By Katherine Walsh
Rounding the corner of the cabin, suddenly protected from the ferocious wind, I looked up to see five pairs of eyes staring into mine. They belonged to a team of huskies sitting alertly, tethered around their dog sled outside the cabin door. I took off my skis and nervously slipped past them and into the one room cabin. An older woman, Frances Sutherland, gave me a welcoming smile and offered me a chair and a cup of tea.
As I sat feeling the warmth of the tea and wood stove, I soaked in the sense of well-being this family exuded. We chatted with Frances, her daughter, and her daughter-in-law. Her teenage granddaughter sat on a bed working on an art project. Meanwhile her two younger granddaughters bounded around the room blowing soap bubbles. Completing the magic of this warm refuge, a tropical pineapple sat upright, the centrepiece on a table atop a rug showing a map of the world.
Fifteen of us from Montreal were on a “ski with the Cree” trip arranged by Kim Cheechoo, the Tourism Officer for the Moose Cree First Nation, and Bill Pollack, an 80-year-old forester and our intrepid organizer.
We had arrived via the Polar Bear Express train from Cochrane, Ont. to the Cree community of Moosonee. The seven-hour train trip was a time filled with excited chatter and anticipation. Many Cree families were returning from homes in the south to their northern homes for the Ontario school holiday. At one point, the train stopped in the bush and a family got off to go to their camp. At a second stop, I peered out the window into the faces of toddlers in a sled and could see their father picking up supplies carried to them by the train.
On our arrival in Moosonee, we drove across the snow road to Moose Factory, an island located in the Moose River which flows into James Bay. Moose Factory is the second oldest Hudson’s Bay Company post and dates back to 1673. It is home to the Moose Cree First Nation and the MoCreebec people, each with their own government. On our first night, we slept in the Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre among exhibits including a stuffed polar bear and a life-size diorama of traditional Cree life.
Our ski trip took us from Moose Factory to Negabou Camp, a wilderness camp 22 kilometres upriver. It was built by the Moose Cree to welcome groups and travellers. A biting crosswind was slowing our progress. After four hours of skiing, an invitation to warm up at the camp felt like a lifesaver.
Kim hosted us again at Negabou Camp. Our guides Mark Issac, Josh Sutherland (a professional chef), and Frances Moses also welcomed us. Moses is an elder who rose to the challenging task of teaching us to bead and make moccasins. Her good humour and laughter made our evening sewing bees a highlight. We feasted on moose stew with dumplings, moose stir fry, bannock, duck, and goose. With our guides’ expert instruction, we set rabbit snares and marten traps, built a teepee, and identified trees and plants. We marvelled at the number of stars and once, in the middle of the night, at the dancing northern lights. Our daytime trips had us all falling in love with the beauty of this land. We skied along snow covered lakes and rivers lined with sunlit red willows and spruce forest under the endless blue sky.
On our last night, Kim’s two sons and a friend played music for us. They are members of a drumming and singing group called the High Ridge Singers. They travel across the country to pow wows, where they learn new music. As we listened to their powerful voices and beat, we felt the strength of our new bonds with the Cree. They had so generously shared the beauty of their lives and traditions with us.
My spiritual life is based in building personal relations and protecting the environment. It was a privilege to share in the lives of the Cree, who have been guided by their social bonds within their community and with the land from time immemorial.
Katherine Walsh is a teacher in the French Cegep College system in Montreal. Learn more about these trips at moosecree.com/tourism.
Photo Credit: Don Hetherington