Bern Will Brown, a man who over the course of his life was a priest, a bush pilot, a dog musher, a painter, a journalist and a storyteller, died on Friday at his home in Colville Lake, N.W.T., at age 94.

Brown was born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1920 and came to the Northwest Territories in 1948 as a priest with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He served in a number of communities in the N.W.T., northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, often travelling by dog team.

  • AUDIO Click the link on the top left to hear Bern Will Brown tell the story of his first dog sled trip in 1949 from Tulita to Norman Wells, N.W.T.   

After he left the priesthood, he became a bush pilot. Willard Hagen, a fellow bush pilot and one of Brown's good friends, said Brown could handle anything.

"One time he had a bad landing; he damaged the wingtip," Hagen said.

"And I went to the lake and there was Bern, just calm as heck, and he says 'Will, I think I'm going to buy another airplane.' And that's exactly what he did." 

In the 1960s, he built the first mission in the community of Colville Lake, N.W.T., where he learned to speak the local aboriginal language. Chief Alvin Orlias of Colville Lake​ says Brown became one of the people. 

"He really adapted to the aboriginal way of life when he first came up here," he said. "He learned how to run dogs. He learned from the people how to survive in the bush."

Throughout his life, Brown also documented northern life through his paintings, and in photographs and videos. In the 1950s, he published a monthly newspaper in Aklavik, N.W.T. A collection of the papers was published in 1996 as the Aklavik Journal.

He also wrote books including Arctic Journal, Arctic Journal II, and Free Spirits. His most recent book, End-of-Earth People: The Arctic Sahtu Dene, was published in March.

N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod called Brown "a true Renaissance Man."

"He had amazing recollection of detail, of life in the North, and I think that you don't get too many personalities like that," he said. "He added a lot of colour to the North, and he will be missed."

Bern Will Brown's funeral will take place Tuesday in Colville Lake.