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Childhood memories that encouraged love of nature

Owen Bjorgan as a boy — one of his favourite memories is of playing with snakes in his little pool. When we are young humans, our brain is largely uninfluenced and acts as a sponge. We soak up senses and cues from the world around us.
Owen Bjorgan as a boy — one of his favourite memories is of playing with snakes in his little pool.

When we are young humans, our brain is largely uninfluenced and acts as a sponge. We soak up senses and cues from the world around us. The remarkable thing is that before the age of technology, the outdoors was seen as both a source of leisure and survival.

These days, our broad disconnection from nature leaves the majority of the western population to actively choose to engage with the great outdoors. We no longer survive directly from it. It’s out there as something we can drive to, book time off for, purchase goods from, or perhaps never have to see at all if we are comfortable living such a lifestyle.

I want to dive back into time and take you on a very personal journey. I want to share with you moments of mini Owen, just having his mind absolutely blown with curiosity. These memories and short stories are so profound and electric in my mind that I argue they were already steering me to what I do professionally today.

I decided to shake up the format of this article like a Netflix series, or perhaps a book, and here are a few chapters that will always stand out for me.

Big Snake, Ice Tea.

“Hi, I would like some ice tea and would also like to look at the huge snake you have in a bucket, there” said nobody, ever.

With the support of my parents, I checked off a childhood classic of setting up a lemonade and ice tea stand on our rural property on Concession 1. I thought it would be exciting to engage with strangers in a safe way, and make a little bit of this something called money, which adults seemed to chase after to no end. So, it must be important. 

Just as we were done setting up, my cousin Shane Sherlock drove up to our house. God bless his recent departure from this world and my family, but my goodness, did he fuel a lot of my most cherished childhood memories.

In his car, he had a massive white bucket with an intimidatingly big water snake slithering around in the bottom of it. He had caught it and drove it over to my house to show me, as he understood and supported my love of all things reptilian. I forget if it was my idea or his, and neither answer would surprise me, but we decided to put this attraction piece out with the beverage stand. 

I was convinced that people would be beckoned to stop their car or bicycle with a cardboard sign reading ‘Big Snake! Ice Tea!’ with me chanting it aloud to passersby like a nature fanboy. For some strange reason, I didn’t make much money that day.

One man pulled over, though, and stepped out of his car. Whatever he drove, it was nice. Whatever he was wearing, it was nice. I will never forget him getting a glass of lemonade, and then me excitedly ripping the lid off of this bucket to show him this amazing creature. He slowly removed his fancy sunglasses and said something to the effect of “okay, then,” and he quickly proceeded back to his car door.

The Cool Pool of Serpents

Speaking of snakes, how much would you enjoy them in your pool?

At our first house on York Road, which flanks the midsection of the Niagara Escarpment, we grew up with heaps of eastern garter snakes around us. 

One day, I remember catching so many that I couldn’t count them in the bucket where they were temporarily housed. So, my family and I got out a classic kiddy pool to give them more room. And then, I got in the pool too.

I recollect maybe a dozen serpents swimming and resting about in this surely bizarre environment to them. I sat in the pool with these noodle friends of mine as as they slinked their way over my limbs, behind my back, and sometimes escaped the pool. All I remember is the joy, the fascination, and the happiness I felt with one of the most misunderstood creatures on the planet.

If you would like to arrange a dozen snakes for your backyard pool, please contact me, and I could make your dreams come true. Now, speaking of pools...

Lifeguard of the Snapping Turtles

As a youngster, perhaps just seven years old, I saved multiple juvenile snapping turtles from a public pool in New York when the adults of the area weren’t keen at all to get into the water.

To tune into this and a few more episodes, check out the next week of The Local for Part II. 

To be continued!

My parents routinely took our family to a quaint gem of campground called Faun Lake. Located in upstate New York, the landscape is a matrix of rolling farm hills and deep Carolinian forests. It is always remarkable to me that just half an hour outside of Buffalo, there is enough wild space remaining to cater for black bears and timber rattlesnakes. 

Less intimidating than both of those animals, the common snapping turtle is easily at home in the creeks, swamps, and little lakes of the region as well. Thanks to this local reptile, it was my first moment as a little kid where I got to feel like a nature superhero. 

The local pool of Faun Lake campground was suddenly shut down one afternoon, as staff had discovered about a dozen Timbit-sized juvenile snapping turtles drifting about in it. Some were getting swept into the filter area to a surely fatal trap. The chlorine and other chemicals can’t be good for their skin, either.

This was my moment to shine, probably at seven years old. Most staff and adults in the area were reluctant to get into the pool. It’s amazing how the respected snap and dinosaur-like build of adults can still make an adult uneasy when they are no bigger than a Toonie, squishy, and could probably fit a pea into their mouth at most. 

I was welcomed into the closed pool to swim across its edges and down to its depths to rescue these animals. I remember pulling a few of their little bodies out of the filter. It appeared they were all accounted for and that there were no casualties. 

With turtles in a bucket, the staff, my parents and I descended down the bank to the nearby lake, their true natural habitat where they belong. My guess is that these eggs hatched from underground in one of the nearby pool gardens or mulch beds. Unfortunately, adult snapping turtles often find our landscapes such as gardens, gravel pits, and roadside shoulders inviting places to lay their eggs because of how easy it is to dig and bury the deposited eggs. 

Looks like these youngsters erroneously yet instinctively found the pool first. After releasing the turtles and victoriously eating some ice cream, I made my way to the pool as well. 

Ball hockey, strangers, and the swamp

Times have changed, and I can’t imagine this sort of story unfolding so candidly without worry in 2022.

I was playing ball hockey in the driveway with my brother Isaac and a couple other friends of mine. It’s a late spring day, and the drone of western chorus frogs reminds us of that in the distance, a place we simply called The Swamp across the road.

A vehicle pulls up on the road, and a lady hangs her head out the window. Her two sons are in the backseat, and they appear around the same age as our little ball hockey squadron. She was quick to ask, “Hey, can my kids play and hangout with you?”

In hindsight, it is really bizarre that this adult didn’t look for another adult on the premise. As innocent little kids who had pretty open hearts about including others in a good time, we said yes. 

Surely enough, she dropped the two kids off in our driveway, said she’d come back to get them in a couple of hours, and mysteriously drove away. Again, we have no idea who these kids are.

We introduced ourselves and proceeded to grab these two brothers a hockey stick. Hockey didn’t appear to be their favourite, so we decided to get them some rubber boots and go explore The Swamp.

As I learned more about these two kids by the minute, it became very clear they were from an inner-city environment. They shrieked as they took their first step into the sucking, stinky mud. They jumped at chipmunks and toads making noises in the dry leaves. The looks on their faces told me that they were on high alert as the sensory overload of the environment was clearly foreign to them. However, they were not intimidated, and the joy they emitted was unmatched.

We proceeded to find snapping turtles, snakes, and even get bit by a couple of horse flies. We caught frogs with our bare hands, and one of us fell into the stagnant, filmy water. But we loved it.

This story stands out for me because it was the first moment as a kid where I feel like I stepped outside of myself and genuinely watched someone else’s interpretation of events. It was the first memorable time where I felt happy to watch someone else be so happy in nature.

Very little did I know that such an experience would passionately pave the way for me work in the field I do today. On my private hiking tours and my work for the school board, I can assure you that there is no dollar value to watching the youth have their eyes light up when they experience something profound and intriguing in nature. Those eyes, and that look, is a window into the mind of someone who is learning about themselves and their surroundings in an unforgettable way. That is “the look” that I look for to this day when I am at work. And yes, it happens with adults, too!

Also, the random kids were picked up a couple hours later as promised. I sit here, and wonder if they still think about that day, too. 

A personal meeting with David Suzuki

I feel like a short and sweet story to cap off this two-part series, about how at around 10 years old, I met David Suzuki at one of his public forum events. 

My personal meeting, as I viewed it, occurred over the course of maybe 20 seconds. He was stationed outside of Sir Winston Churchill High School, which is funny to consider, as that is where I unknowingly would be going to school one day. My cousin snapped a photo of me standing awkwardly a few feet away from him, star-struck and probably hyperventilating a little. It is one of the dorkiest and laughable photos to date, and I wish I could have dug it up for this week’s article. 

 Little did I know that Mr. Suzuki would eventually hand-write me a little letter and sign a picture before I commenced hiking the entire Bruce Trail in 2014. I will always admire and cherish that circle of events.