This story of a man who escaped from Communist oppression in the beautiful woods of Bulgaria, to live as a semi-free man in the North Woods of Saskatchewan, is a testament to both the evils of Socialism and to ability of men to prosper when government gets out of the way.
The fact that he felt Canada was a better place to chase his dreams, is very telling. Living under Communist control must have been truly horrible. Just think of the freedom he could have enjoyed if only he had defected to the United States! I guess anything is better than total oppression.
This story also serves as a warning to those in the United States, who may think that having a President (Obama) that was mentored by, “not a card-carrying communist, but a card making communist,” is an acceptable idea.
(Outdoor Life) When we were introduced, Valentin Popov declined my handshake. He was preoccupied with reattaching the severed tip of a finger, which he had hacked off earlier in the day with a machete as he trimmed birch branches above a bear bait.
Over the next week, as I cleared trails with Popov, wrangled his 4-wheeler through the bogs of northern Saskatchewan, and hunted black bears in his company, he would occasionally unbandage the finger, urinate on it, and then rewrap it with black electrical tape. “Keeps it clean,” he grunted when he noticed my raised eyebrows at this unorthodox antiseptic.
Popov has owned Tower Lodge Outfitters on the south shore of Dore Lake for a dozen years, but he hardly seems like the presiding head of this bear, deer, and fish camp. He shuns the role of back-slapping host, preferring instead to scuttle among the gear sheds, scrounging tools, repairing ATVs, prepping bear baits, and chainsawing in half the frozen beaver carcasses that adorn every bait site like the mangled cherry on a particularly gory sundae. In short, he seems like an especially motivated guide, not the owner of a well-regarded hunting outfit.
Val Popov’s Tower Lake Lodge sits on the south shore of Saskatchewan’s Dore Lake, land of big whitetails, black bears, and giant northern pike. Though he owns the outfit, Popov prefers life in the bush to that of camp, guiding bear hunters, clearing trails through the dense spruce and birch forests, and freshening bear baits with his trademark mix of oats, canola oil.
Popov says very little. Partly it’s his nature. Partly it’s his rough Slavic accent. He is a proletariat Bulgarian by birth, but Popov is a north-woods homesteader by choice.
When he was 21 years old, Popov — then a conscript in the national army — got off an Air Bulgaria jet bound for Havana as it refueled in Newfoundland, walked up to an airport security guard, and said the only English word he knew, the word he had practiced for months backin Sophia: “Refugee.”
The Canadians gave him asylum, but Popov had nowhere to go and no one to receive him, and after a hungry month in Montreal, he committed the most ancient of crimes. He stole a loaf of bread. Caught, he was sentenced to a remedial work program. He learned how to fix automobiles, and when his sentence was over, he knew enough about cars and Canada to know he wanted to head west. He pulled out a map of the country, closed his eyes, and let his finger fall. It landed on Rosetown, Saskatchewan, a grainbelt town near the Alberta border. Popov got as far as Saskatoon, where he took a job in a body shop, working as an apprentice mechanic. Within five years, often working 20 hours a day, he owned the business. He wrote home asking his childhood friend Vi if she wouldn’t mind coming to Canada to be his wife.
Val taught himself to speak English, but he reads it poorly and has difficulty writing it. So at his shop — which he says he owns in order to subsidize the outfitting business — he mainly “swings wrenches” with his employees, leaving Vi to answer phones, write checks, and deal with the administrative side of the business.
It’s the same way at camp. Vi picks hunters up at the airport, settles them into their cabins, and asks about food preferences and the weather back home. Val is in constant motion, as though something, or someone, is chasing him.
It turns out he is the one in pursuit.
Spend enough time with Val Popov and you realize that he is trying to capture what we are all after in one way or another: the clarity, freedom, and single -mindedness of youth.
We are nearly finished freshening this particular site when Val looks up at the sky, watching a glossy-black raven swoop to the top of a towering spruce tree. The silence is just about to become awkward when Val finally speaks.
“This is why I love coming here. Do you hear it?”
I don’t hear anything, and am wondering if this is some sort of a backwoods initiation ceremony. “Nothing,” Val says in his accent. “This place reminds me of Bulgaria, the places I walked with my grandfather. We walked every Sunday. In the mountains. In the forests. Around the lakes. It’s where I fell in love with the outside. The sounds of nothing.”
There’s no holding Val back now. We have been constant companions for four days. We are friends. He has something to say.
“This is what I could never understand about the Communists. They wanted to use nature. To make it work for them, the sawmills and factories. The dams. They didn’t want anybody to own anything. But they wanted to own nature. There were a lot of reasons why I had to leave, but that was the main one.”
And here’s where Val tells me his story, downwind of the diawing beaver. Of his heart-racing decision to leave the plane, of his despair at trading the cheerless apartments of Sophia for the gray sidewalks of Montreal, of the humiliation of stealing food, of his desire to own land of his own, to run a business where no one could tell him what to do. Of his affection for bears, which he describes in terms that parents reserve for children. Of his quest to find a place in the world where he can make his own decisions, and live with the results.
It occurs to me that I’m looking at the freest man I know, this displaced Communist turned modern-day homesteader. He knows what he wants and has the clarity of vision and strength of will to get it. In his company I feel slightly inadequate and uninteresting.
“WE WALKED EVERY SUNDAY. IN THE MOUTAINS. IN THE FORESTS. AROUND THE LAKES. IT’S WHERE I FELL I LOVE WITH THE OUTSIDE. THE SOUNDS OFN OTHING.”