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Remembering W.A. “Bill” Macdonald

By Robert H. Jones

During the 1980s and early 1990s, some of the most popular articles appearing in BC Outdoors magazine were nostalgia pieces written by Surrey, British Columbia, resident W.A. “Bill” Macdonald, in which he described his travels and fishing experiences throughout British Columbia during the early 1900s. Thanks to an uncanny ability to recall names, events and dates with amazing clarity and detail, Macdonald’s vignettes were historically correct, interesting and highly entertaining.

I first met Macdonald while attending the 1982 OWAA convention at Spokane, WA. A tall, dapper man whom I took to be about 60, it almost floored me to learn he was, in fact, 75. It was my second convention, but Macdonald had lost count of how many he had attended since joining OWAA in 1947. During that period he had served twice on the board of directors, and counted among his friends and fishing companions fellow members like Joe Brooks, Joe Bates, Lee Wulff, Homer Circle, Buck Rogers, Ed Zern and Tom Gresham.

Macdonald was born in 1907 at Millet, Alberta, then the Macdonald family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1910. There, Macdonald took up fishing at age 5, starting a lifelong love affair. In 1928 he studied journalism and advertising at the University of Washington in Seattle. After the stock market crash in 1929, he returned to Vancouver and worked in advertising and sales.

Shortly after he and Norma were married on Dec. 3, 1932, Macdonald’s first story, “First Time Out For Ducks,” was published in Hunting and Fishing in Canada magazine. That was also about the time his interest in shooting 8 mm movie films developed. In 1938, he approached the B.C. Government Travel Bureau to suggest that his writing and filming skills might be useful for promoting tourism. He was hired as a field officer and became a special travel assistant to Hon. W.J. Asselstine, the Minister of Mines, Trade and Industry. Part of his job was to chauffeur Asselstine about the province, and wherever their travels took them, Macdonald usually found time to fish or shoot a few grouse. His job also involved making 16 mm tourism promotion movies, then taking them on lecture tours throughout the western United States.

After World War II broke out in 1939, the Macdonalds ended up in Ottawa, Ontario, where Bill worked on the National Film Board “Canada Carries On” series, and civilian morale films. When hostilities ended in 1946, he stayed on as producer/director for Travel and Natural Conservation films. That same year, Macdonald contacted the president of Field & Stream to propose sharing the costs of making fishing films, which could then be distributed throughout the U.S. by the magazine. A contract was signed to make two films a year over a three-year period. A contract clause called for one member of the magazine’s editorial staff to star in each film. The first, “Atlantic Salmon,” was shot on New Brunswick’s Miramichi River. Macdonald recalled, “Hugh Grey, the editor, was on camera, trying unsuccessfully to catch a salmon. In the meantime, I was off camera hooking salmon, so they filmed me. I was supposed to be directing, but ended up in the movie. However, Hugh finally caught a dandy, making everything official.

“Later that year we filmed ‘Speckled Trout Across Canada,’ from the Ottawa area to Jasper, Alberta. Ted Trueblood starred in that one. He was a very fine fellow to work with — a great fisherman and a great storyteller. After spending two weeks on Lake Nipigon, we discovered none of the film was any good because our camera shutter had been malfunctioning. Ted could only stay another week, so it looked like everything was dead in the water, but he said, ‘Well, why not make a pike film?’ ”

When Macdonald replied that pike did not rate very highly with Canadian anglers, Trueblood grinned and answered, “They’re trophy fish down south, Bill. They love ’em because they’re big and feisty.”

Three days later they had “Great Northern Tackle Busters” in the can, which became the most popular film in the Field & Stream library.

In 1947 Macdonald made a film on brook trout with Al (A.J.) McClane, the fishing editor at Field & Stream. Macdonald recalled him as a good writer, an excellent fisherman, and also a fine storyteller. Later that year he and McClane shot “Canadian Smallmouths,” then started on a muskie film. “Mighty Muskie” was shelved, however, because they couldn’t catch one of 25 pounds or more, which was considered essential. It was completed the following year with Hugh Grey, who caught and released a 38-pounder. It was also in 1948 that Macdonald and McClane made “Coho on the Fly” at Campbell River, British Columbia, then Charles Ritz joined them to shoot “Spinning for Steelhead and Silvers” on the Stamp River near Port Alberni.

Macdonald continued writing for various outdoor magazines during this period, and in 1948 he became the fishing editor for Forests & Outdoors, a relationship that lasted for 10 years.

When the Canadian government cut the budget on outdoor films, Macdonald left the film board to work at the Ministry of Resources and Development. In 1954, he sold the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s CBC-TV on the idea of doing a weekly 30-minute show called “Let’s Talk Fishing with Bill Macdonald.” Later, after becoming director of information services and public relations, he transferred to the Ministry of Public Works. Three major projects Macdonald vividly recalled working on were the Trans-Canada Highway, the 1957 visit to Ottawa of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip and the blasting of Ripple Rock in 1958.

Macdonald was assigned to cover Ripple Rock in January, a little over three months before it was scheduled to be blown up. He described the navigational hazard as an underwater mountain at the southern end of Seymour Narrows, a few miles north of Campbell River. It came within nine feet of the surface at low tide, and the currents were so turbulent that large ships were often smashed against the rocks, and the whirlpools were so large that they sucked small boats under. During the 75 years records had been kept, Ripple Rock wrecked 185 vessels and claimed 109 lives. Attempts were made to blow it up from the surface in 1943 and 1948, but both failed. The 1958 attempt was made by driving down a shaft in a small island, then tunneling over to Ripple Rock and honeycombing the entire area with branch tunnels. These were stuffed with over 2.5 million pounds of explosives, all connected by several miles of electrical wiring for the detonation.

At 9:31 a.m., on April 5, 1958, it was Macdonald’s voice that started the countdown heard throughout the free world. “Twenty seconds, 15 seconds, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, fire!” Nothing happened until four seconds later, when a huge bubble formed then, with a tremendous burst shooting upward for 10,000 feet, the entire top of Ripple Rock was blown off and lowered to 47 feet below low tide level. It was the largest non-atomic blast ever set off.

After Ripple Rock, Macdonald resigned from public works to become CBC’s director of public relations for the Prairie Provinces. This required a move to Winnipeg, Manitoba, which ended his popular television show after 96 programs. Their stay in Winnipeg was short-lived, for in 1960 Macdonald became CBC’s national director of public relations in Ottawa. Three years later he was loaned to the Canadian Centennial Commission to help develop ceremonial programs and events for the 1967 Centennial. When the celebration ended, Macdonald became director of the CBC Historical Archives until he retired in 1975.

With their son and two daughters grown and on their own, the Macdonalds bought a motor home. As they traveled extensively throughout Canada and the United States, Macdonald wrote articles and produced radio travelogues about their wanderings. Finally, in 1978 they settled in Surrey. Tragedy struck 10 years later, when their home was consumed by fire. Macdonald received relatively minor burns to his neck and arms, but Norma was severely burnt over 25 per cent of her body. Although the prognosis looked grim for Norma, who was 78 at the time, she amazed everyone by making a rapid recovery.

Although the Macdonalds escaped with their lives, a lifetime collection of mementoes and photographs were lost, including copies of Macdonald’s television shows. However, rather than dwell on past losses, he preferred to live for the present and plan for the future. Heart surgery in June 1991 slowed down his output for a few weeks, but he was soon working at his computer. He said that when he started writing on a manual typewriter in 1932, he never envisioned still being at it 60 years later. His only book, Trout Tales & Salmon Stories, was published in 1993, and the following year it won first place in the Outdoor Writers of Canada writing awards.

Among his many other awards was the 1957-58 Canadian Public Relations Society “P.R. Man of the Year Award” in recognition for his work as Press Liaison Officer for the 1957 visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and as PRO for the underwater blasting of Ripple Rock in 1958. In 1978 he received the Boy Scouts “Silver Acorn” for Distinguished Service to Scouting in Canada. He was made a Life Member of the Outdoor Writers of Canada in 1984, and in 1986 received the prestigious Pete McGillen Award for service to OWC.

When Bill Macdonald passed away at the age of 91 on Feb. 20, 1999, he had been bedridden for over a year. Although his voice had weakened to little more than a whisper, his memory remained as sharp as ever, and his greatest regret was that he was missing time at his computer to work on his next book. A marvelous gentleman and a writer to the very end.

A full-time freelance writer and photographer, Robert H. Jones of Courtenay, British Columbia, also edits the fishing titles for Johnson Gorman Publishers of Calgary, Alberta.

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