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story by Sarah de Leeuw

Home at the Zoo.

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 over."

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 existing."

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 can offer.

"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 navigation.

"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 stove.

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 America."

"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 kitchen.

"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.)

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