Patrick Ryan doesn’t know why he decided to carve his totem pole.
The former welder and furniture restorer was hit head-on in a car accident in Surrey, BC, in December 2000.
His brain injury symptoms included nine years of fugue amnesia, a debilitating loss of memory that made life nearly impossible.
Ryan lived most of those years in Surrey, attending rehabilitation therapy and learning the tricks that would one day bring him back independence.
Those days are fuzzy – Ryan only knew who he was or what he was doing half the time, he said.
But during bouts of mental clarity, he began carving a 5.4-metre cedar plank he’d been saving in his workshop.
“It’s my path from light to darkness,” says Ryan, 59, who now lives in Teslin. “It was my connection between reality and nonreality.”
Topped with a raindrop and a salmon, the totem includs bears, frogs, wolves, rabbits, a raven, a thunderbird and a beaver.
Colourful in black, pine green, red and white, the totem was influenced by First Nation culture.
Ryan, however, has no aboriginal heritage. He’s originally from a small Newfoundland fishing village called Ferryland.
“It was like the Tlingits here say: part of the land, part of the water,” he said. “That was us, we fished and we farmed.”
He moved to Toronto in the 1970s and then to BC in 1992.
Ryan floated between welding and furniture refurbishing in those younger days – but his accident sent his life into a tailspin.
His short-term memory is spotty; he’ll easily forget where he parked his car or what day of the month it is.
But in a small town, it doesn’t matter so much. So doctors told him to move to back to rural Canada in 2008. He moved to Teslin in August of that year after driving through the village with his son.
Then, this August, his brother and five others helped him erect his “healing totem,” as Ryan calls it, on the front lawn of his Teslin home.
It stood proud for several months, garnering attention from crowds entering the Teslin Recreation Centre across the street.
“Every time there was a party, a dance, a potlatch, people would come over and take photos,” he said.
On Saturday, Ryan came back from his part-time shift at the Teslin dump at around 8 p.m.
“Even though the totem pole was gone, I couldn’t tell it was missing,” said Ryan.
Someone had cut the pole down and taken it away.
“If someone wants to keep it and put it on a cabin, go ahead,” he said.
“Just as long as they don’t destroy it.”
Ryan doesn’t know of any enemies in town.
“People have been really friendly here,” he said.
He’s worried he may have offended a First Nation person who felt their culture was being appropriated.
Before he erected it, Ryan asked a few First Nation people in town about whether his totem was offensive.
“There was no reaction, actually,” he said. “I have some native friends here, and I think I’m accepted by the native community.”
Most people were impressed by the pole and enjoyed its presence on his lawn.
“I never felt like I was being targeted,” he said. “It’s baffling how you take something like that.”
Ryan only has faint memories of its carving.
His son and daughter have since filled him in on those hazy post-accident days.
He would usually go to his workshop and carve between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m, according to Ryan’s daughter.
“I’ve got no carving tools, no carving skills,” he said.
He does remember a book with First Nation art patterns in it, but that’s about it.
The cedar plank,about 30 centimetres thick by 15 centimetres across, was taken from a West Vancouver home.
A couple remodelled their house and the log was a piece of the fireplace mantle.
He believes it was really old.
Ryan counted 92 rings in the plank and the house was already 50 years old.
“And the trees on that property were 400 years old,” he said.
With a small utility knife, he carved several traditional totem animals and included his own designs.
On the back of the pole, Ryan etched the word “Survivors.”
“I was part of a brain-survivors’ society at the time,” he said.
During those carving years, he could have a hard time tying his shoelace.
“I wasphysicallyfit, but everything I did was off,” he said.
Brain therapists put his daily schedule on a Palm Pilot, setting alarms for breakfast, laundry and the like.
The move to Teslin was meant to be easier on him.
“Growing up, my dream was to live in the Yukon by a lake in a cabin,” he said.
“But now it’s turning into a nightmare.”
People have expressed their anger over the stolen pole.
“That was as popular in Teslin as the Statue of Liberty in New York,” he said.
Police are investigating, but have very few leads, said Constable Michael Muller. They’re currently conducting interviews with neighbours.
The tracks from the totem pole being dragged end at the road, leaving little indication of how the 90- to 130-kilogram pole was taken.
The police told Ryan it was taken by snowmobile, he said.
Before erecting the totem, Ryan filmed it lying against his truck and uploaded the movie on Youtube. It’s titled teslin totems.
Ryan still has a blue garbage can filled with the woodchips he amassed in Surrey during the carving.
“That’s all I’ve got left,” he said. “Just the chips.”
No one from the Teslin Tlingit Council or the Village of Teslin office was available to comment for this story.
Contact James Munson at