you might have to clear this up with him. But anyways, he went to toilet, and he is pulling his pants down over the hole in the outhouse and radio drops down the hole and sort of goes plop into the poop. So all of a sudden, he comes running out, “John, John the radio”. So, we kind of laughed and then all of a sudden from the radio, sort of lying in the poop we could hear Max calling us, wanting to know what the bears are doing. So “Oh Jesus, if we don’t answer he’ll think we’re dead.” So we’ve got to get that radio out of there somehow. So, we are kind of trying to reach down the hole on the toilet that’s bolted to the floor and can’t get down low enough. So we ended up taking the toilet, unbolting or unscrewing it, from the floor and then moving it. And then I had to hold Gilbride’s legs, and he’s reaching down there, grabs the radio and says, “I got it, I got it.” Pulls it up, this dirty old radio and the first thing he has to do is call Max because by this time it had been twenty minutes since he’d called us. “We’re okay, we’re okay, just …. Man, that was my first …. I haven’t seen Dave much since then.
SH: That’s a good story. I’m going to have to remember that. (Tape 04:19)
John: So, we were still doing the creel census so we weren’t in the Warden Service, but I think that next fall there was probably a competition and I went in the competition, I can’t remember but then I got a job working out of Nordegg, and Greg Horne was working there as well as Al Gribbin, who were both …. Do you remember Al Gribbin? He worked out of Lake Louise.
John: We were working for the jail there, taking people out on canoe trips and hiking and doing different things like that. Top roping and stuff. Then through that next spring I got a call that I had a job in the Warden Service.
SH: So you got a job at Lake Louise then?
John: Ya, well all I knew was it was in Banff, and the job offer said to report to the Banff Warden Office on such and such a day, so I go and report to the Banff Warden Office, and I didn’t know Banff at all, I hadn’t spent much time there other than a bit of skiing. I think we stayed at the Ross’s house when we came out to ski and stayed with his parents. So I went to the Warden Office and, “Ya, okay so ya; you’re the new guy.” I think it was Keith Everts, so go to Stores, and here’s a list of things to draw out of Stores. So I go and get a slicker and a couple of shirts. This was in 1980, and they didn’t give you much, a couple pairs of pants, and one of those old jean jackets and a few things. Then I went back into the Warden Office and he said “Okay, have you got a vehicle?” Yes. “Okay go out to Lake Louise. So, I got in my truck and drove out to Lake Louise and walk into the Warden Office and there’s (Dale) Loewen, so I had my arm full of stuff, and they look at me as like only Loewen and (Mike) McKnight can look you at you. (It’s) like, “What the fuck are you doing here.?” “Well, I was told to come out here from the Banff Warden Office. I’m the new warden”. So they look at each other and say “Okay, okay, you’re going to Saskatchewan Crossing.” I had no clue where Saskatchewan Crossing was, so whatever it was, one hundred kilometers up the road. So go up there and the guy’s name is Jay Morton. (Jay Morton was the warden stationed at Saskatchewan River Crossing Warden Station). So loaded all my armload of stuff and they might have given me a few other things, a rifle, a ticket book, and that was the training I got. So up to Saskatchewan Crossing, met Jay and Ian Syme was the other seasonal who just started that same year up there.
SH: That would be an intimidating boss I would think?
John: Who Morton? Not for very long, not for very long, he’s a pretty nice guy. (Tape 08:11)
So that was my first job. I was at Saskatchewan Crossing all that summer, and there’s another outhouse story there. But anyway, Jay would say “Bugger off on the horses”, because I had some horse experience, and we did more scrambling and were getting into more technical climbing by then. Riding up the Howse River, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got there, because the Howse River was an old cabin.
And when you get there, it is in an opening along the river, as big as the yard, but it’s under this much water (about a foot). The water is lapping onto the porch and the corral has a little bit above the water that you could put your horses in to feed. But this was just at the time with the snow melt, early July. So there, and a bunch of different places up the Alexander, Castleguard Meadows, and places like that in the summer some pretty big country.
And then Jay, in September, just after Labour Day, he’s going on holidays. And Ian had gone somewhere, I’m not sure, but he’d been transferred down to Lake Louise in the fall. And so, I went down a couple of days after Jay had left on his holidays. I went into the office and went up to Mike McKnight, “Hey Mike, I’m kind of on my own up there, is there anything that you’d like me to be doing up there? Jay had never said much.” And he looked at me and said “No, no John, we look at that as an old-time warden station, you just go up there and do what you think should be done.” (Tape 10:13)
SH: Wow, that’s a good quote
John: And so off back I went to Saskatchewan Crossing until I think, early December and then I got asked to come back down into Lake Louise and then …. No it wasn’t in December, it was sort of after Christmas, because we’d been skiing at Bow Summit a little bit. Then I went to work for Clair (Israelson) that winter for a little bit.
SH: What year would this have been, do you have any idea?
John: 1981 or 1982. I was in Lake Louise that winter and we were staying in ….. Gerry Israelson was there, and Terry Skjonsberg, another guy you should speak to because he had some adventures, and Billy Moffat. Cliff (White) had just left to go to Banff. There were a few people that had just left so there was a couple of us who were a little bit newer. Anyway, there was the old Arrowhead, kind of a motel down by the train tracks. And there was a house, and Gerry had just got a full time job so he got moved into there. And then there were a bunch of little cabins, you know the prefab cedar logs?
SH: Like a panabode?
John: Yes, a panabode, exactly… all these cabins. They said okay you can live in one of these, I think number four, for the winter. So I moved in and then you go into one of these -30 degree spells. And there must have been three inches of hoar frost on the inside, outside wall of these places. They were not very homey. That caused us to spend a fair bit of time at the Post Hotel.
And then just a bunch of different stuff happened that winter. I think that was the winter …. Somewhere in there they had a whole bunch of avalanche accidents over the course of one weekend. I remember going out to one, and getting back and another one, at Yoho and Bow Summit, and another one at Egypt Lake area. Three all in a course of a couple of days. So roaring around, barely get time to dry your skins out. We were finishing the one at Bow Summit, a wreck, and we’d all come down into the Banff Warden Office. Andy Anderson had bought supper for everybody. So we are sitting around in the coffee room and he had a nice supper and came back and put a couple of bottles of whiskey down. So that was nice but just after that happened, Keith Everts or somebody came in and said, “Hey you guys, we got another wreck that we got to go to right away.” (Tape 14:19)
So that was a real baptism under fire for that kind of stuff. The one at Egypt Lake, I remember I think it was Clair, actually. We were on a probe line. The public didn’t really have beacons in those days. And we were probing, and Clair probed this fellow and we dug him out and tried to revive him, but he’d been there for quite a while. So we got him all up in a shelter, put him in place and there was people like Perry Jacobson, and Keith Everts. We’d all been flown in and they’d set up a camp for everybody as we were expecting to be there overnight. Our headlamps had sort of winked out because the batteries, but this is sort of after we’d found the guy. We’re all sitting around and having a little cup of tea. You know the first thing they did was get a kettle going and stuff like that. And then we’re standing around, there’s Cliffy (Cliff White) and Clair, me and there about a half a dozen of us younger people. And we’re saying “No point in staying up here. There’s a trail down”. It’s pitch black so we decided to go down this trail, go down and ski out that night. And Keith and Perry and those guys said they’d just stay up and wait for a flight out in the morning. And so I’d never been up the trail before, but my head lamp was not working. And after a little while we found it was better to have somebody behind you with a headlamp rather than be behind somebody, as long as they stayed somewhat close to you. I remember going down the trail first and I can’t remember who was behind me. I had Cliffy or somebody. Just as you go around these corners, all of a sudden it’s pitch black and your skidding down on your skis at night. We got out of there…..
SH: So you are coming out of Egypt. Did you come down the Red Earth Road?
John: I can’t remember. I think it was Egypt but I’m not sure. One of those places right in there.
SH: See that’s a good story. This is what happens, you get good stories.
John: I can’t remember anything else happening that winter of note, other than just typical stuff at the ski hill. It was a pretty western social time too.
So the next summer I went back up to the Crossing. I was sort of the senior seasonal there. (Marc) Ledwidge came in as a junior seasonal, his first year, and we just kind of continued on. Jay was also up there. And we would just do some scrambling, horse trips, hiking trips ….
SH: Leading the ‘Life of Riley’.
John: Yes. I remember one incident that happened that summer. There was some Parks sort of expedition to go climb Freshfield. They got flown in partway and they were climbing in and going to walk out. I took a string of horses in on the day I was supposed to meet them, up at the lake below the Freshfield Glacier, if I can remember correctly. So I’m waiting there and they don’t show up so I go back to … I can’t remember now if I went back to the Howse (cabin) or the (Saskatchewan River) Crossing but then went back, took the horses back up again. And then finally, I don’t know how we found out, but one of the guys had fallen in a crevasse or fallen off the mountain or perished. So they all ended up getting helicoptered out I think.
SH: This wasn’t a Warden School? John: No it wasn’t a Warden School. He was a Parks guy, a planner from Calgary. Ask Marc because he was there on it. I just remember taking the horses in there to pack out the gear.
SH: So it was a Parks trip but not a Warden trip?
John: Yes I think so. But Marc just went along.
SH: Did the guy die? The planner?
John: Oh ya for sure. I think that might have changed some issues about Parks, they were naturalists traveling and climbing and stuff like that without any training. (SH: I contacted Marc Ledwidge for more details. The deceased Park Planner was Leo Bilodeau. Others on the trip included Ron Seale, Chief Park Naturalist in Banff, now deceased, and Ron Hooper, Regional Planner and later Superintendent of Jasper. They were climbing Mt Freshfield in September 1981.)
John: In the fall or late summer, some friends came up from Waterton with some horses and we went on a trip, a pack trip. I think it was Howse Pass and around. We were gone for three or four days. We had just got back to the Crossing. Jay says “Hey, there’s a helicopter going to be here in about half an hour and you’re going out for ten days on the boundary, the Indianhead boundary, so get your stuff ready”. I’d just been out for all that with these friends on days off, so I had to say goodbye to them, which was fairly rude, and then the helicopter came in to the Crossing, and I had a saddle and duffle and stuff like that. Flew into Banff and thinking I was going to get a flight out to Scotch Camp. I had to sit around there as there was some black bear… I think this was when the black grizzly of Whiskey Creek was going on. So I was coming into Banff and all that shit was going on around there. And I’m sitting in the Warden Office waiting to go out. But they got a black bear in the trap. My memory, I hope it’s correct. Anyways, (Mke) Gibeau was still a seasonal warden, but he’d been doing a lot of wildlife work. So he went out and after about four hours the helicopter became available again. He said you can fly out with it but there’s going to be a bear in the net underneath it and you’re going to have to get him out of the net part way over.
SH: Somewhere up the Cascade?
John: Ya, or the Panther or somewhere. So I said “Okay”. I hadn’t had much to do with wildlife at that point. We’d caught one or two problem bears but not really dealt with them. So we get in the helicopter and lift off and somebody hooks the net underneath. Gibeau does or somebody, and off we go and I’m looking around and it’s nice country because I’ve never been there before. It was probably (Jim) Davies or somebody flying. So he puts down, plops down the net with the bear in it, and then he goes over and sits next to it. So I jump out and try to untangle this bear from the net. And they were using Ketamine in those days. Bears tend to get up and walk around pretty quick with that. And all of a sudden, I’m just getting this net all scrunched up and I grab the bear by the scruff of the neck and the bum and try to drag him off the net, and all of a sudden he gets up and starts walking with me hanging on. And I think whoa, I better let go of that.