IT’S OUR HERITAGE: A Kitimat pioneer and extremely dedicated husband

Historical columnist Walter Thorne reflects on the life of early Kitimat pioneer Dave Wilken.

In 1954, with the new aluminum smelter just completed, Kitimat was a magnet for workers.

They arrived via ship, amphibious aircraft coming up the ramp at Alcan Beach and some even reached it by the nearly completed railroad line. It was a lot like Fort McMurray in Alberta is today and those looking for work, if determined enough, would make it to Kitimat. One who did just that was Dave Wilken.

Dave married teacher Vivian Malakoff in Saskatchewan in 1952 and soon after the couple headed for B.C. where they did stints in Osoyoos, Vancouver and Prince George.

While Dave celebrated getting a job at Alcan, there was a problem — with very few children in the new community at that time, there was no teaching position available for Vivian. However, she was able to get a job at Terrace’s Riverside School, just downstream from the Old Skeena Bridge where today you find the curling club and Riverside ball fields.

So, with Dave living in bachelor quarters at the Anderson Creek camp in Kitimat and Vivian in Terrace, there began a remarkable long distance relationship where every Friday he would embark on a challenging trek to spend the weekend with his wife.

That journey involved travel over the unfinished railway which included riding on work trains and sometimes even open hand-pump speeders – he was lucky he had friends in the railroad constructors.

But the track was intermittent so Dave might cover five miles on the rails, two miles hiking through mud and gravel beds, then seven more back on the rails and so on until he reached the west side of Lakelse Lake.

There he would light a signal fire, a Friday beacon expected by friends on the other side who would head over in an open boat to pick Dave up, ferry him across the sometimes rough waters and then drive him to Terrace. Vivian can recall her husband arriving at all hours of the night, often covered in mud, carrying a battered suitcase and a bag of oranges and special treats he had saved from his Alcan cafeteria meals.

Some return trips were from Terrace airport to Alcan Beach and Dave recalled being crammed in amongst crates of liquour destined to resupply the thirsty bachelors at Alcan.

Vivian says her husband never missed a weekend and while she can’t recall if he ever hiked over a frozen Lakelse, she says determined people were known to attempt risky ventures. Fortunately, the fall of 1955 brought welcome changes for the Wilkens. Kitimat was growing and that meant more children which in turn meant a need for more teachers.

In September Vivian was hired on at Cormorant School but, owing to a fire, she never actually taught there.

Instead, she began instruction at Nechako where she remained until her retirement. The Wilkens first lived in a basement suite in a Johnson Crooks home on Quail Street. Soon after, they purchased a lot on White Street, where they had framed a home by 1957.

Living in an unfinished home for three years was less than ideal, but it paralleled what others in the new community experienced. The Wilkens raised two boys, Jeff born in 1960 and Brent in 1963.

Vivian remembers those early days with affection: churches were full and pageants were aplenty. Events like Handel’s Messiah were incredible – there were so many talented people. They were also a tough lot and proud of it, enduring prodigious snowfalls and floods. Who could forget the snows of ‘55 with collapsing roofs and the snowbanks so high that sidewalks around town became tunnels? Certainly Kitimat today is a fine place to live, but the 50s and 60s, well those were the days.