By Laura Johnson
Two Rivers Marketing
A cold, thundering wind whips around the Three Aces mountains, gathering steam as it drives across the lake and through a stand of fall-coloured aspens. Reaching landfall, it sends bits of soil tumbling from the bucket of Tom Smith’s skid-steer loader as he works alongside the shoreline his ancestors fished for hundreds of years.
Smith lives and works in the small village of Teslin, Yukon, a Tlingit First Nation community that’s home to one of the territory’s largest native populations. Intent on preserving their culture, the Tlingit people decided to expand and enhance the local heritage centre’s outdoor spaces. And they hired Smith to handle the job.
“It’s national pride and pride within myself, too, knowing that I’ve done a good job,” Smith said. “I’m very proud of all the people working here. All of them can say, ‘Hey, I did that’.”
Smith and his crew constructed an outdoor classroom for moose-hide tanning, an amphitheatre with a fire pit, a stage and a wheelchair ramp for accessibility — all of which will help the Heritage Centre educate Tlingit youth and visitors alike.
“We’re calling this the Landscape Speaks Project,” said Bob McGill, the Heritage Centre’s project manager. “It’s named that because when visitors come we can speak. The Tlingit people are trying to preserve their heritage and language and get our children back involved with their culture.”
Respecting and honouring the land is a way of life for the Tlingit people, and incorporating that value into the Heritage Centre project was important to Smith. For instance, Smith designed the walking trail to wind along the lake and through a grove of aspen, fir, spruce and pine trees to show off the area’s natural vegetation and scenic landscapes.
To create the path, Smith removed obstructing trees before laying and levelling layers of sand and crushed rock with his Bobcat S570 skid-steer loader. Smith then used a grapple attachment to haul the felled trees to an on-site lumber mill where the wood was cut and used to build other structures at the Heritage Centre.
However, Smith’s work for the centre began long before this project. Each winter, he dutifully clears snow from its parking lot so visitors can safely enter and exit the building.
“I do a really good job because I’m going to have one of my elders stepping out onto that ground,” Smith said. “I don’t want that person trudging through the snow to get into the building. They’ll have a nice, clear walkway to walk on. When I walk by my clan leader and he taps me on the shoulder and gives me a thumbs up, it’s a good feeling.”
Smith’s business began with a bout of boredom one winter afternoon in 2009. He shot a glance at his brand-new four-wheeler, sparking a money-making idea.
“I was like ‘I might as well go and earn a dollar,’ and I started plowing snow,” Smith said.
“When I came home at the end of the day, I had over $800 in my pocket. Something went ‘ding.’ The next year I ended up buying a used Bobcat 825 skid-steer loader and got a business license.”
Smith explained starting out in snow allowed him to master his machine — a key component to his now-versatile business success.
“Snow is a very good opportunity to start a business because even if you’re not very skilled with the Bobcat loader, it’s an easy learning curve,” Smith said. “You can get the feel of the machine a lot easier than going into working directly with gravel or dirt.”
New machine, new opportunities
In 2013, after trading in his 825 for a new S130 skid-steer, Smith branched out of his snow business to begin work on a local roadway project.
“I was getting better on the machine, so they started to get me to do finish work on driveways,” Smith said. “That really improved my work.”
Smith’s S130 eventually proved too small, however, to handle the new construction work he was taking on, so in 2016 he bought an M-Series S570 from Bobcat of Whitehorse.
“I decided to purchase this baby, and I love it,” Smith said. “It’s a great machine, a Tier 4 loader. Extremely good power, and I can handle a lot more attachments. I’m up to four now and always looking for more.”
Today Smith’s business, TNT Enterprises, offers a range of services in addition to snow removal — such as finishing work, landscaping, material loading and unloading, foundation prep work, post hole digging and brush removal — thanks to a larger machine and an arsenal of attachments that includes a bucket, grapple, snow plow, augers and an over-the-tire steel tracks set.
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One of Smith’s favourite features is the S570’s vertical lift path. The machine can now remain stationary when loading trucks or raising and lowering an auger, which makes his operation more efficient. A set of over-the-tire steel tracks lets Smith work on sandy and muddy jobsites.
“They’re just an amazing attachment to have,” Smith said. “When I don’t need the tracks, I just pull them off. Best of both worlds.”
Winter work is now more comfortable for Smith thanks to his loader’s enclosed cab and heater.
“My old machine used to be full of gear — mitts, fur hat, goggles — and by the end of the day, you’re shaking you’re so cold,” he said. “Now with this thing being heated, I’m in my T-shirt, cup of coffee in the coffee holder. It’s comfortable. Air ride seats, everything’s so nice and plush. It’s an amazing piece of machinery.”
When purchasing his S570, Smith decided to stick with the Bobcat brand based on the stamina of his first used machine, the 825 skid-steer loader.
“This thing had 10,000-plus hours on it,” Smith said. “It went from a weekend warrior machine to a full-service machine. It worked and worked hard. No major components broke down on me. I was like ‘if this thing is more than 25 years old, what’s a brand-new one going to do?’”
Bobcat of Whitehorse’s willingness to customize a payment contract that worked for Smith’s business as well as their trade-in price for his S130 then sealed the deal.
“It just shows the quality of these machines. You can run something for three years and not lose any value,” he said.
Now starting his ninth year in the business, Smith believes he’s finally found his career calling.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to run a business, but I never knew exactly what I was going to do,” Smith said. “For most of my life, I floated a lot. I’m a chef. I’m a GIS technician. I’m a pretty good carpenter, a pretty good plumber. I started plowing snow, and the rest is history.”