In Good Company

Talking with outdoorsman Ralph Shaw about fly-fishing, native legends and the future of the planet…

“What you’re looking at is an old guy doing something he’s never done before,” he says with a smile.  “Maybe that’s why he’s as healthy as he is.  He doesn’t have the brains to know he can’t do it so he just goes ahead and does it!”

Ralph Shaw in his workshop.

Ralph Shaw in his workshop.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Shaw leads me upstairs to his living room, which is slightly less cluttered than his workshop and decorated with wildlife paintings, certificates of achievement and shelves overflowing with books on fishing and natural sciences, to many of which he’s contributed chapters.

He removes a small item from a glass bookshelf next to the fireplace and hands it to me.  It’s his Order of Canada medal, given to him in 1984 for his work with the McQueen Lake Centre.  Next he presents his Confederation medal, for outstanding citizenship and then another medal from Fly-Fishing Canada for establishing a fly-fishing championship symposium.  “There’s a whole bunch more of this stuff downstairs,” he says nonchalantly, as if it were so much scrap metal.

Medals, certificates and other trinkets aren’t what matters to Shaw.  What matters are actions, and more specifically how our collective actions are affecting the environment and the sustainability of life as we know it.

He cites the works of Dr. Andrew Weaver, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Keeping Our Cool (in which Shaw is thanked in the acknowledgements), and Dr. Wallace Broecker, author of Fixing Climate.  “These people, who I think are among the best brains on the planet, certainly in their field, are telling us that we have two generations to make some changes in the production of greenhouse gasses in order to stabilize things,” Shaw says.  

“In two generations, the planet will be less able to support our lifestyle and our way of using the planet.”

Shaw has written a weekly outdoors newspaper column since pitching the idea to the now-defunct Comox District Free Press not long after retiring to the Valley with his wife, Elaine, in 1983.  His column now appears in the Comox Valley Record, and to date he has written more than 1,100.  In his most recent he uses a colorful fable about a squirrel parliament in the middle of a pine-beetle devastated BC forest as a metaphor for our current environmental situation. 

Shaw’s “morality tale” highlights the terrible toll that the pine beetle epidemic has taken on the squirrel population in just 10 years—two squirrel generations.  Warnings from the squirrel parliamentarians of Tweedsmuir Park—the epicentre of the epidemic—are repeatedly ignored, until eventually there are too few pine trees producing too few pine cones to feed the squirrel population.  Disintegrating hand-in-hand with squirrel society is the parliament that refused to take the threats seriously, which presumably mirrors Shaw’s opinion of our own leaders.

“We hear, read and watch on television a growing volume of concern about the effects of climate change,” writes Shaw.  “As a life-long outdoors person I have seen much that suggests to me there is considerable change taking place in wild places that convinces me we should be concerned about the future… We have about two generations to bring about some serious moderation in the production of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide or we will face a greatly altered planet from the perspective of how we produce our food, live in lowland areas and survive violent storms.”  

While the idea of a squirrel parliament is fantastical, Shaw chose squirrels deliberately because, as he says, squirrels can teach us a lot about the state of our forests if we only take the time to listen to them.  And if anyone has taken the time to listen, it’s Shaw.  After the Second World War, he tells me, he raised money for a couple of years of university by trapping red squirrels, a luxury fur at the time, along the continental divide in southern Alberta. 

As I digest this latest bit of trivia on the life and times of Ralph Shaw, I take a moment to appreciate the living legend that’s regaling me of tales of hunting squirrels, preserving nature and saving the world.  

Clad in blue jeans and a green fleece vest with “Outdoor Edge Magazine” embroidered on the left breast, Shaw carries himself casually and seems the embodiment of “easy-going.”  Nonetheless, he speaks carefully and deliberately, as if consulting his vast wealth of experience and knowledge before delivering each word.  His tone turns to outright solemnity when he speaks again.

“I think that the planet is beyond the care and capacity of the humans we have on it,” he states.

“People are very critical of climate change.  They’re critical of the carbon tax, critical of the change of lifestyle.  Part of it is because, as a society, I don’t think we understand what’s really happening.

 “A society that no longer touches the earth, that no longer knows how the systems work, can’t begin to understand the moves that we have to make in order to meet the challenges of the future.”

I ask him how we’re doing in the Comox Valley in terms of sustainable living.

“This place is a paradise, that’s its problem,” he says with a smile.  “We’re going to move beyond the limits of sustainability for the quality of life that we have if we continue this development pattern.  If you don’t know what paradise is, then you don’t have to worry about losing it.  But if you know what paradise is, and you know what a quality environment is, then you know what you’ve lost.”

What it all comes down to, Shaw stresses, is getting back in touch with nature and understanding the way our actions affect all of the organisms and habitats around us.  That’s why it was so important to him to pass on his knowledge of the outdoors to his three daughters, why he goes hunting and fishing with his nine grandchildren and why he made a promise to do the same with his four great-grandchildren.

“When we go hunting,” he explains, “I try to explain to them what’s going on around us in the outdoors.  You don’t just walk out and start banging away.  If you’re going to be an outdoorsman you should understand what natural systems are all about.  Eventually that kind of understanding, I believe, leads to responsible citizenship as a conservationist.”

Shaw picks up a giant block of gem-quality jade that sits in front of his fireplace.  He explains an old First Nations legend passed on from the Lillooet area about a great hunter who used to carve his knives and arrowheads from the green stone.  When the hunter died, goes the legend, his tools were shattered and the pieces shared among the tribe, effectively passing on his hunting skills to the entire community.

Every time a child is born into the family, Shaw ties a box of flies and gives it to the child with a small piece of jade.  

“That’s a covenant between me and the child that I will take the child fishing when they want to go,” he says.  “I also have pieces of jade that I give to the kids when they graduate.  If you go anywhere in the world and you have a piece of jade in your pocket, you can feel British Columbia’s waters and fields and forests by feeling the jade.  Jade is sacred to the first peoples of British Columbia, and it’s sacred to me.”

Regardless of what the future may hold, there’s no place that Ralph Shaw would rather be than right here in British Columbia.  You may spot him fishing one day on Spider Lake, his favorite spot on Vancouver Island, or perhaps even tossing his line in the Puntledge or tracking deer in the forests of the Comox Valley.  

If you do get the chance, I encourage you to say hello and engage him in conversation. Whether musing about the state of our society, describing his trademark Tom Thumb fly pattern or just reminiscing about his old fishing pal Jack Shaw, I guarantee that you’ll leave that conversation a better person. 

The Vancouver Island launch of Shaw’s new book will take place on Sunday, December 14 at the Campbell River Museum.

For more information call 250-287-3103.

Ralph Shaw’s weekly outdoors column can be read every Friday in the Comox Valley Record.