Ivan Polivka | 1945-2010

He escaped the repression of Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, and became a paramedic saving lives on the British Columbia coast

Ivan Polivka | 1945-2010

Illustration by Taylor Shute

Ivan Polivka was born on March 2, 1945, in the tiny Czechoslovakian town of Blovice on the River Úslava, in southern Bohemia. Ivan, a nature-lover with innate curiosity and a solitary streak, was the second of three boys born to Jarmila, a teacher, and František, a technician. He avoided school when he could, and loved fishing and roaming the Úslava valley—forever bringing home the mice, wounded birds and stray cats he encountered, says his younger brother Jiri. At 16, he enrolled in a four-year forestry program in nearby Plzen; there, he also joined an amateur theatre troupe. Mandatory military service was rough for the Soviet Bloc’s rebels and budding artists. But Ivan managed to snag a job training military dogs and feeding pigs. He emerged an outspoken critic of the hardline Communist regime and, in 1968, was briefly jailed when Soviet tanks crushed a nascent reform movement. In November of that year, he fled to Canada via Austria.

On landing in B.C., Ivan found kitchen work at the resort hotel at Harrison Hot Springs, a lucky break. He worked with a crew of Doukhobor girls. They communicated in Russian and taught him English—his fifth language. At night, he’d paddle up Harrison Lake, bedding down beneath the stars. Later, he rented an attic. Since there were no stairs leading to it, he leaned a ladder against the house.

In 1972, he made it to Canada’s North, travelling alone to the Yukon territory. He fell in love and the trip became an annual pilgrimmage. On one visit, he bought an old trapper’s cottage on Lake Laberge, north of Whitehorse, a fly-fishing paradise. Sometimes, he’d go on three-day jaunts alone in the wild, hunting and fishing, says Bill Craven, a close friend. He was also a voracious reader, painter and poet.

In the mid-’80s, Ivan moved to Chilliwack, where he met Chris Webber, a Prairie-born doctor’s assistant with two grown sons, John and Frederick. She’d been twice widowed, most recently in 1981. Grief, Fred says, left her “rudderless.” Ivan took her hiking, taught her to feed marmots by hand, and filled her life with hope. Her lifelong dream, she told him, was to live in a house on the ocean.

When Chris, who was 15 years Ivan’s senior, retired in 1989, they moved to sleepy Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s isolated west coast. Somehow Ivan, who didn’t know a screwdriver from a hammer, built them an oceanfront A-frame. Critters routinely invaded. Rather than chase them out, Ivan used nuts and hunks of cheese to befriend the voles, chipmunks and deer mice. He was a strong man with a gentle touch. Once, finding himself face-to-face with a Yukon grizzly, he spoke softly and calmly in Czech. Eventually, the 500-lb. bear lumbered off. Barely three feet had separated them.

In 1996, his next-door neighbour, the local ambulance station chief, talked Ivan into becoming a paramedic. His talents, including an innate ability to put patients at ease, were immediately apparent, says Kathryn Sywake, a Sooke, B.C.-based paramedic. Two years into his career, a whale-watching Zodiac flipped in rough seas, tossing its four occupants into the frigid waters off Vancouver Island. When Ivan arrived on scene, two had already succumbed. He didn’t panic or raise his voice, and calmly took charge, she says; two people were saved. Every day brought a new disaster in the region’s ocean communities. “More than once, Ivan brought people back from the brink,” says Garth Cameron, a senior search-and-rescue volunteer and close friend.

On Nov. 22, 2009, Chris died from cancer, leaving Ivan alone with two cats. The time had come, he decided, to retire to the Yukon, the land he loved. On March 2, the day he turned 65, he put the house up for sale. With the housing market still a mess, he would keep working until it sold. The plan was for Garth and Keith Jamieson, a Tofino ambulance driver, to drive their friend north as soon as he signed off on the deed.

But Ivan never made it back to the north country. In the early hours of Oct. 19, he and a fellow paramedic, Jo-Ann Fuller, 59, were bound for Tofino when their ambulance spun off the narrow, winding Pacific Rim Highway, crashing into Kennedy Lake. When they failed to turn up, a search was begun. Later that morning, their path through the brush was spotted. Garth and Keith were first on the scene. They were hours too late, unable to offer the second chance Ivan had provided so many times before.

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