It was one of those life-defining experiences, a rite of passage I heard my crew boss say. Eleven days by canoe…the trails of their ancestors…approximately 300 km from Behchoko to Wekweeti…through lakes and rivers mostly all upstream…and 48 portages. We were supposed to be traveling with the 11 other canoes that had left two days earlier, but somehow we ended up doing the entire trip alone…six of us in a lone canoe in the middle of nowhere. We had no gun. Our satellite phone had occasional reception at best, and we ran out of bear bangers days before the end. So when the second bear appeared, our crew boss hit a paddle to the stainless steel kettle to keep him at bay. That bear was staring right at us about 100 metres away, directly in our path. It always amazes me to see a bear..to remember we share the same planet.
It never got dark. The sun dipped below the horizon from about 1 to 4am, but it was always light. The sunsets and sunrises were spectacular; we paddled into many of them. The mosquitoes would come out at dusk. They were horrible. A bug jacket and extra deet couldn’t keep them away. Still, next to the majestic beauty of Canada’s north, of untouched land and silent song, they somehow became bearable.
Every year the Tlicho People have an assembly in one of their four communities. Most people will fly into the receiving one, but a hundred or so will paddle in, retracing the steps of their ancestors. I was the First Nation band manager (senior admin officer) in Wekweeti, the smallest and most isolated of those communities for several years a decade ago. Paddling into my old community was a real privilege, retracing the steps that so many of the elders, whom I’ve known well, had done so many times before. In the old days they would follow the caribou up to Wekweeti then return to Behchoko in the Summer to trade furs, gather together, and fish. They used birch bark canoes and later canvas; we had kevlar. We had an elder in our boat who told us many old-time stories throughout the journey, made us their delicious traditional bannock, and cooked the fish that we caught.
Our trip began with a bald eagle flying overhead. It felt like a good omen. I was given some tobacco from my friend to leave as offerings on the land and lakes we would be crossing, and I scattered a little every now and then, accompanied by prayer. Then one day as I was making my way across one of the longer portages with a heavy bag, aching muscles, burning sun and mosquitoes everywhere, I broke down. I hadn’t smoked in years, but I needed a momentary escape. There were no phones, no internet, no showers, and I knew it would be like that for another week. There was a cigarette. And I indulged.
A few days into the journey we had big rainstorms, which made us stay at the same camp for two days. I normally don’t like rainy days when I’m camping but this was a welcomed blessing to allow some soothing of my sore muscles. Around 11pm or so on the second night, the rain stopped and the sky turned red. It was surreal, like biblical. Then, just when it seemed it could never get better, out came the huge rainbow… That was the last time we would have a ‘day off’. We usually travelled 10 to 12 hours per day, sometimes 14 trying to catch up to the others. One day we started in the late afternoon and paddled until 7am; that sunset was incredible. Then it remained light while the sun dipped under the horizon for a few hours, followed by dense morning mist traveling through the sunrise. It was spectacularly gorgeous.
There were singing loons accompanying us on the trails; I hadn’t realized that they have so many different songs. There were also other birds that made such glorious melodies my heart would dance. Sometimes I would learn their call, whistle back and we’d sing to each other for a while, as though engaged in conversation. Sometimes we would pass a nest and a bird would start balking and wouldn’t stop until we were far ahead. Once we arrived at a portage and there lay a nest amidst the grassy swamp. A container of art, countless perfectly placed sticks intertwined together with about 8 or 9 eggs justly arranged in two circular rows. It was as though someone had taken great efforts to make this basket for Easter, and all that was left to do was to paint the eggs. The elder told us they were duck eggs. Then there were the dragonflies. They were as big as humming birds, and there were many.
We saw lots of beaver houses too. They were quite large, made with piles of branches and roots intertwined and cemented together by mud and earth. I found out later through google that the beavers get in and out by two separate underwater tunnels, and they don’t apply any mud at the peak of the lodge in order to allow for ventilation. They hollow out a dry chamber for their living space above the water line, and there is usually another little room for drying off and exiting the water. We never saw beavers around their homes, but on two occasions through the early morning mist we watched a couple swim across the lake.
Sometimes a part of the portage would be too wet and swampy to carry things so our crew leader would make a bridge by cutting down some trees. He was so efficient. Ghost Lake was a very long lake; it would take a whole day of straight paddling to get across. Papa Loko, the spirit of the wind, was at our backs that day. So our leader took the blue tarp, two trees that he shaved, and some rope, and he made us a sail. Throughout the journey he guided us to safety and taught us about the ways of the land and how to survive on it.
I learnt many things on that trip about endurance and acceptance, and about myself. One thing that sticks in my mind the most, other than my deep gratitude to the land, is something my crew boss said on the last day. It was after we’d been caught for hours in the huge thunderstorm; after we’d missed the motor boat that had come to pull us for the final stretch, which would have saved some six hours of paddling; and after several days of intense work, little rest and little food trying to catch up to the others. It had been two days we were expecting to arrive, and still the community was nowhere in sight. We were all out of steam, exhausted and counting on the motorboat to return. What he said not only filled me with energy to paddle on, but it felt like a revelation about the general human condition, “the problem is that you’re waiting to be saved.”
Nadine Neema ©2012
World traveler, former First Nation community manager, mentored by Leonard Cohen, Montreal’s Neema brings a lot of living to the stories she sets to beguiling contemporary folk music.