1140 Bushman Bjornstrom of Shuswap
The Bushman’s Lair: On the Trail of the Fugitive of the Shuswap
by Paul McKendrick
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2021
$22.95 / 9781550179224
Reviewed by Sage Birchwater
In the early 2000s the Bushman of the Shuswap was on the national news. More of a nuisance than a menace perhaps. He lived off the avails of cabins he robbed on Shuswap Lake. His whereabouts was a mystery and he was hard to track down in the wilds of the most remote arm of the lake.
Then the bushman, John Bjornstrom, went public. He forged a link with NL Radio in Kamloops and his interviews were broadcast. It seemed he had a story to tell beyond petty thievery and being a pain in the side of the Shuswap community. Just what his message was, never became clear to me living several hours away in the Cariboo Chilcotin. From afar there was a romance to his escapades, almost like a modern day Robin Hood.
I was a reporter for the Williams Lake Tribune in the early 2000s when editor Bill Phillips assigned me the task of interviewing John Bjornstrom, who had recently been released from prison and placed on parole in our community. He had family living here.
Perhaps because I had lived on a trapline in the Chilcotin for ten years, Bill figured I’d be an ideal candidate to do the interview.
In 2001 Bjornstrom was at the height of his bushman escapades on Shuswap Lake. Now twenty years later Paul McKendrick has written, The Bushman’s Lair: On the Trail of the Fugitive of the Shuswap, telling intimate details of his life and adventures.
In 2002, McKendrick, then in his mid-twenties, headed up Anstey Arm of Shuswap Lake with a group of friends to check out the Bushman’s cave that had recently been discovered by boaters. Then they turned over its location to the RCMP. Bjornstrom by that time was in custody, on trial for his clandestine activities.
McKendrick says it was tricky navigating the steep rocky slope in flip flops. But when he got to the cave, the glimpse into the Bushman’s life was impactful. “Even though the police had cleared out many of the contents, it seemed like we were encroaching on someone’s home,” he writes.
So began the author’s quest. “I sought to understand how someone ends up living in a cave in the bush.”
The Bushman’s Lair is a great piece of investigative journalism.
As his curiosity mounted, McKendrick attempted to contact Bjornstrom in Williams Lake to write a story about his unusual life. But he was unable to track him down. Then serendipitously he stumbled upon a Kijiji ad offering documents for sale to anyone who wanted to write a book about the Bushman. He coughed up the $100 to retired private investigator Rob Nicholson for the papers that had previously been worth $5,000 to a documentary crew when the Bushman story was hot. But that offer had been turned down.
Nicholson told McKendrick he’d try and put them in touch, but cautioned that Bjornstrom was hard to track down because he was often away in remote places panning for gold. He also let slip that there were “security concerns” associated with telling the story, but didn’t elaborate.
After not hearing from Nicholson for over a year, McKendrick concluded his only course of action was to travel to Williams Lake and track down the Bushman himself. Just one problem: on January 13, 2018, John Bjornstrom had died of natural causes at the age of 58.
The CBC’s Grant Lawrence’s evaluation of the book says volumes: “A riveting, fast-paced account of one of BC’s most notorious and fascinating fugitives…The deeper McKenderick digs, the stranger the truth becomes.”
I have to concur.
Until reading the book I didn’t have a clue of Bjornstrom’s unique and interesting life. How he was born to Roma immigrants in Toronto in 1958, who had escaped communist oppression in Hungary, but floundered under tragic circumstances as refugees in Canada. How Bjornstrom was born Nicholas Korody, but was adopted by Norwegian immigrants, Sverre and Joanna Bjornstrom in Vancouver when he was a toddler. They gave the name John Bjornstrom. Then the family moved to Williams Lake when John was a teen, because the Bjornstroms had Norwegian friends in the community. John only spent a year there before dropping out of school and heading off on horseback to work on the big ranches south of town.
And so comes full circle the reason the Bushman was sent to Williams Lake to serve his parole.
McKendrick’s investigation uncovers more telling details of Bjornstrom’s life. How he became a private investigator in Calgary in the 1990s and got hired to look into the mysterious death or disappearance of Bre-X swindler Michael de Guzman, a Filipino geologist.
I have to admit my first reading of the Bre-X account gave me a headache trying to follow the thread. It’s convoluted, mysterious and sinister. It was at this juncture that Bjornstrom figured he got on an Indonesian hit list when he flew to that country to track down the truth of de Guzman’s disappearance. Did de Guzman commit suicide by jumping from a helicopter over the Indonesian jungle? Was he murdered and then thrown out of the chopper by his killers? Or did he and fellow conspirators fake his death?
I was curious and contacted my mining engineer brother-in-law to learn how he saw de Guzman’s demise. “They dumped him in the swamp,” he said outright, but added that his late wife swore she saw him at many airports.
And that’s the rub.
Bjornstrom concluded that de Guzman was murdered by senior officials in the Sukarno government and after giving his report, became paranoid that the corrupt regime was going to come after him too. That’s why he fled to the Shuswap and hid out in a cave.
A friend in Williams Lake who knew the Bjornstroms and read the book soon after it came out, was puzzled why it contained no photos of Bushman John or the turf he inhabited as the Bushman. I don’t know the answer to that question.
He was a stunning looking individual with a bright happy countenance. Five foot four, two hundred pounds. A friendly sort who drove for a limo service for a while, and even ran for mayor in 2014.
The author does a masterful job of connecting the dots of Bjornstrom’s fragmented life. In his extensive research he manages to convey John Bjornstrom’s noble nature. A complex man beset with health issues but blessed with passionate loving family connections.
This book, a must read. You won’t be disappointed.
As a long-time resident of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, Sage Birchwater has written several books about the area including Chiwid (New Star, 1995). Born in Victoria in 1948, Birchwater was involved with Cool Aid in Victoria, travelled throughout North America, and worked as a trapper, photographer, environmental educator, and oral history researcher. Sage served as the Chilcotin rural correspondent for two local papers for 24 years while raising his family south of Tatla Lake. He has also lived in Tatlayoko, where he was a freelance writer and editor, and Williams Lake, where he was a staff writer for the Williams Lake Tribune until his retirement in 2009. His other books include Williams Lake: Gateway to the Cariboo Chilcotin (2004, with Stan Navratil); Gumption & Grit: Extraordinary Women of the Cariboo Chilcotin (Caitlin, 2009); Double or Nothing: The Flying Fur Buyer of Anahim Lake (Caitlin, 2010); The Legendary Betty Frank (Caitlin, 2011); Flyover: British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2012, with Chris Harris); Corky Williams: Cowboy Poet of the Cariboo Chilcotin (Caitlin, 2013); and Chilcotin Chronicles (Caitlin, 2017), reviewed here by Lorraine Weir. Editor’s note: Sage Birchwater has also reviewed books by Hiram Cody Tegart & Andrew Bruce Richards, Chris Czajkowski & Fred Reid, Marianne Van Osch, and Jay Sherwood for The Ormsby Review.
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