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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Winter Living With The Cree pt. 3

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So, I woke up the day after running trap lines and setting nets feeling a bit off. I attributed it to all the rich food we’d been eating. Moose meat is wicked heavy, and I ate enough of it to sate a bear for hibernation. As the morning progressed it became clear I’d picked up a stomach bug that was going around Ouje. Not a great experience on a trip like this, but after a day of rest and lots of water was feeling leaps and bounds better. The bug caught a few of the other guys as well and forced a sort of “sick v. well” rota for all the tasks around camp. I missed out on a day of setting marten traps and getting started on making Cree snow shovels.

 

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Catfish Ben with our first hare

 

The next day, however, was a full one. We started the day walking our trap line with Laurence and checking the snares we’d set. We caught one snowshoe hare and carried it back to camp after resetting the snare. Walking a trap line first thing in the morning has an almost meditative feeling to it. You don’t speak because you don’t want the animals to associate the place with loud noises and human interaction. The trudging of each step creates a rhythm as we fall into line behind one another, matching the stride of the trail breaker and packing down the snow with each step.

 

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Doug watching intently as Anna works the otter’s pelt.  

 

When we got back, Anna led us over to one of the other shelters in camp and explained that she’d be skinning out an Otter and we’d be helping Laurence skin out a Fisher Cat he’d trapped a few days prior. I’m not particularly versed in hunting and my only experience gutting out an animal is with fish (The scales are the best part if you fry them right! Why would you take ’em off?) So I wasn’t sure what to expect. I really shouldn’t have worried. Anna and Laurence made the process look like art. They chattered back and forth with us the whole time, explaining each step as they went. Anna working with the otter was something akin to seeing a master carpenter shape out the pieces he needed for a cabinet. It was slow, and the attention to detail was absolutely impressive. Doug, a member of our group, had been trapping otters on his property in Maryland (Oh, did I mention three of our group of five hailed from the land of pleasant living?) and had found preparing the pelts difficult. Otters, like any other mammal that lives in the water, have a thick layer of fat to insulate them against the cold water. Doug had found removing this layer frustrating and time-consuming. As we watched Anna work, it became apparent that the layer of fat wasn’t even something she worried about. There are tools marketed to trappers that are “specialized” for use on Beaver, Otter and other animals with fatty hides. Anna used a simple, cheap and small knife set for her work. I watched realization spread across Doug’s face as the mental arithmetic added up. Talking with him later he explained that the knives he’d been using were too big, and didn’t allow for the slow methodical method that Anna used.

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While Anna was working with the Otter, I helped Laurence with the fisher. Fisher Cats, for those who don’t know, are a large member of the weasel family. They’re sleek and move through snow and water like a bit of black grease slides through moisture. They’re also known up here in the north for their scream. If you’ve never heard it before I highly recommend taking a minute to go listen here.

Done? Like a banshee right? Imagine hearing that at night time while you’re camped out far away from any infastructure.

Aaaaaaany way, sorry for the little side trip down “What the hell was that?” lane.

As I worked the hide away from the fishers body I was struck by how lithe the musculature of these animals is, and how narrow certain parts of their bodies are, before exploding into a wide ribcage. While we worked away at it, David told us about using dried fisher testicles as slingshot ammo for hunting small game. It’s hard to tell when David’s joking. A lot of the older Cree we met have a very specific laugh that they use almost as punctuation, a short sharp chuckle that ends a sentence. David used it almost constantly, and it was very telling of how happy they are living this lifestyle. Always laughing or smiling, even while doing hard physical work, or talking about hard times in the Cree’s history.

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While we skinned out the fresh hides, David went and got a lynx pelt that he needed to stretch. Seeing a lynx hide up close is something else. It’s large and the paws are like dinner plates, almost shaped like the smaller variety of snowshoes that allow for quick turns between trees in the woods. Watching David stretch the hide out was an education in simplicity (Seems like a trend is forming here), he simply pulled it over two planks that formed a pincer shape. Then using a third wedge-shaped plank forced the pincer apart, pulling the lynx taught. After the otter and fisher had been skinned out, he did the same with them. Once they’d been stretched long enough anna would pull them across a frame to finish treating them.

 

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Otter hide being stretched

 

Once the hides had been processed, we spent a bit of time working on making snow shovels, but I’ll save the details of that for the next piece. Laurence had roasted two geese all day by hanging them next to the stove in his tent, and after a long day of work, we couldn’t ask for a better meal to end the day.

 

I really hope you guys have been enjoying these articles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them up. It’s hard to encompass all the subtlety of the world we only got a glimpse of, but I’m having a blast trying.

 

Stay tuned,

Slainte Maithe everyone.

Winter Living With The Cree Pt. 2

Welcome back to uncle cranky bones’ story corner.

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Last time we were together the group from Jack Mountain had spent the day hiking and getting to know some of the Cree from Ouje-Bougomou. The next day held more of the same. We were invited to visit their cultural center, which filled us in our Ouje’s history as a community. The Cree in the James Bay area were relocated seven times, starting in 1920. As the land they’d lived on for generations was converted into lumber mills and hydro dams in the late 80’s, the Cree decided to fight for their homeland. In 1992 they won that fight. Not only did they can sovereignty in the land set aside for them, the Canadian government allocated funds for use in building up a community center. Thus, Ouje-Bougomou was born. The community was built with the Cree’s values in mind,  even winning an award from the United Nations in 1995 for their efforts in building a sustainable and environmentally friendly town.

After our tour was over we headed out to the bush. We arrived at Scott lake as the sun was setting, got settled in our tent which as similar to our lodgings in Ouje, but smaller. It was filled with tools and a pair of lynx paws that hung off one of the rafters. We had dinner with David and Anna, as well as David’s partner in trapping, Laurence. They shared a little about their lives growing up in the bush. Anna shared her experience working for the cultural center and explained that most of the time doing it she longed to be back out in the bush with David. She used the phrase “He was free out there” and that sentiment really struck me, and influenced the rest of the trip.

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David and Anna have been doing this a long time. They’re in their seventies and have raised twelve children. All while navigating a world that was changing before their eyes. They’ve built a successful guide business, not because they’re industry savvy, but because they live this life every day. It becomes apparent as they talk about traditions, and methods of living in the bush that they have an affinity for the land they inhabit that is far beyond any scribbling I can put in this article. They have thirty-eight grandchildren and are intimately connected with the entire community through their family. Every time they speak about someone they know they introduce them in terms of how they are connected to their family. Our favorite part of every day with them as after dinner. We’d sit around doing the dishes and listening to David and Anna tell stories. Some about their lives, some about the Cree lifestyle, and (my personal favorite) legends their people had about life in the bush.

As we headed to our tent they told us that, come morning, we’d be going out on the trap line ith Laurence. We fell asleep with visions on snowshoes and rabbit snares dancing in our heads. A little less poetic than sugarplum fairies, but still managing to have the same effect on our little band of miscreants as said visions have on children at Christmas.

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Snowshoe tracks and Rabbit prints

The next day held exactly what those visions had proffered. Laurence was quiet. No, that isn’t quite accurate. Laurence IS quiet embodied. . He rarely spoke, and hen he did he muttered to himself in Cree or made little statements that would slip by if you didn’t pay attention. As we snowshoed through his trap line, crossing beaver ponds, hills and eventually moving out onto the lake, he set rabbit snares. The Cree’s approach to teaching is far different from what we in western culture would think of as educating. They don’t lecture or explain things. They simply do, and expect you to pay attention and emulate what you see. The methods we saw employed weren’t fancy. Simple wire snares, and branches placed in the path to guide the snowshoe hares we were after into them. Simplicity is a watchword in the Cree’s traditional way of life. No frills, just enough to get the job done effectively. David, Anna and Laurence all grew up living a subsistence lifestyle. Trapping and fishing to meet their daily dietary needs, and that fact is apparent in the approach taken to running a trap line. The goal isn’t recreation, it’s bringing in the calories they need, in the most efficient way possible.

img_20170117_115724358.jpgLaurence’s‘ Rabbit Snare; simple and as we learned, incredibly effective

 

 

Our next task was the culmination of this approach. After setting the snares, we headed back to camp to help David go fishing. Fishing with David is not a “drink a beer, sit on the dock and maybe catch a fish worth posting to Instagram” affair. There aren’t rods or lures, or the pot of hot cocoa I always mentally associate with ice fishing. David chisels two large holes in the ice, with multiple smaller holes in between them. Then he threads a large net between the initial holes with a forked birch branch and a spruce pole. The spruce is used like a needle, guiding the net from one hole to the next, until it’s stretched under the ice. This isn’t a hobby, this is a means of gathering food to feed a community.

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After setting the net, we headed back for dinner and more stories from David and Anna. We laughed and joked with them for a while, then headed back to our tent for the evening. We talked about books we were reading, and plans for when we got back to the US (Even joking about how we’d inadvertently “run away to Canada” for the presidential inauguration). We weren’t sure what the next day held, as the lifestyle in the bush is less schedule focused, and revolves instead around what needs to be done as needs arise.

I’m going to leave you folks in the same spot. There’s lots more to come in regards to this trip, and I’m chomping at the bit to share it with you. Come check in on ol’ uncle cranky bones later. I’ll have more stories to spin for you as soon as I can.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

Trapping And Winter Living With The Cree.

For the last nine days Tim, a few other Jack Mountain Alums and I were lucky enough to spend time with David and Anna Bosum in northern Quebec. David and Anna run Nuuhchimi Wiinuu , a guiding service that allows them to share their way of life as Cree trappers. It was, in all aspects, a perspective-shifting experience. David and Anna were born and raised in the bush, (David told me the that the first time he lived in a town he was in his forties). They both radiate a love for the land they live on, as well as a breadth of knowledge about the flora and fauna that inhabit it. This trip is going to get split into two or three articles, because even in just a week the Bosums, and the Cree we met in Ouje-Bougomou taught our group more than I could possibly do justice in one.

So, let’s jump right in here.

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We arrived in Ouje-Bougomou on a Saturday evening. It’s a long ride from New Hampshire to northern quebec, but after two days of being on the road, our spirits rose as soon as we crossed out of Quebec and into Ouje. A little background here is probably necessary. Ouje-Bougomou is the most recent Cree community to gain the rights to their own land. The members were relocated over and over for decades until gaining recognition of their territorial land rights in the early nineties. Ouje is a part of a larger territory called “Eeyou Istchee”, which is made up of multiple Cree Nation townships around the James Bay region of Quebec.

On arrival, we found out that David was feeling under the weather, and we’d be staying in a traditional domicile in town, instead of heading right out to the Bosum’s camp in the bush. The shelter was simple. A large one-room home, with fir boughs neatly woven together to make up a cushioned, heat retaining floor, and a large camp stove in the middle for cooking and heating, with wood piled neatly behind it in seperate stacks of dried wood and fresh green logs.

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Around the walls were tools used in the traditional lifestyle of the Cree. A hide scraper made from birch and moose bone, a knife held together by leather cord and duct tape, but with an edge on it that showed it was a tool, not a decorative piece. To my eye, the home looked beautiful, and became more so as it dawned on me that nearly everything in it had a purpose The parts that were simply decorative? They were simple. A few designs stitched into the canvas door flaps, a ring of grouse feathers hung on a nail.

The next morning, David still wasn’t quite recovered. So he sent his son Thomas to take us “up the mountain”. We didn’t get much more information than that, until Thomas and a few friends showed up on Snowmobiles.

I should mention that I guess? There was four feet of snow AT MINIMUM everywhere we looked. If you’re walking on anything but paved, plowed roads, you’ll likely need snowshoes. I have never used snowshoes in my life until this point, but we’ll come to that later.

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The snowmobiles brought us into the trail that led up the side of the mountain, then left us to hike the mountain while they headed up to set up lunch at the summit. The hike wasn’t long, but it was steep in certain stretches and was a good first introduction to snowshoeing. Our guide up the trails was Katalina, a local teacher who gave us some insight into the changing culture of Oje. We chatted as we walked the trail, and asked questions about the youth in the area, and her observations about the interest in the traditional Cree ways of life. It was fascinating to see the merger of those ways of life and the modern influence of technology and the internet.

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Once we reached the summit, Thomas and his friends Antonio and Ron had a fire built, and were cooking moose meat over it. The view combined with a hearty meal of moose and heavy bannock was an experience I can’t imagine getting anywhere else. The wind and clear sunny skies sapped any heat we’d built up while hiking from our bodies as we stood and chatted about life in Ouje. They talked about growing up hunting and trapping on their territories, and how they’d watched a lot of their community shift away from that lifestyle in the nineties once Ouje started to build itself up as a modern town.

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We didn’t stay at the summit for long, as the sun was already starting to set as we headed back down. When we reached the bottom, we were greeted by some of the camp dogs. How in the world have I not mentioned them yet? The community constantly has dogs that roam around. They all belong to someone, but they aren’t indoor pets. They each have a look to them I haven’t seen in dogs anywhere else. London’s descriptions of dogs in his northern adventure stories come to mind. All muscle and grit. They ran alongside us as we rode back to town on the snowmobiles, keeping pace every step of the way. I’ve never seen happier dogs than these. Sheer joy at the energy expended to bound along beside sled and machine.

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Once back at our camp, we loped around with the dogs, continued getting to know some of the Cree, and stoking the fire in preparation for nightfall. As I chased (and was chased) by a large dopey black and tan mutt with paws like backhoes and mismatched eyes, dinner arrived in the form of fried walleye. In the midst of eating, one of the other dogs managed to sneak into our tent and deposit himself on Ben’s (one of the other alumni) sleep pad. We threw him out a few times. Eventually though, he wormed his way into Ben and the rest of our hearts. We couldn’t find it in ourselves to kick him out. We talked and joked late into the night. Well, it felt like it anyway. The sun going down around four thirty in the afternoon really makes judging time hard.

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Be honest. Could you have kicked this guy out?

That’s just our first day, keep an eye on this space. There’s a lot more to come. Our time in town was fascinating, but the real learning experience started once we got out to the Bosum’s camp.

Just a warning to the squeamish, the Cree trap and hunt extensively. So a lot of what we learned and took part in involves skinning and cleaning animals, as well as methods of harvesting them. I’ll be writing about the process, and will have photographs to accompany them.

Slainte Maith everyone.