“One step at a time. One pedal stroke at a time.”
Laval St. Germain lost his son Richard five years ago this summer.
Richard was following in the footsteps of his father, a Canadian North pilot, when the Alberta man moved north to fly for North-Wright Airways in Norman Wells in 2014. Three weeks later – after making a “big impact” on the small Sahtu town – Richard died.
A late night summer canoe paddle with a friend on the waters of the Mackenzie River turned tragic, and the 21-year-old’s body was found days later after exhaustive searches from many community members.
Nearly five years since his son died, Laval – with nothing but a mountain bike, a tent, some gear and the hospitality of Northerners – rode his bike from Yellowknife to Norman Wells for one reason: “to make sure no other families go through this tragedy.”
Upon his arrival in Norman Wells, Laval hand-delivered a $5,000 check to the Sahtu Search and Rescue Society, a volunteer-driven team based in the community.
The funds come from donations to the Richard St. Germain Rescue Fund, established by Laval and his wife shortly after their son’s death.
Sahtu Society President Jaime Kearsey, who befriended Richard while working at a restaurant in town, said it was “amazing” to finally meet his father. She and Laval had emailed and texted over the years since Richard’s death, but they’d never met.
“It was kind of like meeting an old friend, Kearsey told News/North.
Laval called the meeting with Kearsey “cathartic.”
Laval said it meant a lot to “sit with (Kearsey) and hear about Richard’s final moments before he walked out of the hotel.”
“She was one of the last people to see him,” said Laval.
The $5,000 donation is the latest contribution in support of the Sahtu Search and Rescue Society from Laval, who is a “huge help” said Kearsey.
Every spring, Laval sends up 70 to 75 life jackets to be used along the river.
They’re free to use – but should be placed back for others in need – and hang on welded structures Kearsey calls “life trees.”
In meeting Kearsey, Laval said she told him something special.
“She also informed me the impetus for the Sahtu Search and Rescue Society was the frustration they felt as a community when Richard died up there,” said Laval.
Outpouring of support from the community
Kearsey was sitting down with a firefighter friend on the night of July 15, 2014, just after Richard helped her close the bar. “I told him to go home – no romancing or piano playing,” she recalled.
“Most nights,” residents would hear Richard playing away on a piano he found in a local church, said Kearsey.
But not long after leaving the bar, Richard went for a canoe ride with his friend. They encountered rough water and their canoe capsized. His friend was saved by a local passerby.
Richard couldn’t be saved.
Neither of them were wearing life jackets.
“He was such talented, wonderful kid,” remembered Kearsey.
The community showed an outpouring of support during the days-long search effort. But volunteers were ill-equipped and lacked training, even though they were doing the best they could, said Kearsey. People were scrambling to borrow radios and figure out logistics.
“Everyone from other communities came together – everyone in town,” she added.
But the lack of resources and success promoted frustration from community members and volunteers.
“It was a lot a people, a lot of exhausted energy and just a feeling of hopelessness,” said Kearsey.
“That experience, really showed our community that in the Sahtu, ‘wait a minute we don’t have a search and rescue unit, we only have us,'” she added.
That’s when organizers established the Sahtu Search and Rescue Society.
“This all happened because of Richard,” said Kearsey.
With the $5,000, the society will now be able to purchase its own radios, instead of relying on other communities or “random people” in town.
The Richard St. Germain Rescue Fund, according to Kearsey has already donated $10,000 for equipment and training for the society.
“That’s the legacy – if you can pull anything out from the tragedy, it’s that losing Richard may somehow end up saving someone from the same fate,” said Laval.
After leaving Yellowknife in -20 C weather, Laval, an experienced outdoorsman with a number of world-class endurance accomplishments, including being the only Canadian to climb Mount Everest without oxygen, biked 1,200 kilometres over 12 days. Across gravel and winter roads turned to muddy messes because of unseasonable heat, he went on from Fort Providence to Fort Simpson and then to Wrigley before reaching Norman Wells.
Many times, drivers would stop and hand him water or bannock, “with few words spoken.”
Along an isolated stretch of road between Wrigley and Tulita, Laval spotted a woman standing in front of a “remote, remote” cabin in the “middle of nowhere.”
“She just said, ‘do you want some tea?’’’ Laval recalled warmly.
Laval would either sleep in his tent or knock on doors for a spare room. He said people would welcome him like they’d know him for “one hundred years.”
‘Worth every pedal stroke and every penny’
“I don’t care how cold it is – it’s the Northerners that keep it warm,” said Laval.
The ride was “tough” and “grueling at times.” The reminders of Richard’s life and death were bittersweet. But for Laval, it was worth it.
“It’s worth every pedal stroke and every penny if one person is saved,” he said.
Out on the road, surrounded by a silence intermittently broken by the trotting of a wolf or a ptarmigan call, Laval felt closer to his son.
“It helps me deal with losing my boy,” said Laval. “I got a lot of healing from my time in the North.”
As for the future of the Sahtu Search and Rescue Society, Kearsey said with a “solid group they’ve come a long way in the last few years and we’re just looking at going a lot further.”
The society welcomes any donations to support search and rescue efforts.