Friends of the late Michael Brown are missing a man they knew as a quiet, gifted carver who loved cats and living off the land.
They are also missing justice for whoever burned down Brown’s cabin the night of Oct. 26, shortly after he passed away from natural causes. Brown had just turned 60 in September.
“I truly hope they find the person who burned his place to the ground,” says Nathan Ridley, who grew up next door to Brown in Old Massett.
“That’s real low, for somebody to do that.”
Brown’s wood cabin measured just eight by 16 feet with a small loft, said Bill Walker, another friend who built the cabin and invited Brown to live there 14 years ago.
The cabin stood in Hooterville, a shoreside neighbourhood just west of Queen Charlotte where property ownership has been in legal limbo for over a decade.
Only three residents remain, said Walker, who had a cabin there himself until it too was destroyed by an arson fire set in an adjacent building in 2011.
Police say the fire in Brown’s cabin was clearly intentional, but no charges have been laid so far. No charges were laid for the fires in 2011 .
“There are so many questions, and no answers,” Walker said.
Ridley’s earliest memory of Brown is of growing up in Old Massett in the 1950s and 1960s.
“We used to pretend to go fishing from his porch,” he said, recalling how they would cast sticks with thread over the grass and imagine reeling in big fish.
At 15, Brown started carving argillite with tools handmade by his grandfather. He later said it was how he connected with Haida culture.
At 25, Brown moved to Prince Rupert, and later settled near Queen Charlotte.
Ridley heard stories about why Brown ended up away from Old Massett.
“That’s a tough one,” said Ridley, a residential school survivor who struggled with alcohol and drugs before going sober April 25, 1985.
“We all did crazy things when we were drinking and drugging,” he said.
“I’d never known Michael to be like that.”
Like Ridley, Walker admired Brown’s carving, and often watched him at work in the cabin.
“When you came to visit he had a couple of fold-out chairs,” he said.
“He would put one out and you were basically side by side.”
Walker has thousands of photos of Brown, his Manx cats Sarah and Climber, and many of his Haida carvings and jewelry, which found their way to collectors and galleries across the country.
Walker also joined Brown on some of his hikes up Slatechuck Mountain to collect argillite and haul it back, 80 to 100 pounds at a time.
“You just wanted to keep going,” he said. “Once you stopped, if you were sitting on the ground, it was really hard to get up unless you had help.”
Ridley said it’s a shame that the fire destroyed Brown’s carving tools, some of which he made himself.
“Those would have meant something to his family, or to the museum,” he said.
Ridley said in all their time together, he and Brown rarely spoke about his private life. Sometimes Ridley, or more often Brown’s uncle Dick Bellis, would come by with deer meat or other wild foods, which Ridley said made him happier than anything.
“A lot of people use that word ‘hermit,’” he said.
“I don’t like that word, but that’s the way he was. He kept to himself.”
“I’m still heartbroken that he’s gone.”