Tofino Profile: Leo Mattson
by Shirley Langer, Tofino
When I informed the publisher that I'd be profiling Leo Mattson this month, Adam said, "Oh, the gentle giant," and nodded approvingly. When I meet Leo in person, I understand. He's really tall, not fat and weighs 238 pounds. His hand shaking mine is huge, strongly padded, warm and friendly. Leo talks easily, and his conversation is laced with mild profanities and colourful expressions. He's led a rough and ready life, playing hard and working hard, and seems to have loved every minute of it.
Born seventy years ago in Prince Rupert, he was raised near Kitimat. Like Tofino during its pioneer days, supplies arrived at Goat Harbour by steamship. Leo remembers the excitement of the whole town gathering at the dock to meet the ship, welcoming mail and the booze, among other things, and the chance to socialize. Leo grew up in an atmosphere best described as frontier times. "People did mostly what they wanted," he says. Everything was fair game - the land, the trees the fish. There were few restrictions and lots of jobs for people with grit, guts, muscle and energy.
From the start, Leo had grit. When he was about eight, he and his brother bucked a large cedar, intending to make a canoe. They grew tired of chopping to hollow out the log, so Leo decided to burn it out, and poured on gasoline. Leo caught fire too. Multiple skin grafts and transfusions and the possibility of amputation followed the escapade. Leo was lucky, discharged from hospital nearly two years later with deep scars, but two legs.
As for school, Leo made it through grade six. It won't surprise you to learn he didn't like school because "there were too many other fun things to do". By age fourteen, Leo was on his own. He started out fishing for dogfish, living on a boat with cold running water, a bucket for a toilet, radio, but no radar. Since then, Leo has worked in lumber mills, been an on-the-ground fire-fighter for 70 cents an hour, worked with a jack-hammer for two years drilling the Camano Tunnel near Kitimat, been a boom man in the Queen Charlottes stowing floating logs into Davis Rafts which were towed to Powell river, a log salvager, a salmon fisher.
Rough work it was, but Leo liked it; loved "the freedom". There was camaraderie among the men. He worked "with every kind of immigrant going". The women weren't scarce, "I was no uglier than the other guys," he says. He always had enough jingle in his pockets. Leo has paid a price for his fun and freedom. The two-year stint with a vibrating jackhammer left him with the condition called cold hand. "My hands get cold three days before it freezes over in Alaska," he says. Smoking , which he started "when Columbus was a pup" has resulted in a wheezy chest. For years he smoked Daily Mail tailor mades, which sold for 20 cents a soft pack. He's tried to quit many times. During our interview, he practically chain smokes DuMauriers. The package says, Cigarettes will leave you breathless. "I did stop drinking though," he tells me. "Swore right off beer and booze seven years ago." His favourite liquid these days is black coffee, cup after cup of it.
In 1959, he heard on the radio that there was lots of fish down in Clayoquot Sound, so to Tofino he came. Leo likes to say he calls a spade a spade, not a left-handed shovel. Talking about his Tofino years, especially the fishing, he says wistfully, "I've seen the best of it."
Still hearty, Leo is not as hale as he'd like to be. In 1996, he was part of a road building crew in the McKenzie Range, and was hit hard with a log that slipped in the grapple. This left him with pain and weakness in his legs that severely limits what he can do. This is frustrating for a guy who has lived by his strength, then lived it up afterward. "I feel as useless as the hind tit on a boar," he says.
All the while we are talking, Leo calls me Valerie, my daughter's name. That is, when he isn't calling me sweetheart or dearie. I wonder what he thinks about Valerie, about environmental activism. I venture to ask this guy whose father hand-logged all his life, if he thought environmentalists were doing the right thing over the years to conserve the forests of Clayoquot Sound. Leo became dead serious. "Grappling is destructive, wasteful," he replies. "After they're gone, everything blows flat. They destroy more than they take." He pauses again, then says, "I'd like to see selective logging only."
Although I hadn't met Leo before, I had heard about him; how he's become known as 'the rescuing angel'. When I ask him about this, he says, modestly, that he just happened to be there at the right time. Seems there were three right times.
The first time was being on the Whiskey Dock when a boat with several passengers coming from Opitsat rolled over. Leo remembers it was raining without mercy. When the people were brought onto the dock, two children were laid out as dead, and their bodies covered with coats. Leo picked one of the children up by the feet and squeezed him. "The kid spewed out seawater," Leo said. Then Leo "stuffed the kid under his coat to warm him." Leo takes great pleasure to see that kid smiling and full of life today.
The second time he rescued people was answering a May Day call near Cape Scott.
The third time was right here in Tofino, when Leo was driving home and saw a woman on a bike veer off the road and collapse into the ditch full of water. He scooped her up, and took her to the hospital. The woman had suffered an aneurysm. I'm sure to her, Leo is indeed 'a rescuing angel'.
Joyce, Leo's wife, stands beside Leo as we say goodbye. He's six feet, four inches. She's four feet, ten inches. I can't help grinning.
"I bet you didn't think bullshit could be piled this high," he says, then spreads his big arms wide, wide, to give me a parting Tofino hug. Will I be crushed? I wonder, but the gentle giant lives up to his name.
Note: Leo is such a good sport, he said he didn't feel bad about following Freedom, the dog, in the Tofino Profile series, though he admitted Freedom was a hard act to follow.
Tofino profile of Leo Mattson. In interview with Shirley Langer, Leo Mattson tells a bit of his story.