So there I was, eating a chicken samosa in front of a bustling general store when up walked a rail-thin blondish woman. “Is that your bike?” she wanted to know. When I said yes, she lit up. Her grandson was preparing to do a big bike tour from here in southern BC to the Yukon, where he would start college in the fall.
“Where are you staying tonight?” she asked. When I said I was headed to Squawkum Park Campground, just up the road, she winced.
“What?” I asked.
“You have to watch yourself around there,” she said. “A lot of people live there year-round. Lots of people coming and going all the time.” It was not, according to her, a very nice place. Especially for a woman traveling alone.
“Oh,” I said. “Is there another option in the area that you’d suggest?”
She thought for a moment and said, “Want to camp in my back yard?”
And that’s how I came to spend a night behind a house in a lakeside development, tent tucked beneath a trellis in a fenced-in yard full of deck, garden hose, projects in various stages of completion, and, somewhere, a spot for axe-throwing practice. (I steered clear of that corner.) It turned out that my host was a Finnish immigrant and outdoorswoman who came to Canada as a child in the 50s.
She shuddered over the creepy campground she had saved me from, calling it “Sasquatch” instead of Squawkum. I figured that was the local nickname for the trashy RV grounds that I had passed on the way to her place.
As I set up my tent, unrolled my sleeping bag and blew up my air mattress, Lana (not her real name) began telling me stories of her life. Among her many professions and pursuits, I heard: prison guard, advertising salesperson, silversmith, and would-be publisher of a singles magazine aimed at matching Canadian business people “up north” with their southern counterparts. (It never got off the ground “because Lloyds of London wouldn’t insure us.”)
My favorite story was this: Long ago, Lana had worked at a wilderness camp in Northern Ontario, where she raised a crow from a hatchling. Once grown, the bird went everywhere with her, riding along as she paddled a canoe full of clean linens out to the cabins she maintained.
Before the evening was over, she had cleaned the bathtub especially for me and served up a lovely nosh on the deck: cheese, crackers, baby pickles…the perfect summer spread. I could feel the balance of conversation tipping. Lana had a lot to say about the industrialized food system, railing against feed lots, farmed fish, and food additives. “I told the W.H.O. that they’re a criminal organization!” she said. “Three times!”
All the while, she was smoking cigarettes.
When I mentioned that my next night’s lodging would be with a family on a dairy farm up the road, she told me about a BC cult that fronted as farmers. “They act really nice and friendly,” she said. “But they’re a cult.”
I wondered what she wasn’t telling me about her past. What other stories had she lived? Here was a woman who saw the world as a place to be wary, prepared, and equipped with solid skills (such as axe-throwing). And yet, she was incredibly generous with her home, food and hospitality. Her grandson, who I met briefly, said of her, “My grandma’s always one to put out a hand.”
The next morning, I skipped breakfast in order to get an early start. I wanted to beat the weekend traffic on the winding two-lane highway. And, frankly, I was drained by my role as designated listener. (Let me add here that I’ve placed both friends and strangers into that role, many times. During my summer 2016 bike tour, before my saddle was broken in, I couldn’t resist telling complete strangers how much my butt hurt!) Lana was up early, serving me tea and chatting as I packed up my gear. I thanked her again. After hugging our goodbyes, I pedaled out to the highway and turned east.
Within five minutes, I came upon the actual Squawkum Park Campround—a lovely, serene-looking spot right on the lake.
Maybe I wasn’t the one who needed saving, after all.