A Eulogy for Bob Erlam, Northern Giant

Let’s put aside the usual blog rancor and salute a pioneer, the kind of business person who made Northern BC and the Yukon the dynamic and sometimes crazy places they are today. Bob Erlam, who died in Cobble Hill March 26, was the publisher of the Whitehorse Star for 35 years. Disclosure: He was also my stepson’s grandfather and a very good friend. A larger than life champion dog musher, prolific inventor, artist, raconteur and storyteller, Bob, with wife Rusty, journeyed with their baby Paul to the Yukon in the 1950’s to set up in an old military shack and build a life. After many adventurous and some not-so-adventurous occupations in Whitehorse and Vancouver, Erlam took over the Star from Harry Boyle (who became a BC judge) in 1963. Everything Bob and Rusty did was as big and resourceful as the landscape they inhabited. They befriended (and often drank with) top Canadian and US politicians, British royalty, famous journalists, actors, prospectors, dog mushers, crazy dreamers, wandering bums, and just about anyone who came through. This is typical: Once, then US Senator Bobby Kennedy arrived to climb a rugged mountain named after his brother, former president John F. Kennedy. Time magazine wanted a story and picture. Bob managed to get to the top, and when Kennedy arrived next day, got the picture. Problem was there was no way to get it off the mountain to Time in New York. So, turning on the charm, Bob convinced Kennedy to ferry the film out for him and deliver it in time for the next edition. Here’s another: The phone rang one day, and a radio show host in the Southern US said he hoped to interview interesting people but had dialed the wrong number. “I’m interesting,” says Bob, and proceeded to regale the audience with stories of dog mushing in -56C-degree weather, and how a cougar took two of his dogs one night. Was it true? Who knows? But it was a damn good story and the audience loved it. This was one of about 10,000 stories Erlam! (as Rusty always referred to him) would tell to anyone who would – or wouldn’t – listen in Nelson, where he moved in 1982, and around the world. He and Rusty traveled extensively and made friends wherever they went with their tales and songs of the Yukon and northern BC. With almost no education, but with boundless curiosity and ingenuity, and a worldview that was adaptive, humorous, and always optimistic, Bob Erlam made himself a giant of the north. And he made the world a more interesting place for his having been there. I can’t think of a better legacy.