As a writer and a storyteller, I love stories. Over the centuries stories and songs have fulfilled many roles, from entertainment, education and enlightenment to geography, history, genealogy… even becoming a central core of a People. For example, the People from the Trobriand Islands can sing back nearly 200 generations of their history. I was at a conference years ago and one of the speakers was an elder who spoke about ‘ownership’ of stories, and that it was necessary to have permission from the story’s owner before one could tell them. For my part, I respectfully disagree. Stories must be told, must be shared to be kept alive.
This story remains one of my favourites. It was told to us by a man who approached us after a talk given by Dr. David Suzuki. I trust he won’t mind my sharing it with you, although I must say that I’m writing this out from memory and any errors are mine alone. For the sake of privacy I’ll call the gentleman who shared this story with us just W.
This story happened in northern Ontario, in a town named Cochrane. I’ve been to Cochrane a few times, even did a little work up there. One of its claims to fame is that it’s the southern terminus of the ‘Polar Bear Express‘, a train that runs north up to Moosonee and Moose Factory, near the shores of James Bay. It’s also the home of the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat and Heritage Village.
Anyway, the story begins when W. was a boy growing up in the Cochrane area. Like many other boys he loved nature and spent half his time hanging out on the Reserve or wandering around the woods. When he grew up he went south to university and work, but at the time of this story he was back up in Cochrane acting as liaison on behalf of the local band. Cochrane has a half dozen hotels now, but there was a time there was only one, and he was staying there. One day he looked out the restaurant window and saw a large U-Haul truck, packed to the gills, stuff tied on the roof… ‘Just someone passing through’, he thought. The next morning the truck was still there. At dinner it was still there, and the following morning it was still there. He also came to associate this truck with a woman who was sitting alone in the restaurant. Finally the restaurant manager came over to him and said, “You speak city, go and talk to her.” So he did.
Turned out she was from New York state originally. Her husband had passed away suddenly and she found herself alone. She had a friend who lived out on an island off BC’s coast, and her friend suggested that since there was nothing keeping her in New York, she should pack up and move to BC to be with her friend. Well, she made it as far as Cochrane, but now she was stuck.
Before I go any further with this story I should explain that Cochrane is situated along Hwy 11 in northern Ontario, and the highway on both sides is rimmed by endless miles of black spruce forest. It’s an amazing ecosystem, but to the uninitiated it looks like one mile is the same as the next and the next and… And well, she got to Cochrane and she froze. She couldn’t go forward, and she couldn’t go back. “What would happen if I broke down on the highway?” she asked. “This is northern Ontario” was the reply. “If you break down the first vehicle to come by is going to stop and ask you what you need – food, a place to sleep, a tow truck, blankets, some gas… whatever.” “What if I got attacked?” she asked. “This Is Northern Ontario!” came the warm reply again. “People look out for each other up here.” “And all these people keep coming up and talking to me!” she said next. “This is northern Ontario… ” “Look”, he said. “You see the trees out behind the hotel?” “Yes.” “Okay, this is what I want you to do.” I want you to walk back there, not too far – stay within sight of the hotel – but walk back into the forest a bit, find a place where you feel comfortable, then sit. After you’ve sat there for a while and you’re feeling relaxed, I want you to pick out a tree that you like and I want you to give it a hug. And don’t let go until it hugs you back.”
Well, after giving it a moment’s consideration she got up and left, taking a walk toward the trees behind the hotel. She was gone an hour, two hours, three hours… and W. figured either she was doing okay or she was lost, but either way it would work out alright.
The next morning when he got up there was a hotel envelope slipped under the door of his hotel room. He opened it up and all the note said was, “It hugged me back.” And she was gone.
Thanks to W. for sharing this story with us! If you drop by here sometime, you can check out the ‘Our Stories‘ section and from time to time I’ll post some of my own experiences.