Peter Denney was born in Calgary on Oct. 16, 1944, and raised south of the city in a small town called High River. His father Jack owned a car dealership, and mother Eileen taught typing and bookkeeping at a local high school. While his parents were at work, and sometimes after dark, Peter would go on “adventures” in and around the river—fishing, or floating overnight on rubber inner tubes. “He fancied himself a Tom Sawyer character,” says brother Norman.
That Sawyer-esque lifestyle was instilled in him by a chance meeting with author W. O. Mitchell, known as Canada’s Mark Twain. The eccentric writer was a neighbour in High River (as was former prime minister Joe Clark). Peter was an eager audience for Mitchell’s stories about fishing or duck hunting trips, and adventures into the mountains. From him, “Peter learned at an early age to be a bit of an eccentric, a real adventurer, and he learned how to appreciate the outdoors,” says Norman.
In 1967, Peter graduated with a degree in forest technology from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton. Shortly after graduation, he picked up a hitchhiker in a remote part of northern Alberta, where he was working in forestry. Her name was Victoria Lenon, and they married that year. By 1969, they had a daughter, Shannon, and later took a sabbatical to travel Mexico by truck for nearly a year.
The couple settled in Edmonton, where they had a live-in babysitter, Lydia Sewepagaham. But while the adventures in Mexico were a success, the marriage wasn’t, and Victoria and Peter divorced. Peter and Lydia would bump into each other after that, though there were many years without contact. During Peter’s brief second marriage, in 1985, they reconnected by chance: she was a telephone operator, and recognized Peter’s voice as he made a collect call. They had dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and eventually started dating. In 1987, Lydia gave birth to their daughter Celine, and they married in 1994. (Peter also adopted Lydia’s daughter, Kendra.)
For 40 years, Peter worked as a professional forester, first with his Edmonton consulting company, Sauze Forestry. In 1991, he decided he wanted a change of pace, so he closed his business and moved the family to Sundre, a town in central Alberta. Jacqueline Gemmill, a friend, says, “He was involved in his community, always helping other people through the Sundre volunteer search and rescue, or 4-H.” She adds: “He also really enjoyed the simple life: fishing, riding in the mountains, napping in the tall grass.”
Peter took a job as a planning manager with what became Sundre Forest Products. He earned a reputation as a visionary, known for pioneering forestry techniques and an eagerness to master new technology. Friend and co-worker Jay Mills says, “When GPS came out in the mid-’90s, he was the ?rst to implement it into our forestry protocols. No one knew if it worked, but he pushed for it. Now, everybody uses it.” More recently, he was working on projects using Lidar, a cutting-edge mapping technology.
Most of Peter’s time outside of the office was spent in the mountains. Every weekend, he’d take a new group of friends and family on trips in his old-fashioned covered wagon, which he built out of wood, and pulled with his Belgium fjord horses, Whisky and Jack. Common trips would turn into adventures, when he’d insist on staying out after dark, fishing amid the black forest “when the fishes really started to bite,” Norman remembers him saying. Friends said he knew the eastern slopes of the Rockies better than the streets of Edmonton, and, Jay recalls, “He was famous for taking shortcuts on horseback; he didn’t like to stay on the trail.” He was also known for his tardiness. From childhood, he was always late for dinner, and, as an adult, he’d sometimes keep people who were supposed to meet him for a trip waiting for hours. “He never intended to be late,” says Norman. “He’d just get so engrossed in what he was doing.”
Last year, Peter survived a double-bypass surgery, and quickly recovered, eager to enjoy the summer. On Dec. 31, he retired. By mid-January, he and Lydia set off on another big adventure: a three-month road trip through the U.S., from California to Florida, which they had been planning for months. Four days in, on Jan. 19, 2011, they stopped on a Washington state highway so Peter could take a photo of a farmhouse. The sun was in his eyes, and he didn’t see the truck that hit him. He was 66.