Through the years I’ve talked to Bruce Hill on the phone more times than I can count, often at odd hours, about subjects big and small. Recipes for teriyaki sauce and salmon caviar. Conservation campaign strategies. Guitar techniques. Family. Personal issues and challenges. For so many reasons it’s been a steady comfort in my life to know that I could pick up the phone any time and he’d be there with wisdom, compassion and his own special brand of kindness.
When I was going through a particularly tough time, he was there, knowing when to keep it light, when to sympathize, when to make suggestions. He offered me the couch at the Hill house, which I have slept on many times, saying, “Just come up and we’ll fish and eat. If you start driving now, you’ll be here tomorrow. I’ll have dinner ready.”
Yesterday I woke up wanting to call my old friend Bruce, as I have so many times, and it finally hit me that he’s gone.
When I met Bruce, he was already a giant, a legendary figure in the conservation world for the campaign to protect wild steelhead in British Columbia, and for working tirelessly—often desperately—to save the Kitlope, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, from destruction. Along with his Haisla brother, Gerald Amos, he continued an incredible run of work, helping to stop Royal Dutch Shell in the Sacred Headwaters, keep the Enbridge Pipeline and its oil out of the Skeena, and most recently, prevent Petronas from destroying critical salmon habitat in the Skeena estuary.
As a father, I’ve always tried to make sure my kids spend time with the mentors who’ve helped me along the way. Perhaps it’s laziness on my part, but my hope is that their wisdom would rub off on the kids. Four years ago I brought Skyla and Weston to meet Bruce and Gerald. We took the Suncrest, an old converted halibut boat to explore the Inside Passage. We fished, hiked, snorkeled, cooked epic meals, fought the weather, gathered prawns and crab, laughed and sang. We made lifetime memories, and the kids learned valuable, early lessons on what it takes to protect the world we love.
When I think of Bruce, I see him playing guitar and singing with the kids on that trip. I think of him holding court at the Hill’s legendary kitchen table with friends and activists of all kinds gathered around. I think of countless long drives and boat rides and fishing trips and the stories that filled them. I remember the time Bruce, our friend Yvon, and I ate an entire salad bowl of salmon eggs in one sitting. I think of his life’s work, how he taught us to kick ass and butt heads, but to remember the human side of conservation. I think of how he could get angry and rage, then let it go and laugh and hug you.
Bruce has left the building, but he isn’t gone. The untouched Kitlope, now protected forever as a Provincial Park; the Skeena, flowing clean from headwaters to sea; the eelgrass beds teaming with salmon on Lelu Island, all stand as monuments to his work. His wisdom and teachings have fueled the next generation of ass-kicking conservationists, the Shannon McPhails, the Greg Knoxs, the Caitlyn Vernons of the world. His presence flows through his wife Anne and their two children, Aaron and Julia, who follow in his footsteps with a ferocious commitment to protecting our planet. And yes, his spirit rubbed off on my kids, Skyla and Weston, who carry the fight forward as budding activists. Last weekend, as we joined the flotilla protesting net-pen salmon farms in our home waters, I could see that spirit in my kids. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to call Bruce.
He’s with us and all around us in the wild places that remain wild, in the rough-and-ready conservation spirit of the North, in the meals we cook and share with friends and family, in the kindness and generosity that made hundreds, if not thousands, of us who knew him want to be better human beings. I still need to come to grips with knowing I can no longer pick up the phone and hear his big laugh and welcoming voice, but I am happy—and honored—to have been his friend. Giants live forever.
This story first appeared on Dylan’s blog on September 21, 2017.