Fresh eyes on Waskaganish

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For a southerner, the idea that Arctic waters are within reach of the family car might seem preposterous.

But a paved road does reach James Bay, the southern extension of Hudson Bay, giving adventurous travellers an easy escape into remote wilderness enriched by a chance to mix with tradition-conscious Cree in their communities on the James Bay coast.

Last September, I took the first turnoff from the James Bay highway to Waskaganish at the mouth of the Rupert River. I made a point of coming when something special was going on. In September, this is the Smokey Hill fish camp, a cultural tradition in which families gather near the first rapids up the Rupert River to scoop up, smoke, fry and feast on migrating cisco.

There were also historical images drawing me to Waskaganish, once known as Rupert House. For one, this is where trader/explorer Médard des Groseilliers landed in 1668 on his mission to assess Hudson Bay as a gateway to rich fur country. He returned to England loaded with furs and the Hudson’s Bay Company, Canada’s oldest company, was launched.

The Rupert River itself stirs the historical imagination. It was the 19th century route of Cree canoe brigades that carried furs from Mistissini to tidewater at the Rupert House HBC post, and paddled back upstream with winter supplies.

And I felt overdue for contact with the kindness of Cree people and the feeling of calm they project.

To set out fresh on the James Bay highway, I slept in Matagami and left with a full gas tank. Gas was 10 to 15 cents a litre cheaper than in Montreal.

At km 6, drivers are greeted with cheerful “Bonjour/Hi” at a combination checkpoint and tourist information centre. It was my last human contact and solitude fully settled in when the Matagami radio station faded after about 30 km. For diversion, I stopped at wide, lonely rivers and read roadside panels explaining local geology and history. I checked out the rustic campground at Ouescapis Lake; it looked overgrown but picnic tables and shelters were like new. In the complete silence, I could hear the beating of a raven’s wings.

The Waskaganish turnoff comes at km 237. Scenery alternates between black spruce forest and open expanses of swampy ground. The Rupert River flows nearby just to the north, but never comes within view.

Waskaganish visitors must stop at a checkpoint. A friendly attendant with clipboard in hand asked if I had a local contact. I named tourism coordinator Tim Whiskeychan, who I had spoken to by phone about my visit, and was waved through to the Waskaganish First Nation.

Sunrise at Waskaganish catches the Rupert River in a calm moment

The first view of the community is an institutional landscape with school, police detachment, the gathering place, and an enormous new sports complex.

The road ends at the Kanio-Kashee Lodge, Waskaganish’s sole visitor accommodation with 24 rooms and a restaurant. Built in 1993, the single-storey inn overlooks the Rupert River, giving me my first look at the river. It is wide and calmly flowing here near its mouth, with unspoiled forest on the opposite shore.

The lodge stands at the corner of Cowboy Trail and J.S.C. Watt Street, an intersection honouring an unusual Cree family name and 1930s HBC manager James Watt who, with his wife Maud and local trappers, reversed an impending local extinction of beavers by operating beaver reserves.

After settling in, I crossed Watt Street to a white house that looked welcoming to curious visitors. It was the Heritage Cultural Centre and I found Stacy Bear with friends making bannock in a large frying pan. She knew about archeological digs at the fort built by des Groseilliers and loaned me a report on the latest effort in 2014.

Written by archeologist Christian Roy, it calls Charles Fort an “archeological and historic site of national significance” as the earliest trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The dig site is just east of the lodge, although its location is not marked.

Farther on, a white Anglican church strikes a proud pose from afar but a closer look reveals peeling paint and apparent abandonment. The adjacent cemetery is absorbing for its variety of Cree family names. Diamonds stand out, including the revered former Grand Chief Billy Diamond, who led the fight to protect Cree rights within the James Bay power development.

Tim Whiskeychan appeared in his pickup truck to take me around. An artist as well as tourism official, he first showed me his art studio where pride of place is held by his design chosen to adorn a Canadian silver $5 coin – a crouching hunter aiming at flying geese.

He also demonstrated his technique for creating colourful works by splashing paint-soaked goose feathers on paper, then adding a kaleidoscope effect using his iPhone.

We parted after setting a breakfast date, and curiosity led me into a log building housing the Cree Trappers Association. It looked like another welcoming building where a stranger could wander in and ask questions.

Trapper David Erless sat down with me to chat about how families spent the winter away on their trapping territories in the old days. These days, low fur prices have undermined fur trapping. And children now spend winter at school, not on traplines.

Leaving Erless, I walked along grassy slopes overlooking the Rupert River. A heritage waterfront protected from development, its main attraction at dusk was an entrancing view of cloud-streaked sunsets over the river mouth and Rupert Bay to the west.

Next morning, Tim and I met in the lodge restaurant. A sociable community gathering spot, it is a bright space with good food and a river view.

Tim mentioned some incubating ideas for giving tourists something to do when visiting Waskaganish. One involves boat excursions to other Cree coastal communities or out to historically interesting Charlton Island. But insurance regulations are a hindrance.

In a later email, he wrote that a committee is “in the works” to plan for the 350th anniversary of Waskaganish in 2018, as dated from the 1668 erection of Charles Fort.

Waskaganish tourism coordinator Tim Whiskeychan (right) and his friend Jacob Weistche lunch on cisco and a donut at Smokey Hills fish campSmoking cisco at the Smokey Hills fish camp on the Rupert River near Waskaganish

What we did put into practice that day was the idea of introducing visitors to local people who can convey aspects of Cree culture. And we would experience cultural tradition as embodied in the Smokey Hill fish camp.

Our first stop was the school. Tim pointed out his class graduation picture on a hallway wall. It drew my attention to a startling gender imbalance in class photos year after year – girls vastly outnumber boys.

Cree culture teacher Ricky Joly with a canoe paddle in progress.The school gives Cree culture classes to boys and girls separately. I met Ricky Joly, who teaches boys traditional skills such as carving canoe paddles, scraping moose hides and repairing rawhide snowshoes. Other items in his classroom include catfish skin rattles, tamarack goose decoys, marten penis needles, games made from caribou bones and wooden shovels with small scoops used to clear snow from traps.

Along with teaching production skills, Ricky stresses the importance of preserving Cree vocabulary surrounding these activities.

The tour ended on a sad note as Ricky lamented that the culture he teaches is dying and that he does not have time to get out on the land. His father recently removed his last traps, marking the end of an era. “He was the last of the breed of unschooled hunter-trappers,” Ricky said.

Tim then led me down the school’s labyrinthine halls to meet Pearl Weistche, an education consultant with the Cree School Board. An old residential school newspaper lay on her desk and I spotted a girl’s essay that seemed cheerful in contrast with the grim image of residential schools. Pearl said that some schools were less horrible, such as the ones at Chisasibi and Moose Factory.

She never went to a residential school. “My father hid me in the bush,” she said. He attended briefly before leaving due to illness, and, “Yes, you were punished for speaking Cree.”

Leaving the school, we picked up Tim’s friend Jacob Weitsche for the 20-km drive to the fish camp, stopping first at the Rupert River rapids. No one was fishing at the time, but Tim pointed out underwater rocks arranged to trap fish that are then scooped up with a hoop.

The rapids were turbulent despite the reduced water flow resulting from Hydro-Québec’s partial diversion of the Rupert River to drive turbines elsewhere.

Despite its diversion, the Rupert River can kick up impressive rapids at the Smokey Hills fishing site

Jacob knew wild berries and introduced me to edible small white berries as we walked a short trail to a lookout. Creeping snowberries, Tim said. Since I grew up conditioned to avoid wild berries as poisonous, it was special to find this treat hiding under a veil of ground-clinging foliage.

At the lookout, Jacob asked to borrow my binoculars. He had spotted a bald eagle perched motionless on a distant treetop.

We then drove to the fish camp, taking what locals call the gravel pit road at km 22 of the Waskaganish access road. Those directions didn’t help me the day before as I looked for the camp on my way in. There should be a sign here, Tim said as we turned in.

The fish camp is tucked amid homes and ceremonial buildings beside the river. We started in a smokehouse where fish that were cleaned and opened in butterfly shape were hung on rafters over the smoke of slowly burning poplar. The smoking adds flavour and dries the fish.

We then moved to a bright kitchen/dining room where the smoked fish are gently pan-fried and served to anyone who asks. It comes with a chunk of bannock and a tasty, chewy donut.

Peter Leney

I was also promised caviar, which seemed plausible since there would be female fish, but it proved to be a tease. This was really a fried mix of fish liver and intestines (cleaned, Tim noted), onions and flour called shashditchan.

A similar fish camp was operating across the river, reached by a boat waiting to ferry people over. On the other side, I discovered that the fish camp was not about Cree families continuing an old pursuit, but rather a classroom for teaching the traditional activity to 20 young people, according to supervisor Florrie Katapatuk.

As we lingered, I met the tallyman of the hunting territory where we stood. Clarence Cowboy cut a striking figure with his unusual hat and stocky physique. This is where I realized that Cowboy Trail in Waskaganish was not about cowboys, but rather a family name.

Everyone’s attention was caught by the appearance of a grey jay, or whisky jack, the boreal forest bird recently proposed as Canada’s “national bird.” Smart and bold, they usually eat, or steal, from your hand, but all my coaxing did not attract this one.

Before leaving the camp area, Tim wanted me to meet the community’s oldest resident, 98-year-old Mary Katapatuk. Peaceful, silent and warmly dressed, she was sitting with care-giving relatives. Tim said that, in a recent interview, she attributed her long life to staying active and doing chores, and she loved meeting people.

Back in Waskaganish by late afternoon, I returned the archeology report on the Charles Fort to Stacy Bear at the cultural centre. Artifacts uncovered there, including clay pipes, are displayed at the Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou, she said.

I left with a gift of a big chunk of bannock and, at dusk, I was back on the grassy riverside slopes absorbed by the view of distant Rupert Bay and another magical sunset

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