John Lambert Bjornstrom, the Bushman of the Shuswap, while he was on the run from police near his main camp close to Shuswap Lake. -Observer file photo

Column: Bushman of the Shuswap saga reaches its end

Reporter Tracy Hughes recounts her experiences covering the former fugitive’s story

I got the news that John Bjornstrom, the erstwhile Bushman of the Shuswap, had died, when I awoke at 5 a.m. Saturday and picked up my phone to a series of texts and messages from friends and colleagues.

I paused for a moment, feeling a weird series of emotions – a little sad, a little nostalgic and I even had a little bit of a chuckle before I hoofed it into the office to write up the news. The story came easily. After all, in addition to Global TV reporter Ted Chernecki and his cameraman, I was also along for the trip up Shuswap Lake to interview Bjornstrom, who was, at that time in 2001, still a fugitive, living in a couple of self-built wilderness camps and meeting his needs by stealing from nearby cabins.

Looking back, it was a pretty weird situation. I was a young reporter feeling stymied by the lack of resources that small community newspapers always face, but I had been in contact with Bjornstrom by phone a number of times and had begun to tell some of his story. He claimed he didn’t want to hurt anyone, but that he believed his own life was in danger due to his ‘inside’ knowledge of the Bre-X gold mining scandal. He would call from a cell phone in the wilderness and once even from a phone booth outside a Sicamous fast food restaurant where he went into town for supplies and grabbed a meal. (Pretty brazen considering he was taunting law enforcement about their inability to capture him at the time.)

He was always polite and – quite confident in the newsworthiness of his tale – it was almost like he genuinely wanted to give a young reporter a break with a big story.

When I couldn’t pull together the resources to rent a boat and head to a remote area for an interview, he made arrangements with Global Television – agreeing to the interview with the condition that I got to come along for the ride and do my own story.

That’s how, one cold fall night, I ended up on the deck of the houseboat, dubbed the Baby Jesus, headed for the hours-long journey up Shuswap Lake.

I knew it was a pretty brazen thing for me to do as well. Our lawyer briefed me on my conduct to minimize any suggestion I was aiding or abetting a fugitive. And I was warned. It might be unlikely, but I could be arrested. Was I prepared for that?

Not to mention, there was a question of my own safety. A couple of reporters in the wilderness with a man who made some pretty outlandish claims, had demonstrated in photos that he was armed, and who insisted on including this upstart female reporter in the group… Did he have some nefarious scheme in mind? What if he planned to hold us hostage?

I thought about these things. But I was not giving up this story — especially, as was suggested by one person, to a male counterpart. I had cultivated this source, this was in my backyard, and darn it, I was not going to hand over my hard work to someone else.

So I went. And as weird as it was, it was very normal. We sat on a rocky beach and talked. We asked questions, but then we also talked about how clear the stars are when the night is cold and there are no city lights. We barbecued steaks and decided it would be all right to let our fugitive interviewee have one too. Heck, if we were going to be arrested on our return, a steak was the least of our worries.

And then, Bjornstrom got into a canoe and paddled off into the darkness.

On our return, no one was waiting to arrest us, although the RCMP did later attempt to seize my notes from the interview, which had been placed with our lawyer for safekeeping.

In the end, the police took advantage of Bjornstrom’s desire to share his story and, posing as a documentary film crew, set up a similar meeting and arrested him.

I saw him in handcuffs during a “perp walk” into the old Salmon Arm courthouse. He was sure to single me out by name, thanking me for the article I had written.

I caught up with him again in 2014 when he attempted to run for the mayor’s office in Williams Lake. He told me it was for some of the same reasons he had fled jail and lived on the lam – to make those in power uncomfortable and to expose corruption and untruths.

I don’t want to romanticize John Bjornstrom – while he might have fancied himself a modern-day Robin Hood, to many he was nothing more than a delusional common thief. I’m sure he’d love the renewed attention his death has brought.

Regardless, his tale captured the imagination of many. He’s certainly going to live on in my mental memory bank.


@SalmonArm
newsroom@saobserver.net

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