Willi Pfisterer and Alfie Burstrom, A Retirement Roast By Mac Elder, April 10th, 1987.
(Mac’s words) First of all, I am very pleased to be here.
I had a note from Willi Pfisterer a while ago, a kinda Swan Song…he said he was going to hang up his ‘Old Red Socks”. I hope that he has had more than one pair since he first came to Jasper sometime in the middle 50s. I first remember seeing him driving around in an old beat-up station wagon. He had it full of rope and other junk – no saddle or cowboy boots. I was told that he was some kind of a mountain climber. Later on, I found out that he had a kind of instinct for finding parties and that mountain climbing was just a side-line. One of his old cohorts of that era told me he composed the words for that Beer commercial song, “Oh, it’s hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way.”
Willi was the ski-pro at the old Whistler Ski Hill for a few years. He had a good sense of humour and he was good at fixing things. Dr. Betkowski had an old pair of wooden skis in those days; probably worth a maximum of $7.00. He wanted Willi to fix them up…so guess what? Willi cleaned them and painted them black, complete with the word ‘Head’ on the tips. Doc thought they were great!
I know a lot more stories about Willie, but I better tell a couple on Alfie.
It is about 40 years since I first met Alfie Burstrom. He was a tall, skinny kid then, he had his first pair of cowboy boots and wanted to be a horse packer, a trail hand and eventually a Park Warden. He was much younger than me in those days, but now it is quite obvious that he didn’t behave himself when he was young like I did, because he has got old before me and must retire. He told me last time I saw him his knees hurt, that he is too old for a paper route, too young for social security and too tired to have an affair, so he is going to retire.
Alfie’s Dad, Frank Burstrom Senior, was an old-time warden. He was working in the mountains at the time of Creation…I think they made wardens better in those days. Frank was 11 years older than Alfie is now, when he retired. He wanted his son to be a railroad man; “a warden only made about $80.00 per month in those days.” Well, eventually he got his wish because one day I met Frank on the trail – the North Boundary – when I was packing for a Geological Survey Party. Frank told me Alfie was working in the C.N. shops. He was some proud. “Why, that kid is making more money in a weed than I do in a month!”, he said.
A year or two later, I saw Alfie’s dad and he told me “The damn kid had quit the railroad and joined the Army and gone to Korea to war”. He said he will probably come back married to a Chinese gal. Well, Alfie came back and married June and became a warden.
There isn’t time to tell everything I know about him but there are a couple of stories that must be told. One I remember, was when he lived out on the west road and during the construction of the new Yellowhead Highway. Alfie was having some trouble getting his message across to a couple of construction workers and he ended up punching one of them in the mouth…and you know Alfie, he has always been rather articulate with his words. And he said to the fellow, “And that’s from me, not from the G-G-G-Government!”
All the old-timers know that Chief Warden Mickey McGuire saw the potential in Alfie and was responsible for providing the opportunity for Alfie to get his chance to prove himself as a ‘Dog Master’ and Alfie didn’t let him down. He really put his heart into it. But there is still one part of the story that is missing and must be told. You should know some of the other people that had a hand in it too, such as Johnny Morin. Johnny was always in the second-hand dog business – he and Bev. In the summer of 1969, Johnny peddled a young female cross-bred German Shephard to Warden Gordon McClain. Gordon was on the Rocky River District at that time; I was at Maligne Lake.
Sometime late in August or early September Gordon wanted to take his family to Edmonton for a few days so he asked Alfie to take care of his dog while he was away, but he didn’t tell Alfie that she was going to have pups – and she had them at Alfie’s place. To say the least, Alfie was a bit upset – having an un-spade female (dog) in the park was bad enough but for a warden to have a litter of 11 pups was even worse; and if Superintendent Mitchell found out, Alfie would be on the carpet. A warden is supposed to be in the position to give everyone else hell who had an un-spade female dog.
Well, McClain came home and he smoothed things over by telling Alfie that he could have the first pick of the litter. Gordon took his “big family” to Beaver Cabin and he kept them hid out in a dog house under a pile of baled hay. We used to refer to McClain as “the dog farmer”. Sometime in the fall, Gordon moved to Snaring Station and took his dog family with him. A couple of weeks later there was a big party at Snaring. Alfie Burstrom came out; got his first pick of the litter; a big black pup that he was going to do wonders with. Out of the rest, Bob Haney, Hans Fuhrer and Keith Foster each go one; also, a fellow by the name of Gill who worked with me got one.
Alfie has never told us what happened, whether he had had too many beers or couldn’t tell the difference, but the interesting thing is that in a day or two his boys told him that the big dog pup he had picked was a female. Alfie decided that he had enough mouths to feed at home and he didn’t want a female pup. So, back he went to McClain again, rather sheepish, and all that was left was the ‘runt of the litter’ that no one wanted. That poor little runt turned out to be Ginger, the great, famous, and devoted Rescue Dog.
Thanks Alfie and Willi, it was as real pleasure to know you and to work with you both.
S.M. (Mac) Elder
These men are all gone now from our Warden Service family.
Willi Pfisterer gained his last summit in 2010.
Alfie Burstrom took his last patrol in 2018
Mac Elder rode over the divide in 2022.
Their legacy lives on.
Fifty Percent of Mountaineering Is Uphill winner of the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award, by Susanna (Susi) Pfisterer, is the enthralling true story of Jasper’s Willi Pfisterer, a legend in the field of mountaineering and safety in the Rocky Mountains. For more than thirty years, Willi was an integral part of Jasper’s alpine landscape, guiding climbers up to the highest peaks, and rescuing them from perilous situations.
Originally from Austria, this mountain man came to Canada in the 1950s to assail the Rockies, and stayed to become an integral part of mountain safety in Western Canada and the Yukon. His daughter, Susanna Pfisterer, has shaped his stories and lectures as an engaging and educational adventure story that features over 100 archival photographs, including avalanches in the National Parks, highlights from climbing 1,600 peaks and participating in over 700 rescues, and guiding adventures with prime ministers. Accompanied by the humorous wisdom of the “Sidehillgouger,” readers will traverse an historical and spectacular terrain.
Rescue Dogs, by Dale Portman
These stories of crime and rescue, by retired park warden and dog trainer Dale Portman, highlight the vital role dogs play in saving lives, upholding the law and recovering bodies. Portman describes the escapades of Canadian Rockies’ park warden Alfie Burstrom and his canine partner, Ginger—the first certified avalanche search team in North America—as well as his own adventures tracking down criminals and missing persons with his German shepherd, Sam. Reading these stories of working dogs will give you a new appreciation of the important roles they play and how they really are our silent heroes.
Author, Dale Portman, spent nearly 30 years working for the warden service, often involved with backcountry travel, mountain rescue and avalanche control work in Jasper, Banff, Yoho, Glacier and Revelstoke national parks.
Guardians of the Peaks: Mountain Rescue in the Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains, by Kathy Calvert and Dale Portman.
The story of mountain rescue has its roots in the early 1900s, with the Canadian Pacific Railway’s use of Swiss guides—alpine experts who brought their knowledge of mountain rescue to the Canadian Rockies. As climbing gained in popularity with the emerging middle classes after the Second World War, tragic accidents became more common. Two accidents in 1954–55 forced the government to develop a professional mountain rescue team through the Park Warden Service, under the tutelage of Swiss guide Walter Perren, considered the father of mountain rescue in Canada. Perren essentially turned cowboys into competent rescue personnel, and the story takes off from there.
Guardians of the Peaks traces the first 50 years of mountain rescue in Canada, focusing on the five principal men instrumental in its development. Authors Kathy Calvert and Dale Portman cover all aspects of the rescue experience, juxtaposing the political, cultural and technical developments of the time with gripping accounts of actual rescues.