On his 20th birthday, March 17, 2017, Ryan Shtuka and his mother Heather went out for wings and drinks.
He told her he didn't want to return to McEwan University that fall and keep spending money if he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life. He was thinking about going to work at a ski resort that winter.
"He had this expectant look on his face like he wants to drop this huge bomb and I think in that moment I could've said anything," says Heather. "I could've said, 'Why would you leave a job where you make $24 an hour to go work for $11? What do you think you're going to do there? Have you thought about where you'll live?' I could've done all those parental, responsible things and maybe he wouldn't have gone if I had dashed all those hopes with a healthy realism. But I just remember looking at him and saying, 'Sound exciting, tell me more.' And in that moment, his whole face lit up...
"The look in his face, I will never regret, despite the price we paid for it, I will never regret saying, 'Sounds exciting.'"
Now, there's a different uncertainty surrounding Ryan. He ultimately went missing in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2018; he was last seen at a house party in Sun Peaks. His disappearance is still being investigated by the RCMP, it's the subject of an upcoming documentary and it has resulted in countless theories being spread online.
A year later, there are still no definitive answers. A year later, the Shtuka family still has so many questions about where Ryan is.
But over that tumultuous year, they have found a few things: new friends, a supportive community and personal growth.
When Heather first got the text from Ryan's roommates that he hadn't shown up for work, it was her worst nightmare. Ryan was habitually late for work, sure, but missing an entire shift was something he never did. In all his time working with his dad Scott at Scott Builders (the name is unrelated), he only missed work once, after he suffered a concussion playing rugby.
The family reached out to the RCMP, which was conducting the search, to see what they should do. They were told they might want to start heading to Sun Peaks. They left their home in Beaumont, Alta. on Feb. 17. Scott and Heather didn't go back until June 2017.
That first weekend was a flurry of activity as Kamloops RCMP and their canine unit searched Saturday night into the following day. Kamloops Search and Rescue joined in on Sunday. On Monday, the formal searches ended. The canine units still combed the area, but the bustling search command centre that was located in the Sun Peaks ski patrol office was gone.
That's when the search for Ryan transitioned to a volunteer effort. Despite being told not to come up, friends of the Shtuka family drove to Sun Peaks that week and helped Scott search (Heather had a ruptured Achilles and couldn't walk). They launched their own command centre with the help of Sun Peaks staff and since that time, they have had over 1,200 people help with search efforts.
"It's resonated with people, I'm not sure why," Heather tells KamloopsMatters.
Though Ryan's friends and family have aided in search efforts, few of those 1,200 volunteers had ever met the 20-year-old or his family.
For the most part, local volunteers like Jo-Delle Stanley and Cherie Yaretz were motivated by empathy. Even as the volunteer command centre was shut down in July, Stanley regularly goes out and searches, although she refers to it as "productive walks," a phrase first coined by Scott.
"I don't believe that with Ryan's life gone, anything that has come after that replaces it," says Heather. "But the nice thing about (Cherie and Jo-Delle) and all the people we've met and have these beautiful relationships and lifelong connections, it's based on knowing that, if they could take that friendship away and Ryan could be back, they absolutely would. If they never had to know us, as sad as that feels right now, they would gladly take it all away."
Volunteers even came from as far as Regina and Australia to help out. Talking to her on the same day that people in Peel, Ont. complained about a late night Amber Alert really emphasized the range of empathy humans are capable of and that's a quality that Heather says the Shtukas have more of since Ryan disappeared.
"Life has a way of helping you balance out," she says. "We have this great loss and we'll always have this great loss, but through this we'll always have this growth for us as people. I think we're nicer and I think we're better. I think we had to become better than we were before this all happened. We look at these people who didn't know Ryan and have come up to search and have donated, prayed and shared and are continuous and give us our strength. We might not have been those people who would have ridden nine and a half hours on a bus to search for someone we didn't know. We would be now."
They also communicate more as a family. Whenever there is a spat with daughters Jordyn or Julianna, everyone is always quick to apologize.
Obviously, things haven't been easy for the family over the last year. Jordyn stayed back in Alberta finishing high school while the family was living in Sun Peaks and searching for Ryan every day, while 13-year-old Julianna bounced back and forth. When she was in the Sun Peak command centre, she would often overhear details or theories about Ryan's disappearance that weren't exactly age-appropriate. But through it all, Heather notes she still exudes an innocence about her.
Of course, the daughters have picked up one devious trick over the past year.
"They're smart now because they'll go, 'We should go to Florida. I think Ryan would really want us to do that,'" says Heather. "They use that quite a bit...and knowing him, and the circumstances we were in, he would've been like, 'Ya, use it.'"
When it comes to laughing or joking about Ryan, that's something the Shtukas always felt most comfortable doing in Sun Peaks. When they first went back to Beaumont in the summer of 2017, they felt the pressure of being the grieving family. Scott says he might even avoid people he knew when he was out because he didn't feel up to having that conversation some days.
But in a community where people saw them at their most raw and fragile, they now feel like they can walk around without having to look depressed all the time. They can laugh when Heather mistakes a cow for a black bear or takes a tumble while out searching. They can have this weekend, where they honour Ryan's memory, but still have a good time.
"When we talk about this whole year, of course the overwhelming theme is obviously the tragedy and the disappearance of Ryan," she says. "But if that's the only thing we ever think about, then we lose what I think the bigger picture has been for us, which is this huge growth in ourselves and just having so many people that he's had an impact on."
Ultimately, they're still searching for answers. They may keep coming back every month for the next 10 or 20 years as long as it’s viable, but the search has had an economic toll. While Scott's job is flexible, Heather gave up her career during the time they spent in Sun Peaks. But the more they look for Ryan, the more memories of him they have, and the more stories of him they hear.
"The biggest fear you have as a parent is that your child will be forgotten," says Heather. "That the only people who will remember will be Scott and I and our immediate family and friends. To see how many people come out and see how it's affected and changed their lives; that Ryan has had this legacy and he's had this impact before and he continues to have this impact, it alleviates a lot of those fears for us."
Theories on why Ryan went missing continue to come forward, some suggesting an overdose or a criminal lifestyle. One person even suggested he was robbing banks down in Washington. As absurd or besmirching of his reputation as any tip may be, the family welcomes them as they could lead to finding the ultimate answer.
"Nothing will change how much we love him and how proud we were of him and how much of an impact he had and what means for his legacy going forward. We may just change, going from parents of a missing child to parents of a child who came to an accident or foul play, any of those things, we could become advocates for that and feel like we've served a purpose in this life."
Hopefully a year from now, they will be advocating for a different cause.
Because that will mean Ryan was found. And for as many answers about life the Shtukas may have found over the last year, they'd still trade it all for one.