The estranged (and deranged) loner who takes refuge in the wilds on the fringes of settlement is a familiar trope in North American storytelling. I think of Rudy Wiebe’s mad trapper, Albert Johnson, or Jon Krakauer’s hapless Chris McCandless in his abandoned Alaskan school bus. Earle Birney probed the subject poetically in his brilliant poem “Bushed,” where a deluded protagonist comes to see the mountains as out to get him, so bars himself into his lakeshore shack and waits fearfully for a “great flint to come singing into his heart.”
Canmore author Paul McKendrick has found a fascinating character to add to the genre in the person of John Bjornstrom, a cave-building hermit who haunted the shores of Shuswap Lake at the turn of the millennium. However, Bjornstrom was not really “bushed.” According to McKendrick, this former private detective, hiding from some bad actors, was on a self-directed mission to uncover a child pornography ring said to be active in the Shuswap Lake area. Subsisting on rabbits and squirrels, he augmented his larder by burglarizing lakeside cabins, carrying off not only foodstuffs but firearms, a 200-pound wood stove, an ATV, a Sea-Doo and a dirt bike, to name a few of his purloineries. All this booty he hauled away by canoe! To elude the RCMP, he paddled the lake in the dark of night.
Born Nicholas Korody, the son of Roma refugees who fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution, he wound up with his drug-addicted mother in Vancouver, where he was adopted by the Bjornstrom family. Leaving home as a teenager, Bjornstrom earned his keep as a farrier, cowboy and long-haul truck driver before abruptly switching gears and opening a private detective office in Calgary in the late 1990s. There his life took another dramatic turn, when he was hired by Bre-X CEO David Walsh to travel to Indonesia and investigate the death of company geologist Michael de Guzman.
I won’t reveal much about McKendrick’s startling 32-page detour into the intricacies of that infamous gold-mining scam; I found his account fascinating and riveting, although I would have liked more information on his sources. In fact de Guzman, an affable bigamist who loved to sing “I Did It My Way” to his four wives (one wife at a time, that is) almost steals the show from Bjornstrom. What Bjornstrom discovered in Indonesia would ultimately be the main cause of his flight into the BC outback; he believed his life was in peril, and McKendrick has uncovered some sources that support that belief.
As with Albert Johnson, Bjornstrom’s nemesis proved to be the RCMP, but unlike the mad trapper, the reader will learn, Bjornstrom may have found some peace of mind in the end.
—Sid Marty is working on a book of his new and collected poems.