A trip through Freecamp – Part 2 of 2
You’ve got to think, if we’d driven downtown Jasper in 1973 we’d be seeing VW buses with flowers on the doors, long dresses on everybody and better dreadlocks than you see today.
So begins our Freecamp flashback from the perspective of then Parks Canada warden, Wes Bradford.
“A lot of people were moving across the country living in their vans,” he says, laying out the scene. “Day to day they didn’t have a lot of money and a lot of people were kind of rebellious.”
Draft dodgers, stragglers of the hippy movement — Jasper was a magnet for people trying to avoid Vietnam and perhaps mainstream society in general. VIA Rail was offering discounts on cross-country trips and the general consensus was that this area of Canada was a pretty good place to slip into either anonymity or eccentricity.
Though Bradford explains how, by setting up Freecamps, the federal government was trying to encourage Canadians to get out and see their country, at least one local businessman at the time is convinced that there was another motive: get the vagabonds off the streets and into one place.
“The main reason was the fact that these people would sleep anywhere in town,” recalls John Koebel, who in 1973 was erecting the building that the Snowdome, the Video Stop and the Fitzhugh now occupy. He didn’t construct it alone; Koebel would regularly enlist the help of Freecampers to run his then-new Laundromat.
“These people were of great importance to me,” he chuckles, remembering how he would drive through the camps looking to round up hired help for a few days. He wasn’t the only one: restaurants regularly hired campers for summer shifts.
“They were happy to work for three or four days, put a few bucks in their pocket and move on.”
But Koebel and Bradford know they didn’t always continue on. A great many of the campers who were supposed to be seeing their country would be quite content to stay, often for the entire summer. And that’s where many of the problems began.
Bears became addicted to the garbage and food that invariably got left around by upwards of 300 campers per night. Dogs that became a part of the community would get loose and have to be destroyed, Bradford said. And when campers needing a scrub decided to take to the waters of Dead Man’s Hole, is wasn’t unusual for a group of curious onlookers to watch incredulously from Highway 16, causing traffic problems and upsetting townsfolk.
“There was also concern from the RCMP when they had to cross the highway to get to the camp,” Bradford said. “Particularly at night.”
These problems were first identified when Freecamp was situated across the Athabasca River from Old Fort Point. Some know the place as Twin Lakes Freecamp, to others it’s Dead Man’s Hole Freecamp. To still others it’s simply called Old Fort Point Freecamp. Whatever its moniker, when the camp was moved to its next two locations, down the Caledonia Road, it was hoped that some of the problems that came from being so close to Jasper would cease.
Willie Saunders was done school and was looking to come back to the province where he was born. He found Freecamp as accommodating as any other roving young person might have, and eventually he was being paid by Parks as the caretaker.
“I was basically an urchin, I was homeless when was 16… basically, I put up my tent and I didn’t expect any more or any less from anybody else. I just tried to obey the rules,” he said.
But not everyone was that cooperative. Bears were already frequent near the Miette River, with the lure of Freecamp leftovers, they became rampant.
“Often there were more than one at once in camp,” he recalls. “Lots of brave, young characters would go out chasing them. Often times it would put [the bear] up a tree, so then you would have to wait until he got down.”
As he explains, he is pointing out current bear claw marks on trees, not to mention rosehips as a source of Vitamin C and juniper as a great ingredient for tea. When he passes a pile of scat and sees his guest grimace in concern, he asks with a sinister smile, “you like bears?”
Bradford likes bears, but he likes to see them in their natural environs, uninfluenced by humans and foraging for berries, not baked beans. As the park warden who wrote the assessment that determined Freecamp was having adverse environmental affects, he knows it wouldn’t happen again.
“Let’s face facts, today if someone proposed that we run an EA for a free camp,” he begins, pausing in thought. “… well, for one thing we probably wouldn’t have it down by the river with the bears.”
Bradford is thinking the police might have something to say about it too. With memories of the headaches that Freecamp caused local officers, Bradford figures there would be little support from RCMP members who were at the time constantly filing missing bicycle reports, petty theft complaints and drug-related incidents.
“There was a real hub of activity at those spots,” he says in response to the question ‘was it worse than other spots around Jasper?’ “We weren’t constantly called to [Jasper Park Lodge] to deal with bear problems or campfires getting away. If we were looking for a stolen bicycle we’d go down Caledonia Road and would likely find it.”
Saunders isn’t so sure the problems at the Freecamps were any worse than those in town or at the lodge, and he emphasizes that no two Freecampers were the same.
“They were all individuals. Two people next to each other were so different: one would party all summer and work all winter, the other would be camping, hiking, the whole thing.”
He also remembers trying to keep people on the level when they were acting out of line.
“I tried to cooperate as best I could to keep in the boundaries of the law,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be anyone’s moral conscience, but it was ‘don’t be stealing from town… or anywhere.’”
He must have been keeping his end of the bargain with Parks, because he was getting paid a salary, meagre as it was. Hearing him describe signing for his monthly cheque after emerging buck naked from a dip in the Miette was worth the two-hour long walk in itself.
“I one day signed, in quadruplicate, on the back of a female park worker, naked and dripping wet just out of the river. I don’t know if anyone has ever signed a government contract naked in modern times — since maybe Columbus or something.”
With that tale of triumph, the Freecamp time trip slowly fades to black and Saunders is more interested in looking to see if the strawberries are out, pointing out edible plants (“I never ate a groundsquirrel!”) and describing the series of lakes that adjoin with myriad creeks further afield. Interestingly, the environmental keenness is not unlike that noticeable in Bradford, who while being quizzed on Twin Lakes Freecamp was taking the time to notice what cleanup has taken place over the years and the time it has taken for some of the affected areas to grow back.
Both agree that the reason it was ultimately abolished is because Freecamp became the destination, in place of Jasper National Park. But although he got to know them through an entirely different channel than Bradford did, the fact that Saunders now cares just as deeply for his natural surroundings might be an ironic victory for the purpose of Freecamp in the first place.