Inside a tall fence made of wooden faces, Rolf Heer – the Radium woodcarver – is putting down his chainsaw after nearly 40 years carving his way into the hearts of the village’s residents and visitors and into the very history of the community.
While he would love to continue running his iconic Home of a Thousand Faces, he is putting his business up for sale. Prostate and bone cancer is ravaging his body, and Mr. Heer doesn’t expect to make it to the spring.
“I had such a good life I can’t complain if I kick the bucket tomorrow,” he said, reclining next to the crackling wood stove that warms the showroom that doubles as his bedroom.
As walls of his wooden wizards gazed down on their maker, he said: “A lot of people love me. I’m a funny guy. I’m like a comedian. I tell people good stories.”
Those stories tell of a life filled with pranks, adventure and glee.
Once when his friends took a break on the slopes, he nabbed their skis and carried them up a tree. When his friends came to get their skis, Mr. Heer feigned innocence before pointing to his handiwork and saying: “Look at this beautiful Christmas tree.”
Later one of those friends told Mr. Heer: “You were the craziest guy I ever met.”
In Europe, Mr. Heer smuggled a goat onto a train and brought the creature into the bar with him where he fed it fries and laughed as the goat pranced along the bar table nibbling off the other patrons’ plates.
Speaking of goats, at Ron Verboom’s final council meeting, the councillor shared stories about some of his strongest memories from his 25 years of service to the Village of Radium Hot Springs. He said the Village was “dealing with a local colourful individual,” when he heard a “clang, clang, clang” as the individual in question walked into the council meeting with his goat.
Mr. Heer said he could write a whole book on his dealings with the Village and with the Regional District of East Kootenay that regulated the community before it was incorporated. They wanted him to abide by their rules for his goats, parties, noise, bylaw infractions and “all kinds of stuff,” but Mr. Heer often declined.
“I didn’t back up from them,” he said. “I’m not backing up from anybody.”
Mr. Heer also has stories about growing up in Switzerland, catching gigantic fish in Thailand that he shared with the locals and travelling around Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. He allowed skunks into his home and played with the babies that climbed on him like kittens. And that’s not to mention the legendary hot-tubs parties he threw in his treehouse that are too steamy to print.
“A lot of girls wanted to marry me,” he said, but he stuck to his mother’s advice.
“You’re too good of a guy (to get married),” she told him. “You just give everything away.”
Instead of giving himself to a partner and having a family of his own, he gave himself to everyone and became the Valley’s favourite bachelor uncle.
Even when his pain became nearly unbearable in August, he kept his doors open so he wouldn’t disappoint anyone.
Nowhere is that generosity more apparent than on his showroom walls, which are lined with an abundance of love from his youngest fans. Notes and drawings of the beloved wizard in his pointy red hat are covered with hearts, smiley faces, goats and exclamation marks.
While the notes praise him for everything from his carvings to his water park and his silliness, two notes summarize the rest. One says “the important thing about you is that you are nice,” while the other says “i Love You” in crayon.
Gesturing to a drawing that is yellowed with age, Mr. Heer said some of his biggest fans grew up to have families themselves and returned to share their childhood memories of the Radium woodcarver with their children.
Young people like him so much “cause I’m a kid too,” he said. “I never grew up. I’m a bloody kid all my life.”
As for life advice, he said: “If you treat people nice, they’ll treat you nice too.”
And if they don’t, he recommends responding with absurdity or bringing your livestock to council.
“I can get away with the bulls*** because everyone loves me,” he said.
One of a kind business opportunity
“I would like somebody to buy and keep up the business,” Mr. Heer said. “If I would be healthy, I would run this for another 40 years.”
While the former forester would like his successors to be interested in woodwork and is willing to train them and take them into the bush to show them how to find the best wood to carve, he would encourage them to try their own ideas too.
“You don’t even have to do much” to carve a wizard from a piece of wood, he said. “I only pick up wood where you can see something in it.”
He held up a few sample pieces from his wood pile to show how they already came with natural hats and beards and just needed to have faces carved in between.
“Nobody can do it any better than I could,” he said, “but if you would be serious and run this place serious… I can’t even explain how much money they could make.”
Mr. Heer didn’t provide a selling price but anyone who is interested in the business can call him at 250-347-9208. It might take a few tries for a call to go through though. Since he posted on Facebook about selling the business, he said, “my telephone is so dead from having all these calls.”