Winter Living With The Cree (Finale)

Our last few days in Ouje consisted mostly of repition. Checking traps, nets and snares. We’d settled into a rythm of sorts, and that’s not something to take for granted. Life isn’t made up of adventures everyday, or constant excitement. This is the case in an office job as much as in a substinanence lifestyle. Call it “the grind” or a “rat race”, most days consist of repeated actions that sustain us in some way. 

We snared a few more rabbits, but also saw most of the traps come up empty. Laurence and Anna had been after a Marten that’s been roaming around the camp, and had set up a few traps in separate locations with this goal in mind. We snowshoed out to their locations everyday, and each time were disappointed by the lack of Marten in them. It’s a reality check of sorts. Expectation v. Reality is an ongoing struggle for some folks in the outdoor industry. Especially with the rise of social media. We only see the successful hunts, the selfies at mountain peaks and the perfect campsites. So it’s understandable that some of us (myself included) go into some experiences with a preset image of how said experience will go. That’s not how life works, let alone a lifestyle as dependent on uncontrollable variables as the one we experienced in Quebec. 

We did have a few other projects worth mentioning, the first being our snowshovels. The Cree carry small, hand carved snow shovels for the same purpose we use them for, as well as for getting ice out of a newly chiseled fishing hole. They’re beautiful to look at, combining the simplicity of purpose with vibrant colors and patterns. Traditional Cree snowshoes achieve the same concept. They are a tool, and the appeal of them comes not only from their asthetic appearance, but from the way they interact with their intended environment. Snowshoes, for example. The traditional model of a Cree snowshoe is decorated with small colored fibers on their upturned tips, and when they move through the snow the colors, the flexibility of the decoration combine with the motion of the shoes as they drift through powder, drawing the eye into the illusion of something with a life of its own. 

Seeing the process of making a snowshovel as well as taking part in it ourselves forced us to consider not only the shapes we wanted to carve, but the function we needed those shapes to perform. 

                                           Masters at work

There are limited power tools available in the bush. David shaped the forms of the snow shovel with a chain saw, then used an axe to flesh out the basic curves and lines. The understanding of the tool, and the hours logged using it become apparent immediately. Once the basic shape is pulled out of the birch, a crooked knife is employed. Traditionally, axe and crooked knife are the only tools used. 

As we worked the shovels into shape, Laurence and David watched. Their method of teaching was more like being a guide. When we had questions about a next step or a specific curve in the shovel, they simply told us to shovel some snow. It was a continuation of the practical approach they took to a tools use. When we used the unfinished shovel, we could see what needed to change in order for it to be more effective. There are few things as rewarding as making a tool, and employing it for its designated purpose. 

With the shovels carved, we spent the rest of the day rechecking traps, and helping dig out a collapsed shelter. In doing this the necessity of snowshoes in the environment we were inhabiting became apparent. The trail we walked to reach the shelter was hard packed, and didn’t require the distribution of weight that snowshoes provide, but once we reached the walls of the shelter itself we struggled to stay on top of the snow while we dug out enough snow to hop over the waist high wooden walls. 

While we worked with Laurence to empty the shelter frame of snow, we didn’t speak much. The quiet was only broken by small bursts of laughter when one of us slipped, or a leg crunched through the deep snowdrifts on either side of the frame. It was good to simply work, as always. 

By the time we’d finished, it was time for dinner. Our last meal with the Cree was a culmination of a lot of the work we’d done over the week. Stewed snowshoe hare, boiled sucker fish, and the biggest pot of moose meat you can imagine. A few of David and Anna’s children joined us for dinner, joking with us about the best parts of the various dishes we partook in. Even convincing Ben, Colin and I to try the brains of the snowshoe hares. I’ve had fried pig and calf brain sandwiches (Baltimore cusine; if you can fry it, you can eat it) but the rabbit brains were something completely new. Nothing went to waste from the animals we’d harvested. Fish heads, rabbit offal and every other edible piece of these animals was laid out in front of us. 

After dinner, Anna, David and Laurence came to our tent and told stories, sang Johnny Cash songs with us and prepared to say our goodbyes. Before we called it a night however, Anna showed us a special part of Cree culture; the care of infants. This started by bringing the skins of the hare’s we’d caught, now dried and stretched, and demonstrating how to cut and spin the hides into long rabbit fur ropes that would be woven together to make a child’s coat. 

As we sounds the skins, David told us more stories about his life in the bush, and about his memories of the shifting world he’s witnessed as the Cree started to modernize. Once he’d finished, and the rabbit “yarn” had been spun, Anna brought out a finished child’s coat for us to see. She joked that it was a shame none of us were small enough to try it on. As the bag of bones in the group, I offered to give it a try and draped the hood of the coat over my head, while holding the freshly sounds hides up to my face like a beard. Laurence laughed and said I looked like “Daniel Boone”. 

As Anna showed us more of the ins and outs of child care, it seemed that this was the most important thing she’d showed us. We could see the joy in her face as she talked about building the baby’s hammock, and how Cree diapers and swaddling had been practiced. As the night slowly came to an end, it seemed right that our time with the Cree ended with an insight into how their lives had begun. Or maybe I’ve read too much poetry for my own good. 

This experience was one I’ll think of often. We witnessed ways of teaching, and a philosophy behind it that was counter intuitive to our Western education background. We only got a glimpse of life in the bush, and I know for certain that I’ll be hankering for another taste until I get back up to the great white north. 


As always, if you’ve got questions about the experience, or want to know more about Ouje-bougomou and setting up a visit don’t hesitate to ask. 

Slainte Maithe

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