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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Three hundred thousand miles 

I just went on a road trip back to the Midwest, and that road trip ticked my odometer over the 300k mark. 

(Admittedly, I replaced my engine two years ago. Otherwise Jeep Prime would be dead by now)

Now, this isn’t a review of Jeeps, or a love letter too cars. This is about mileage.

I think of that mileage the way a geologist would think of digging down through layers of rock. As they go down they find different indicators. Stone that was probably carried by melting glaciers, volcanic rock from long dead magma. 

That’s what the miles on my Jeep mean to me. I can look at a certain stretch of miles and remember the places I was. From 299k to 300k, will always bring to mind this last trip. Stu and Morgan’s wedding, where I got to see two lovely people celebrate how happy they are, and will be as long as they’re with each other, and catch up with people I haven’t seen in years. Time spent with my closest friends in Stl, writing Tom Wait’s style songs about a woman who smells of Potato salad on a warm day, and time with the Chicago gang, building them a fire, having a few beers and reminiscing on life, and the paths we’ve all been taking. 

Somewhere around 250k I was on my way to Georgia, to start my attempt at the Appalachian trail. I only made it halfway through that hike, but it was still the moment when what I wanted became clearer. When I knew the outdoors was where I needed to be. That wouldn’t come to fruition for a few years, but it started there. 

Or the miles could bring to mind a drive to new Orleans with my other universal movie monsters. A week of revelry and excess. Getting to experience new Orleans away from bourbon street, meeting fellow Baltimoreans and loving the surprising common thread. 

The further back I go with this, the more nostalgic it becomes. Road trips with former girlfriends, driving back home to Maryland to see family. Cavorting around st. Louis with my friends (that last one is a phrase my father used to describe my wayward ways during college. In retrospect he’s right. I should have been studying instead of driving to parks and bars)

And that’s what I like so much about this method of memory. Jeep Prime (yup, that’s still his name) has been the biggest constant in my life, and due to that, can be linked to all the events. Bringing Rep home for the first time, getting rear ended by an old woman who was more concerned with the tiny dent in my bumper than the folded up hood on her little Prius. 

The mileage thing might not work for everything, but it’s important to find something like this to attach memory to. Sure, journaling is a great option, but words don’t bring back sensory memories the way other forms do. When I remember miles 299k-301k, I’ll be flooded with the smells of fire, and gin buckets. The sounds of Morgan and Stu laughing during their first dance, and everyone cheering for them as they start their new life. The ache of my ribs after laughing long into the night with the guys in Chicago. 

So find something you can make little mental notches in. Boots are good, if you’re a hiker. Or a collection of playlists, each one reminding you of a period of time. 

For me though, nothing’s going to beat Jeep Prime as a reminder of all the places I’ve been, and things I’ve seen. 

Cranky bones, transform and roll out.