When a houseboat burst into flames on an early summer morning in 2015, Gary Vaillancourt was the first at the scene.
As emergency crews scrambled to get their equipment working, he grabbed a water pump, dousing an ablaze canoe that was drifting dangerously in the direction of another houseboat.
It was an act of resourcefulness that put his neighbours first.
That was who Gary was.
The longtime houseboater, one of the first to build a floating home on the open waters of what is now known to many as Houseboat Bay back in the early 1980s, died after suffering a stroke Jan. 31 in Yellowknife.
Vaillancourt was 71.
He’s being remembered by friends and fellow houseboaters as kind-hearted, generous, creative and community-minded – a “cowboy” of the North (as one online commentator put it) with unmatched nautical know-how and a willingness to teach newcomers to the bay.
“Gary was the respected grandfather of the houseboat community,” Matthew Grogono, a close friend and houseboater told Yellowknifer in a recent interview.
“If there was any question, he was the definitive authority.”
The two lived a “stone’s throw” away from each other on the bay. Grogono’s houseboat, the Icarus V, is the sister ship of one of the first two houseboats built on the bay by Vaillancourt.
Vaillancourt, born in Sudbury, Ontario, was a helicopter pilot when he came to Yellowknife in 1977 for work. Back then, he later recalled on a Ice Lake Rebels, a reality television show he was featured on, the first houseboats were strung together using rafts and 45 gallon drums.
Vaillancourt told Ice Lake Rebel viewers, ”in the beginning, people came out to Yellowknife Bay because they were rebels and they wanted a certain sense of freedom.”
In 1985, Grogono, then new to Yellowknife, met Vaillancourt at a summer solstice houseboat party.
“Gary had a hovercraft on his front deck which caught my attention,” Grogono recalled warmly, conjuring his first impression of his future friend.
“Very clever, thoughtful – an alternative thinker. A real out-of-the-box thinker. He was a renaissance kind of guy,” said Grogono.
If Grogono needed help with something houseboat-related, Vaillancourt was the go-to guy.
“His depth of knowledge of physics and mathematics and engineering generally far exceeded most on the bay,” he said.
From working on creative side-projects and inventions to pursuing musical endeavours – he was in many bands dating back to the 1980s, including, later, the Dawgwoods – Vaillancourt’s mind was always moving.
He was always willing to share his breadth of knowledge with those who needed help.
In 2013, Janna Graham, the recent buyer of her first houseboat, learned this first-hand.
As her neighbour, houseboaters’ “elder statesman,” and the “sheriff of Yellowknife Bay,” Graham said Vaillancourt treated her and other houseboat newbies with respect and generosity.
“In my case, it was minus 40 and my propane was jelling and I didn’t know how to switch tanks. Gary did it without being condescending,” remembered Graham.
“Gary was definitely the one that we all looked up to.
“He was a father figure to us on the bay. But he’d also be quick to tell us if we were doing stupid things, like driving too fast in the motorboat and causing big wakes,” she recalled with a laugh.
Near his barge, Vaillancourt would construct and maintain a skating area, an example of how much he cared for his houseboat community, said Graham.
‘Advocate for community’
His passion for the floating community he helped create and nourish was also seen in his efforts to protect it, added Graham.
When the City of Yellowknife seized canoes from the government dock in 2014, Vaillancourt told CBC North houseboaters were being unfairly singled out.
When the city proposed a boundary change on Yellowknife Bay last year, Vaillancourt spoke out to media, lamenting a lack of consultation from the city; calling for “ignored” houseboaters to be included in the process.
“He was an advocate for the community. He was kind of like the spokesperson,” said Graham.
“For me, Gary just really embodies that D-I-Y, self-reliant spirit,” she said.
“Yellowknife is a very expensive place to live and it’s very hard for creative types and musicians to live here and sustain themselves. The only way to do that is the community that Gary was a big part of starting on Houseboat Bay.”
A celebration of life for Vaillancourt was held over the weekend.
“(Gary) was fiercely independent, kind, headstrong, innovative, opinionated, warm-hearted and welcoming,” reads his obituary.
“Gary had many skills and was accomplished in many fields, but his greatest love was his daughter Molly and playing music with his friends.”