There was a great cottonwood snag down on my trap line in the West Branch of the Homathko River years ago.
It stood on the edge of the meadow beside the river. It was fire-scarred and tall, with no branches to speak of, but prominent.
It was a landmark you watched for and sometimes acknowledged in surreal moments in that lonesome landscape. Then one day it was gone. Crashed to the earth in a stiff coastal gale.
That’s how it felt when Mac Squinas of Anahim Lake died the other day. A mighty man fallen by the cruel passage of time.
Mac really was a mountain of a man, closing in on 80 years. Not that he was particularly tall or heavy or anything, but he made things happen.
He had an uncle who predeceased him some nine years earlier, the late Thomas Squinas, who also stood tall among men.
Fifty years ago Thomas blazed the route that is now the Bella Coola Highway. But Mac blazed a different sort of trail. He blazed a route in men’s hearts and minds.
It was 16 years ago that Mac figured his whisky drinking days were done.
The man who sold him most of his booze in those days said Mac wasn’t long for the world if he didn’t lay off the bottle anyway.
But back in 1987, Mac still had a thing or two he wanted to get done.
It wasn’t popular putting down the bottle then either. The late Chief Jimmy Stillas was first to raise the banner for sobriety in a big way for Ulkatcho, and Mac was right behind him.
He put up with a lot of ridicule, perhaps even self doubt, standing alone, but Mac was determined.
He stayed that way to the end, despite seeing a lot of hard times, a lot of things go wrong among his people, directly the result of drinking too much alcohol, too often.
Important to Mac was preserving his language and culture. At every opportunity he spoke out, sharing what he knew, telling stories of long ago, the list is long. He met with leaders and politicians, and helped his community address important issues of the day. He wanted something better for his people, for his family.
Mac’s chief love though, was spiritual. He put God first. That was his gift. Prayer was always close to his heart, it was his solution. It could be said he blazed a trail of spiritual awakening and reverence, mostly by the way he lived. But he did so in other ways too.
Almost two years ago, a month before the Taliban terrorists levelled the twin towers in New York, Mac convinced his community to replace the old Our Lady of the Blessed Visitation Church in Anahim Lake.
It could be argued there was nothing wrong with the old building. It didn’t lean or sag or pose any imminent danger, but Mac felt a new church was in order.
The story has been told before, but only a few days after the old church was levelled, piled in a heap and burned, well-loved priest, Father Brian Ballard was killed in a plane crash.
Father Brian’s death hit Mac particularly hard. In fact he was struck infirm when he went to Prince George to attend the funeral and was committed to the hospital.
The story is long, but Mac recovered enough from his illness to oversee the construction of the beautiful new church, built and paid for locally by his Ulkatcho community.
The last year of Mac’s life was difficult to see. Like the great cottonwood on my trap line, he retained a presence and spark even in his frailty. I treasure the afternoon last August going out to Kappan Mountain to pick blueberries, and the visit in his home two months later. Then last November, that Friday morning phone call waking me to meet him for one last story-telling session about hunting and wanting to sell his guiding territory. These are special moments.
And yes Mac did sell his guiding business to the man he wanted to. To a non native and close family friend. His Ulkatcho community respected his wishes, just like they respected his vision and ambition to rebuild the church, and that’s a great tribute to them.
There’s something good in all this sadness, in saying goodbye. Something gained in this passing. Unspeakable almost. A certain triumph and celebration of life. Pain and joy. Something not lost.
That old cottonwood snag I was telling you about. It never quite lost its usefulness either. It became a bridge over the swamp to the birch trees on the edge of the forest where we gathered sap during those brief years I was there.
Mac’s memory is big in my heart right now too. Somehow I think it always will be. Thanks, old timer.