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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Immersion 

Americans love the outdoors. 


Well. Something along those lines. We love the idea of them, and we love to have personally conquered them. It’s a strange pattern in our culture, and ours specifically.  

It’s not just about the commercialization and industrial mentality I’m talking about. People smarter than me are doing a much better job pointing out the issues brought up by that and working towards solutions.

No, this has more to do with our disconnect from nature as a culture. Nature and the outdoors are something we DO, the way we go to a bar or a theme park. We “make a day of it”. We plan it out and check off things as we go along. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. Probably more so. I’m working on it. 

Now, this isn’t unique to Americans. We aren’t the only ones who market adventures and use the outdoors as a backdrop. There’s nothing wrong with that inherently. If an individual has the ability to show people a more tantalizing side of life by taking them climbing a mountain, or skydiving, all the power to them. 

The difference is, we don’t know when to stop. Everything is peacocked up into some grand escapade. I’ve even seen nature walks marketed as “adventure in an afternoon”. 

That’s not right. Not in the slightest. Worse yet, it cuts us off from a lot of aspects of the outdoors. Things that inarguably help us be better people. 

Other cultures have this inherently tied into aspects of daily life. The concept of “friluftsliv” is a recent discovery for me, but it’s one I’m going to pursue doggedly for the rest of my life. It’s a Scandinavian idea that roughly translates to “free air life”. It bleeds into a lot of daily life in those cultures. It’s the idea of just being in nature. Not out to conquer it, or take something away. Just existing. That’s something I’ve always felt when I’m out on trail, or even just sitting out in a backyard. We need it so badly, and we don’t even know it. 
I’ve been reading a lot about youth education lately. It’s all in preparation for a project I’ll be starting in the new year. (If you’re curious check out the site and let me know what you think) 

One of the books every teacher I approached recommended was “Last child in the woods”. I’d recommend everyone read it, but the premise is that young people NEED the outdoors the way a tadpole needs water until it’s a frog. Then it can take time away from it if necessary. That’s my analogy, not the author’s, but I think it’s a good one. We don’t immerse ourselves in nature as much as we should. We spend our time there to accomplish a goal, and then it’s back to the humdrum of every day life. 

I get it, and for some folks maybe that’s the only way they can enjoy it. Going back to that tadpole analogy, maybe some people are more like toads. In the water when they absolutely have to be, then a whole life spent out of it. Why though? As much as we’d like to remove ourselves from the natural world, we’re part of it. Admittedly, modern life tends to paint the “wild” as an other. An outside force we’ve been trying to escape since we first stood upright and came down from the trees.


 I tend to disagree with this, and I’m not alone. There have been plenty of studies and research done showing that time spent outdoors is not only good for us physically, it makes us happier. Again, I’d recommend “last child in the woods if you want a clear explanation of how it effects the growth of young minds, and how those effects can change a person’s entire life.


  

So, here’s a challenge. The next time you go outdoors? Go by yourself. Not just without a group of friends, but without anything else that connects you to them. Leave your phone, or if you really MUST have it for pictures/emergencies/etc put it on airplane mode. Take a journal, and just find a quiet place to stare off for a few hours. Jot down the thoughts that really reach out to you, or sketch what you see. Anything to really force yourself into just being. Because, no matter how much you feel like you’re not part of nature, you are. And in my experience, it’ll remind you pretty quickly. 

Pop Heinkle’s Hands And Reprobus’ Work Ethic

We’ve all heard that whole bit about people looking like their dogs right? You see a man with a sagged, lined face walking his bulldog and it just seems right. We see bits of ourselves reflected in our pets, and that’s why we like having them around.

Sometimes it isn’t just a physical resemblance. It’s certain traits that let us get along so well with these balls of fur and joy. We can learn a lot from the dogs we have around us. A lot of the time they’re a better indicator of ourselves than any psychoanalysis would be.

My dog is absolutely this for me. My family jokes constantly that Reprobus is my “id”. All my energy and impulsiveness bottled and corked into 45 pounds of joy and desire for work. He needs a job to be doing, or he gets himself into trouble. Curiosity and impishness that can only be countered by wearing himself out entirely, and a distrust of new people. I can certainly relate to that, especially the other side of that distrust, which is an almost asinine devotion to people once his border collie brain decides they’re part of the “flock”.

We all need something to devote ourselves to. For some, it’s social interaction or a creative outlet. It’s the thing you do that all other things in life work towards. The thing that you can put everything you are into. For Rep and I, that thing is work itself. Something that physically wears us out to the point of sitting still for longer than ten minutes.

It’s a hard thing to channel for some of us who take part in an outdoor heavy lifestyle. Especially when the workweek takes up most of our time, and the work we do isn’t physically demanding. I worked in an office all through college, and I’d come home with my mind racing and my bones aching for some kind of activity. It got me in trouble a lot. I’d do stupid things out of sheer boredom, and annoy the hell out of anyone around me with an endless stream of consciousness out of my mouth.

Now that I’m back in Baltimore, I’m working for my uncle towing cars. It’s demanding physically and leaves me feeling truly tired after a twelve hour shift. The other day I glanced down at my hands and realized that they were starting to look like my great grandfather’s paws. He worked in a brickyard his whole life and some of my first memories of him involve his hands. Even in his nineties he still had hands like a bear. Albeit a bear covered in grease and clay, or dirt if he’d been working in their garden. We don’t always intend to end up like our family, but sometimes it sneaks up on us, in ways we don’t expect. I have never considered myself to be a hard worker, if anything I’m prone to bouts of laziness. However, having a job to do that allows me to work with my hands all day and come home sweaty and filthy has brought out the work ethic I respected so much about my great grandfather. It’s rewarding in and of itself, rather than being rewarding because of the money or accolades received. 

So, how does this apply to you, the reader?

 I can’t rightly say. All I know is that if you have the opportunity to work with your hands in some way do it. Find small tasks that require some form of tactical dexterity and apply yourself to them. If you’re mind is racing and you can’t slow it down, physical work draws you out of yourself and into the subject of your efforts. It doesn’t have to be something truly manual. Got an artistic bend? Try some form of sculpture or wood working. If I’m still wired after a day of work lately, I carve and whittle. It’s even better if you can make something you or someone else will have a daily use for. 

For example, 

After my first week of working at Henry’s I found myself restless on the weekend. Even hiking couldn’t wear me out enough to replace the long days of the workweek. So I asked around at work and found a few little projects. Currently I’m working on a walking cane for a coworkers mother.

 

It adds an extra touch of meaning to a project when it’s for someone else. You’ll find yourself more focused on getting it right, and that’s drive to improve your ability as you go, rather than doing good enough for yourself. 

So, get the chaos of your mind out on occasion. Work with something tangible, sweat a little and get a few calluses on your hands. At the very least you’ll end up with a better nights sleep, at best you’ll find the work ethic of physical labor transferred into your daily life. That’s nothing to shake a stick at, carved or otherwise.