The day before Catherine Tumason left for Canada, she found out she had thyroid cancer. She went anyway. But let’s back up a bit.
Cat Tumason loves playing music. I first met her a few weeks ago at a party hosted by Mike Wallace at John MacRobbie’s place in Edgewater. The next day Mike left the Columbia Valley to return to his life as a touring musician based in Toronto. Mike was the producer, mixer, recording engineer, and spirit animal for the Steamboat Mountain Music Festival’s pandemic CD project.
The BC Arts Council awarded the Steamboat Society a special cultural resiliency grant, which is being used to deliver the festival on a double volume CD of local, original music. Cat and her band have a song on the forthcoming record scheduled to be released in the coming weeks.
Cat lives life boldly. She does solo paddle-boarding trips down the Columbia River. She is on the vanguard of progressive healthy living. Within minutes of meeting her, my impression was: here’s someone who’s…alive.
So how did she get here? Cat was born and raised in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, just south of San Francisco. She grew up in a pre-tech gentrified Bay Area when living in the Los Gatos hills was rustic before rustic became de rigueur chic. Apple Computer co-founder, Steve Wozniak, was her neighbour. Her father: a professional photographer, her mother: a nurse. Cat sang choir in her public Los Gatos high school and was classically trained as a pianist. She played in a high school jazz band. She used to go to Grateful Dead shows when Jerry Garcia was still the group’s frontman.
After graduating with a food science degree from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, she returned to the Bay Area to live in Palo Alto and later, Mountain View. She worked in special needs education, saving money to pay off her student loans. All the while, one of her brothers kept raving about life in the Montana Rockies. In a place called Bozeman, Montana, at the foot of the Bridger Range, the Gallatin Range, the Madison Range, the Absarokas, and the Crazies, which was only a half day’s drive from Big Sky or the north portal of Yellowstone National Park. The area was urrounded by rivers teeming with Cutthroat trout, Bull trout, Rainbow trout, Brook trout, Brown trout, and Lake trout.
Sick of Bay Area traffic, and sick of the ever-rising cost of living in an overheated regional economy, Cat found herself spending more and more time in Montana. Her brother’s friends became her friends. Those friends introduced her to new friends. In Bozeman in the early aughts, Cat was first inoculated with the small-town, Rocky Mountain lifestyle—a lifestyle that proved irresistible to Cat as she moved through her twenties.
In August 2005, one of those friends, Brie McLaren, invited Cat to her wedding in Helena. “I took a road trip in my Toyota Tacoma from Los Gatos to get to Helena,” Cat says. At the wedding, she met Brie’s Aunt Dorothy. Through her, Cat met her son and Brie’s cousin, Rane Wardwell, a carpenter visiting from Invermere, British Columbia. “I remember thinking, oh he’s cute,” Cat said, laughing. After the wedding, Cat and Rane kept in touch. “We were emailing back and forth and come Christmas time, one of Brie’s friends was house-sitting up in Harrogate. I went to visit her and to see Rane.”
The day before she left, age 28, she received her diagnosis. “For six months I felt like I had a cold every day. But I was working sixty hours a week in an emotionally intense industry, driving in Bay Area traffic, getting up early every morning to run. Twice I had migraines and then there was cramping, and then the lump appeared.” Finally, Cat decided she’d better get a closer look.
Despite her diagnosis, she willed herself to Canada to go see about a boy. By the end of that first week in Canada, Cat and Rane were an item, and she knew the Columbia Valley would become her new home. “I loved it here. Everybody is so much more chill, laid back, and outdoorsy,” she says of her first East Kootenay impression. “Had I not met Rane, I would’ve moved instead to Bozeman. It was the mountain town I knew.”
Cat became stronger after her cancer diagnosis. Her treatment included three surgeries, radiation and countless trips to Bay Area hospitals. “You can choose to let it take you, or you take it. And I’m taking it down.” Her cancer is currently in remission. She and Rane (who cofounded passive home builder, Collective Carpentry) married in 2007 and are happy parents to Logan, age ten.
James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer