|The smell of smoke reaches
you over a mile away. Against the gray and clouded sky, a dull orange
glow lights the horizon. This tent city comes into view slowly,
disappearing as the road curves, appearing again, splintered between the
wind-blown and upturned silver cottonwood leaves, broken for a moment
through the whiteness of aspen trunks.
It’s a colorful and pieced together place - rusted red trucks against
yellow converted school buses, tents and tarps, trailers and rough plank
shanties. From the road, it’s impossible to imagine the spread of this
small and seasonal city, impossible to judge the intricate and
interwoven lives and stories taking place inside each dwelling.
At peak season, The Zoo claims over 300 inhabitants; travelers,
tourists, campers, modern nomads, and of course, mushroom pickers.
Inside one of two eating and gathering
buildings, Geraldine and Zenon Normand tell their story. Geraldine
slowly dries a huge gray plastic tub that looks like it stored potatoes,
Zenon sits and lights a cigarette.
"We come up here this year around June or July to set up,"
says Geraldine, "then we take a little rest before they all come.
You get fishermen and tourists here, but mostly pickers. You get nice
and not so nice people, but mostly you get nice ones. They come from all
The Normands come from Williams Lake, and have been making the journey
to this cluster of tarps and tents for over four years.
"Whatever you could think of, we got ‘em here," says Zenon.
"We got some that live in tents, some that live in the backs of
their pickups. And some are not even living, some are just
As Zenon lights up again, the cookhouse begins to fill up, people
banging muddy hiking boots off as they enter the Normand’s warm
plank-and-plastic kitchen, pulling chairs up to rough tables covered
with colorful plastic sheets. The air quickly saturates with blue smoke,
the smell of deep frying and grill cooking.
|Kristin Collins and
Steve Conners are, according to Geraldine and Zenon, the people
to talk to about this place. It’s their seventh year in The
Zoo, and they met in a mushroom buying depot. Every year they
come back to this tiny tent city, driving from Prince George.
"There’s a draw. If you
can be in the outdoors and make a few bucks, well that’s a
nice marriage for me. We’re all just a little bit
non-conventional," says Steve.
The Zoo is large for a tent
city, but certainly not alone. Each year, seasonal cities appear
around the northwest, off logging roads, tucked into the
mid-river islands of the Skeena, clustered in forest clearings.
One island in the Skeena draws anglers
to a Lazy Boy chair propped on a sand bar. A collection of tents circles
the back of a local restaurant in Terrace. Vans, buses and tents are
often found parked in tiny communities on the logging roads west of
Terrace. There is something unique about the people who live in these
cities, far from the running water and cinder block mini-malls of most
Northwestern towns, these people seem to have a touch of the nomad
running through their veins, a hint of the modern day Gypsy.
"If you want to get down to it," says Steve, "we’re all
beaten dogs. Everyone here has a story. Most of us have been hurt, and
we’re all in the same boat."
The people who live in and move with tent cities, according to Steve and
Kristin, are people looking to live just a little outside the rules of
regular society, people attracted to the lifestyles only frontier living
"It still mystifies me," says Kristin. "There’s really
something here that appeals to an impulsive side."
|This city is as
complex as any other, with social structures and main streets,
politicians and preachers. The gravel ‘Main Drag’ edges
everything from the cookhouse to a teepee, and thins slowly out
at the north end of town. Here, the potholes get deep and mean,
filled with gray water. Walking around them is a difficult
"They were going to fill
them in," says Andy, a Shantymen Missionary whose tarped
home has Xeroxed prayers taped to the door. "But we got
together and said no way to filling them in. People would just
fly through here without those potholes."
Kristin and Andy take me
next door from Andy’s house, introducing me to Pearl and George.
"This is the mayor of The Zoo," Andy tells me as I shake the
callused and strong hand of George. Everyone laughs, George’s wife
June pulling her sweater a little tighter across herself as the wind
picks up. Talk turns to the truckers who gossip about The Zoo on their
radios; another log is added to the belly of a converted oil drum wood
Kristin takes me deeper into this tent city, the road getting thinner,
the cottonwood trees along the edges getting thicker.
At the end of the road, the sound of children’s laughter is louder
than the rustle of leaves in the trees. A small trailer, the kind you
drag behind a car, looks out on a yard of firewood, beaten up water
containers, frying pans, assorted food cans, and a bright red trike.
Almost hidden in the trees behind the tiny house, four boys are jumping
high on a slightly rusted trampoline, yelling and laughing with their
faces turned skyward. As we walk by, they stop us, showing me a raven
they’ve got penned. His wing might be broken, he can’t fly, so
they’re looking after him. "He likes chips," announces one
of the boys.
While The Zoo has an air of the carefree to it, Steve, Kristin and Andy
all agree the tent city has an edge to it as well. "There is
definitely a sadness here," says Steve.
Geraldine Normand agrees. "There’s some here, they will never
change. They will make their money, and they will buy booze before food.
They think of drinking before they think of eating."
"Here’s a good indicator for you," says Steve. "Out of
around 125 people from last year, three of them are dead." Steve
says saying there is a lot of depression in the tent city "is the
understatement of the year."
"There’s a common thread of people here," explains Steve.
"We’re all running, even just a little bit, from something."
But if there’s the edge of sadness, an undercurrent of tension, there
is also that strong sense of community. "It’s really an
anomaly," laughs Kristin. "There’s nothing like it in North
"There’s etiquette here," says Andy, "Nothing really
enforced, but there’s etiquette."
Steve laughs and shakes his head. Perhaps the cynic in the group, he
talks about other pickers following him to his patch, people stealing
firewood and money from fellow tent city citizens, garbage left in the
forest. A fellow mushroom picker, Tim, pipes in with a joke.
"You know when a picker’s bull shitting," says Tim,
"when their lips are moving!" Laughs from around the cook
house, general nods of agreement.
Light begins to fade against the broken-down and broken-in colors of The
Zoo. The wind picks up, tarps rustle and tents sway. Lamps start to
blink out inside the house of this tiny tent city.
Geraldine Normand, as cooks and mothers often do, has a final piece of
wisdom about the wandering and sometimes lost people who show up in her
"In all the years I’ve been here," smiles Geraldine, "I
don’t have too many complaints. They’re nice people to serve. You
give them a big plate of food, and they’re happy."
(Sarah de Leeuw is a
freelance writer and CBC Radio North correspondent in Terrace.)
Culture & Outdoor Magazine