Monday, October 31, 2016

The lone man in the canoe

Brenda and I saw something last week that made me flash back more than 50 years.
A lone man came paddling a canoe by the camp.
It is the time of year that makes this scene remarkable. We see people paddling canoes, usually groups of them, all summer as they journey to Woodland Caribou Wilderness Park, just beyond Trout Bay and Pipestone Bay. Most of them are on their way to Lake Winnipeg, far to the west. Nobody, however, starts such a trip in late October. Freeze-up, especially on smaller lakes, could happen at any time.
It was seeing the canoe at this time of year and a couple other things that twigged me back to the early 1960s.
The paddler appeared to be an older man, perhaps in his 50s. He paddled from the stern of the craft with the easy natural stroke of a First Nations man. In one continuous motion he propelled the canoe forward and corrected his course without stopping to use the paddle as a rudder. The course correction was simply made by putting side pressure on the paddle as it was being lifted for the next stroke. The canoe moved along several miles an hour and there was no doubt by the effortless way the man paddled that he could cover a great distance by nightfall.
In the bow of his canoe were two canvas packs, one of them with an axe handle sticking out. That was all he had. The man was wearing an ordinary fall jacket, unzipped, a flannel shirt and green work pants.
It's been a long time since I've seen such a sight.
When we first came to Red Lake and Bow Narrows Camp in 1961, a lot of Anishinaabe or Ojibwe people passed by camp in their canoes on their way to their winter traplines. There would be women, men and little kids and everybody, including the smallest child, had a paddle. In the case of the little kids, the paddles were usually fashioned from a board.
As the canoes came silently by camp I would race down to the dock and pass along my parents' invitation for everybody to come up to the lodge for some tea and a snack. We knew most of the men since the camp employed lots of them as guides for fishing and moose hunting. If they hadn't worked for us that year my mom and dad would ask where they had been and other questions about what they had been doing. If we didn't know them my mom usually would ask if they were related to people we did know. And, of course, we asked where they were going. They were all destined for cabins on their traplines on the Bloodvein River system, anywhere between Pipestone Bay and Manitoba.
They would probably snowshoe out at Christmas to sell their furs, they would say, and then come back by canoe six months later in the spring.
We would look at the two canvas packs in their canoe. "Are you sure you have enough food?" we would ask.
"Oh, yes," they would laugh.
In the packs would be a bag of flour, some salt, tea, baking powder and a little sugar. If they had any firearm at all it would just be a single-shot .22. That was it. That was all that stood between them and starvation and even freezing to death in the brutally cold Canadian winter, or so we thought.
The truth was these Anishinaabe people were, in fact, well-prepared but they were outfitted with skills and knowledge rather than consumer goods.
Food and clothing are everywhere if you know where to look and how to prepare them, and after living by their wits for thousands of years the Anishinaabe were masters at it. They had a use for every plant, every creature. To them, the Boreal Forest wasn't a formidable wilderness, it was a supermarket, pharmacy and clothing store. If you know what you're doing, you can even eat the trees! The inner bark of lots of trees can be scraped and made into a flour, or at least so I've read.
When we saw the same people paddling in the other direction as the ice melted in May, we were always struck by how marvelous they looked. It was as if they had spent the winter at some health spa. Everybody was in robust health. Their spirits were high and they laughed at every opportunity.
These people hadn't just survived the Canadian winter; they had thrived.
It occurs to me now that what we were seeing was a migration of people, one where they traveled to one place for the summer and the winter for another. It had been going on for thousands of years. Before there was the town of Red Lake, the Anishinaabe would come to big lakes like Red Lake to escape the summer bugs, catch fish, and trade. In the fall, they would head to smaller waters where they would harvest wild rice, hunt and trap.
By the end of the 1960s, that way of life stopped forever, unless that lone paddler was intent on reviving it.
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Terry Matson said...

I'll bet that was an awesome sight, Dan. What we could learn from those people today if wee just had the time to stop, listen and watch.

Dan Baughman said...

Absolutely. As a kid I got to spend a little time with the guides, going on trips to outpost lakes, carrying out moose, etc., and I wish I could say I was paying attention to it all. The truth, however, was I just thought all that I was experiencing was going to last forever and didn't pay much attention. I certainly have lots of fond memories of those days. Here's one: in the winters we moved from camp to what is now Sunset Lodge in Red Lake. It was called Ken's Lodge back then. Ken Litterer and his family would move back to Iowa for the winter and we could stay at their place provided my dad put up a summer's supply of ice in their icehouse. My best friend was Stanley Keesic, an Anishinaabe boy who lived about a half-mile away. I would be over at Stanley's house and got to see the Keesic ladies as they smoketanned moose hides. On the beach in front of their houses they built little tripods upon which they draped the hides. A small, smoky fire was built underneath and periodically they rotated the hides so that all parts got smoked. Before this they would have put the hides in the lake until the hair would slip off. How long did each process take? I've no idea because I didn't ask and wasn't paying that much attention.
The ladies made wonderful moccasins and slippers and would adorn some of them with incredible beadwork and furs.
My parents ran the skating rink and its concession stand in Red Lake and one night we were driving from town out to the camp when we came upon an elderly lady walking beside the road. "Hey, that's Stanley's mom," my dad said and stopped to see if she wanted a ride. She got in the backseat with me and got out at the trail that led to the Keesics' homes down at the lake. We went a little further and left the car at the road and took our own trail down to Ken's Lodge.
A few days later Stanley came over to the house to play and he brought a present for my mom from his mother. It was a pair of those fancy beaded moccasins with fur.
She tried them on and they fit perfectly. The brief minutes in the car was the only time my mom and Mrs. Keesic had been together so how did she know my mother's shoe size, which was quite small. Stanley said he had no idea but promised to ask when he went home. On the next trip to our place Stanley had the answer, "She saw your hands."
Mrs. Keesic had made the moccasins to fit perfectly just from a glance at my mom's hands as she had sat in the front seat.

Paul and Brett said...

Cool Story Dan! When is the book coming out???