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.

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The gospel of millimagassett

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It can be hard not romanticizing experiences. It’s partly due to the fact that people who wander have a cloying feeling inside us that begs to be fed with novelty. So we tend to find novelty in everything just to stave of the creep of the mundane.
This is important to keep in mind throughout this piece. We’re in the final stretch of the course up here at Jack Mountain, and our latest canoe trip really solidified that in my mind. Not because the experience is romanticized in the article, but because it didn’t need to be. The place we spent time in had something pure that any additions would only spoil.

Our destination was in the North Maine woods again, but with a very distinct caveat. We didn’t just drive up stream, unload the canoes and head down the river. The campsite was an island on lake millimagassett. I hesitate to even give the name because it was truly pristine and I want to keep the location to myself, but that’s not what this site is about. The lake is remote, due to the fact that it’s inaccessible by car. The only way in? Paddle upstream. (That’s another clever attempt to keep people off it. Really we poled up almost all of millimagassett stream.) Or if you’ve got a puddle jumper plane handy you can fly in.

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Like I said , wanderers romanticize things. This lake expands that idea.  I challenge anyone to paddle around the outlet of the stream until the lake and it’s islands come into view and not feel the sense of being somewhere truly free and wild seep into their hands and replace the ache that built up as they paddled. As my canoe partner Jeremy and I rounded that bend I felt the first inkling that we as a group had progressed at this skill. This became even stronger when we pulled into our temporary island home and began to set up camp. On the previous trip, we’d been directed by Tim and Paul as we played out our base. This time, everyone knew what needed to be done for the most part. It felt good to wander the island, find a spot as far away from the group as I could manage and set up my lean-to. I wanted to wake up the next morning to a view of the lake, and be able to hear the pair of Loons that patrolled the water around us. I was not at all disappointed.

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(as I said, not at all disappointed)

Breakfast the next morning was another indicator of how comfortable we’ve all gotten with camp life. Everyone was capable of making their own food in a timely manner, and this allowed for the meal to just be that. A meal. Not a teaching experience or something that felt bracketed into the schedule. Paul and Tim both just sat with us for an hour or so, drinking coffee and talking and joking.

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It’s odd how the learning experience changes once everyone has that solid foundation. The learning is on us now, and that’s a great thing. Just sitting and chatting with Paul about an odd insect nymph we’d found spiraled into an in depth conversation about insect life cycles, how they fit into the ecosystem they inhabit and little details about their body structure etcetera. Of course this was all a clever scheme on Paul’s part to talk about fly fishing. I should have seen that coming.

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We spent the day paddling around and working on softening some hides we’d brought along. I was out on the lake when I had the next moment of clarity. Throughout this course we’ve been keeping weather journals. Watching the direction of the wind, types of clouds and anything else we can in order to keep tabs on incoming rain etcetera. As I sat floating and listening to the Loons and eagles (oh, yeah. There was a bald eagle nest on the peninsula of our island. I’d make a big deal out of it if they weren’t as Paul aptly put it “really pretty vultures.”) I felt the pressure drop, and the wind shift and knew in a visceral way that it was about to rain. People tend to talk about being in touch with nature in a superficial way. This was something else. It was an understanding not only of the visual signs of weather ,but of my own bodies reaction to it. It’s not a hard thing to learn, but it’s not something a lot of people nowadays pay attention to.

Once the rain hit, we all hunkered down for the night. The next day though was a day for paddling. At least for me. As soon as I was awake I had a boat in the water and was exploring the lake. It was incredible to see the water and the woods around it wake up. I sat still long enough that the Loons came within ten yards of the boat, I watched the eagle circle the lake looking for its morning meal, and swam by the shore once I’d paddled back to our island. Once everyone else was up, we had our canoeing practical exams, and tried out sailing with two canoes lashed together. (Of course the wind died JUST as we got the rig set up.)

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The paddle back down stream was calm and relatively slow. No thirty-five mile panicked race back, just floating down, watching the nature around us and joking with Jeremy about the fact that I had my shield strapped to my back and was wearing a kilt. Oh. That didn’t get mentioned? Raife and I did the full three days in kilts. I have no other information to add to that. I do have a picture though.

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             (No “true Scotsman” jokes.)

All in all? I enjoyed this trip much more than the last one. It felt easier. I don’t mean that I liked it because it wasn’t a challenge. I liked it because we all felt prepared for those challenges. After a long talk with Jeremy, he termed this “the gospel of millimagassett”. (For a guy as quiet as Jeremy, I’ve heard some absolute poetry out of his mouth.)

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We may not all go into this industry, but we’re certainly turning into a group of people who can handle themselves in the outdoors. Not in a “survival” sense. We’ll do you one better. If we take you out to a lake, or pine woods, we know enough now and are still learning more about how to keep you comfortable in it. Its not about surviving, it’s about fitting into the world we’re a part of. All of us up here are becoming the people to help you do that.