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Ron Gruber liked the cold, wet days of December. He knew they could reveal amazing things.

After a morning cup of coffee, he would typically slip away from his wood-carving studio in West Vancouver and head over to Spanish Bank Creek, a small salmon stream the artist helped bring back to life in Pacific Spirit Regional Park. He'd go there hoping to see the miracle of salmon spawning in the middle of a big city.

In about 1920, after logging swept through the area, salmon stopped returning to the stream, which flows under NW Marine Drive through a narrow culvert. But in 1994, a group of local volunteers got together to restore the stream. None worked harder at that task, or with more passion, than Mr. Gruber, a big bear of a man and a natural storyteller who made beautiful carvings out of cedar at his home just a few blocks from the stream.

In the spring, he'd be stream-side to talk to the hundreds of schoolchildren who came to release buckets of small salmon, hoping the fish they'd raised in classroom aquariums would survive to spawn. Mostly the fish did not. But Mr. Gruber never gave up hope. In the summer, you'd find him at the stream, often on his hands and knees, moving rocks or pulling out brush that might impede the passage of salmon. He picked up every tiny piece of trash he found.

In the fall, he took up station where a public path crosses the stream, talking to anyone who was interested about spawning salmon. And he had a lot to talk about, because in November of 2000, after an 80-year absence, salmon returned to Spanish Bank Creek to spawn. And they have kept coming back every year since, often building their nests under Mr. Gruber's watchful eye.

This winter, however, things are different along the stream.

Mr. Gruber is gone. He collapsed and died suddenly at his home last week. He was 74.

Ken Kirkby, an artist and long-time friend, said Mr. Gruber brought to Spanish Bank Creek the same kind of passion and dedication that he showed for his art.

"He talked to thousands and thousands of people down there at the creek," Mr. Kirkby said. "He was a one-man education system. He could engage men, women, young and old. People were transfixed by his stories about salmon because every word rang like steel on an anvil. He was one of these people who wouldn't say anything about a subject unless he knew it deeply. And he knew about salmon and about nature."

Mr. Gruber's affinity for nature showed in his carvings, which are so realistic they look alive. He and Mr. Kirkby met in Vancouver in the mid-70s when they were both combing antique stores, collecting old decoys as art objects. One day, Mr. Kirkby visited Mr. Gruber's studio and saw the ducks he was carving.

"They were gorgeous. I was blown away," said Mr. Kirkby. He encouraged Mr. Gruber to start selling them – and over the next 40 years, he would repeatedly urge him to charge more. But even as his reputation grew, Mr. Gruber seldom asked more than $2,000 for his carvings of ducks, grebes, loons, eagles and more recently salmon.

"He didn't want to price his carvings out of reach, but he sure could have charged a lot more," said Mr. Kirkby. "He'd enter his stuff in competitions and he'd beat out carvers who were charging 10 times as much as he was."

Word of Mr. Gruber's wonderful skill spread, and his wildlife carvings are now treasured by collectors around the world.

"As far as Canadian [wildlife] carvers go … there was none better," said Mr. Kirkby. "When others carve the same bird, it seems stilted. It's an object speaking about an object. He was one of those rare people who could put himself in the position of the creature. He seemed to get inside it and bring it to life."

He said Mr. Gruber was a "very disciplined, methodical" artist who would often ruminate for days over how a bird's head should be tilted. Sometimes, he'd carve a bird's head seven times before he was satisfied. Then, he'd attach it to the body and painstakingly paint every feather in place. The process took months.

"He was a wonderful husband and father. He loved hunting and fly fishing. But carving was the place he lived in," said Mr. Kirkby.

Mr. Gruber's legacy is a flock of beautiful wooden birds – and a small Vancouver stream he breathed life into, as if it was a piece of art.