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Local filmmaker and conservationist passes away at 91

Albert Karvonen leaves an indelible mark on the Athabasca region and the world

ATHABASCA — Teacher, documentarian, activist, environmentalist, friend. 

Those are just a few of the adjectives to describe Albert Karvonen, who, following a successful career as a teacher and principal in the Edmonton Public Schools division, gave it all up and jumped into producing independent wildlife films before retiring to his home near Amisk Lake with wife Pirkko. 

Karvonen passed away there Nov. 20 at the age of 91. 

Karvonen was one of seven children raised on the family farm at Hollow Lake in northeastern Alberta. His parents immigrated from Finland and he learned from an early age what it meant to be socially conscious and was known for investing in the community and came by his love for the environment honestly, growing up surrounded by the boreal forest.

Karvonen married Pirrko Honkka in 1958 and they had five children together. Pirrko had immigrated with her family from Finland when she was 14.

That profound respect for nature compelled him to give up teaching after 23 years and he went on to travel the world and produce 120 film, television and multimedia titles.

Longtime friend Harvey Scott was introduced to Karvonen through a mutual friend while the Karvonens still lived in Sherwood Park and Scott was teaching at the University of Alberta. 

“So, Cam Finley, in his robust way, called me up one day and said, ‘You’ve got to see this film,’” Scott said in a Nov. 22 interview. “It was one of the early films Albert made and it was a groundbreaking film. It was one of the first films I’m aware of that actually caught in motion the ruffed grouse drumming on a hollow log, which is a classic Alberta sound, up here anyway.” 

And that was the start of their 50-year friendship. 

“And let's not forget about Pirkko, she’s a remarkable artist herself,” said Scott. “First, she was a good filmmaker, making several films. One about the Finnish community on Vancouver Island, Sointula, and it's a wonderful social analysis of that Finnish commune that came there back in the last century. But she was also a renowned weaver. She toured around for the province ... teaching weaving to weavers.” 

 For several years Scott and Karvonen took part in the Keepers of the Athabasca Healing Walk from Anzac to the tailing ponds. 

“One year he brought his camera, and he did a wonderful documentary,” said Scott. “We had some big international people around like Bill McKibben, who started, and Naomi Klein. A pretty remarkable collection of sort of the elite of the environmental stewardship community.” 

Another longtime friend, Wayne Brehaut, couldn’t put the loss into words. 

“He led such a full life and was a contributor to so many aspects of our community and wider ones that it's difficult to narrow down to a short list of what I'd like to say,” he said in an e-mail. 

Brehaut said after Karvonen retired and sold Karvonen Films, he continued photographing nature and mentored other nature cinematographers like Andrew Manske and supporting Science Outreach – Athabasca. 

“Albert and Pirkko donated $250,000 over five years to Athabasca University in support of Science Outreach – Athabasca, and especially to educate youth to be more aware of nature and the environment and the relationship we have with all living things,” said Brehaut. 

“Albert gave several Science Outreach talks on their films and videos, and more recently on the pleasures, learning opportunities, and health benefits of skiing in the woods, especially at the Karvonen Conservation Site at Amisk Lake. After visiting and hearing of his recent skiing adventure of encountering a bear out of hibernation, or his first sighting of an otter diving into a beaver hole in the ice on Amisk Lake, I would go home with ‘Life in the Finland Woods’ worming its way into my head.” 

In 1991, Karvonen won the David Billington Award from the Alberta Motion Pictures Industries Association and in 1997 the City of Edmonton recognized him with the Salute to Excellence Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Arts. In 2005 he was awarded the Alberta Centennial Medal for his contributions to education and in 2007, Athabasca University bestowed an honorary Doctor of Science. 

“Albert’s one of those people I’ve known peripherally, I only got to know him the past few years and he’s one of those guys I wish I’d gotten to know sooner,” said Athabasca County reeve Brian Hall when he heard of Karvonen’s passing. “I really think a lot of Albert and what he’s done in the region — the blocks of land he’s protected, the conservation. He was truly an educator and excited to teach children.” 

Karvonen was also well known in the New Democrat Party of Alberta as a lifelong member and major contributor. 

“In 1974, Albert and Pirrko purchased land at Amisk Lake,” said Mandy Melnyk in her nomination of the Karvonens for a lifetime membership to the party. “They worked tirelessly to ensure that the surrounding property become a part of the nature conservatory of Canada. Together they filmed many films right here in Alberta and all over the world from Argentina, to Australia, the Arctic and Africa. You will still see many films today on many networks.” 

She noted wherever the Karvonens went, they talked to people freely about the importance of social democracy, working together to protect our communities, and every citizen having a role to play in fighting for a better world. 

“Albert and Pirrko never hesitated for a second to step up to the plate,” Melnyk said. “Be it weaving a new piece for a silent auction, bringing their camera to make a short film, writing a cheque, hosting a meeting, putting up posters, making endless phone calls and giving the best hugs in all Amisk Lake.” 

For Scott, who spoke to either Albert or Pirrko every few days, a hole has been left. 

“It was great just to be out with him, he knew every bug, every plant,” he said. “You couldn’t go on a fast trip. He had a story every time you were with him, he just couldn’t stop once he got going, even on the phone.” 

A celebration of life will take place in the new year.

Heather Stocking

About the Author: Heather Stocking

Heather Stocking a reporter at the Athabasca Advocate, a weekly paper in Northern Alberta. Heather covers all aspects of the news in and around Athabasca and Boyle as well as other small communities.
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