Thomas Wunderlin

Bernadette’s Take
on Thomas Wunderlin from Yellowknife, NWT, now Smithers B.C.

A Swiss in the heat of the winter

4bOnGreatSlaveLakewithRayban2004 - CopyOn Great Slave Lake near Yellowknife – a man’s dream: a boat, a dog and – a wife, I suppose, who took the picture. (All photos courtesy of Thomas and Mary Wunderlin).
Thomas writes: “During the summer we always spent a lot of time on Great Slave Lake, always in home-built boats, I built a whole bunch of them.”

You have to give it to this Swiss guy. He goes to one of the coldest places in Canada and shows these Northeners how to keep warm. (And save costs – he is Swiss after all).
He teaches them how to burn wood pellets and use hot water for heating.

That is how Thomas heated many buildings in Yellowknife – the first building was the town’s jail! But his biomass heating system is also installed in the Legislative Assembly.

4 HouseboatwithSwissFlag2004 - Copy“Between 1995 and 2010 we lived in this houseboat that I built in 1988.  It was located close to Joliffe Island and very close to downtown Yellowknife.  The boat was completely off the grid.  The Swiss flag is an indication that my parents were visiting that year.” (O-tone Thomas Wunderlin)

According to Thomas, right now, Yellowknife has the largest consumption of wood pellets per capita in North America!

Thomas must have learnt how to draw heat as a young Swiss tourist on vacation when he spent a winter in a tent. It was a real Canadian winter, mind you.
Did I mention that he lived in a tent?

It was outside a very remote community named Colville Lake in the Northwest Territories.
Very, very close to the Arctic Circle.
It is cold there, extremely cold, as you can imagine.
He had a wood stove made from an empty oil drum.

In case you wonder how Thomas Wunderlin (58), a Swiss agricultural economist, got to that godforsaken area in the first place, here is the answer: He paddled and walked there. No kidding.

2WinterCampingYK2000 - CopyCaption by Thomas: “We continued winter (or spring) camping while in Yellowknife.  It became a tradition to visit some islands on Great Slave Lake during Easter.”

Thomas grew up in the Swiss town of Brugg-Windisch. At the age of 21, he decided that he wanted to emigrate somewhere. He did not have a problem with Switzerland but he was very outdoorsy and craving for adventures.

In 1982, he set out for his first expedition, how he calls it, to unknown regions. He looked at the map – and picked Yellowknife, a town in the Northwest Territories. Because he always wanted to go to the North, he says.

He was 27 years old and took a year off from work as an agricultural economist. He didn`t know a single soul in Canada nor Yellowknife for that matter which was terra incognita for him. But not for long.

“I paddled from Great Slave Lake to Great Bear Lake, all solo”, he recalls. “Then I walked to Colville Lake. It was a native community of about 70 people. “The store was supplied once a year and there was only one scheduled flight per month.”

1RevisitingColvilleLakeFrontPostofTent2000 - CopyThomas writes: “We revisited Colville Lake in 2000.  The picture shows the exact spot where my wall tent stood, in fact, I am holding on to the cut off tree which served as my tent front post.  The location is about 8km from Colville Lake itself.  There is still about 2 feet of snow on the ground, that’s why the tree looks so short.”

In 1985, he came to Canada for a second trip, three months this time, and paddled solo in a kayak from Yellowknife to the Inuit community of Bathurst Inlet on the Arctic Coast. After that, he was ripe for his immigration to Canada in 1986. In Yellowknife, he worked as a computer consultant and ran a training school.
Until he caught the wood pellet bug.

It is time for an UPC (Urgent Phone Call) to Thomas Wunderlin.

How the heck did you bring the people in Yellowknife to heat their town with wood pellets?

Because the heating system with wood pellets is efficient and – compared to oil – relatively cheap.

5FirstContainerizedPelletBoilerYK2006 - CopyThomas explains: “This shows the inside of one of two containers with the Austrian pellet boilers that were (and still are) heating the correctional facility.  It shows me with Joe Leonardis our very knowledgeable mechanical installer.  This was the first containerized pellet system in all of North America, replacing about 600,000 liters of heating oil with 1200 tonnes of wood pellets.”

But Yellowknife is not exactly known as a forestry town. Where do you get the wood pellets from?

We – my business partner and I – had them shipped from Northern Alberta. The trees in Yellowknife are too small.

Why would the people in Yellowknife, citizens of an oil exporting nation, switch to wood pellets?

Because there is no natural gas in the Northwest Territories, and oil is prohibitively expensive. Our biomass heating system is comparatively low cost.

6NWTLegislativeAssemblyBoiler2010 - Copy“The official start-up of the pellet boiler system for the NWT Legislative Assembly.  It shows me with the Speaker of the House.  This was the last project I was involved with in Yellowknife. “

How did you get the idea to go into biomass heating systems?

In Europe it is done everywhere. We imported an Austrian biomass heating system. We were selling heating energy in the form of hot water. The boiling water goes into radiators and the radiators radiate heat into the entire house.

Where do the wood pellets come in?

The hot water is produced by burning wood pellets. It is still a lot cheaper to bring in wood pellets than buying oil.

7aSmithersHiking2013 - Copy“We are spending a lot of time hiking and snowshoeing in Smithers.  There is a very active hiking club here and the surrounding mountains are ideal.”

Did the people in Yellowknife shake their heads about this “biomass guy” from Switzerland?

Some people were sceptical, for sure! But we made them an offer that they could not resist. They did not have to buy anything. We would buy the equipment, we financed it and operated it. We took all the risks.

But in the end, you still made money?

Of course. A year ago, I sold my shares in the company and moved with my Canadian wife Mary Broussard to Smithers in British Columbia. Not long after my arrival, I got a contract for heating a school and some other buildings with wood chips.

7bSmithersHikingwithMary2013 - CopyThomas and his wife Mary. They have to wear sun hats because, guess, there is something hotter than biomass and wood pellet heating: THE SUN.

And your own house in Smithers?

It is an old house that we rent and it is heated with gas and wood.

Why did you move from Yellowknife to Smithers – maybe you couldn’t take the heat anymore?

You bet! At our age, the winters are too hard in Yellowknife – even with biomass heating!

3WithParentsMaryandDogsYK2002“My parents visited us 11 times in the years between 1987 and 2008.  We always spent at least a week somewhere on the lake.  This picture shows them with Mary and our two dogs, Rayban and Jari, on Joliffe Island, 10 minutes from downtown Yellowknife. Both parents have passed away.“

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