Muskwa and her babies

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I am not an early riser, so it was with some difficulty when I had to wake up at five in the morning for a short fishing trip with some friends of mine. Rob and his son Jack are southerners and they look forward to the true northern experience of rising early with the hopes of catching a good-sized fish on a quiet lake.

As we paddled out into the middle of the lake in our canoe, the early morning sun was already starting to burn off the mist from the water. We sliced through the mirror-like water away from dock and headed for the far end of the lake where there were no cottages or people. It was a peaceful morning and my friends were in awe of the chorus of birds that greeted the morning light. Crows seemed to talk to each other in all sorts of strange tones instead of merely cawing to one another, small birds tweeted and sang, gulls called to one another in shrilling sounds and loons cried out in their familiar haunting notes. The air was still as we made our way through the cool mist as the sun seemed to follow us in our wake in soft beams.

I have not fished much in my life with a rod in a recreational way. All of the fishing I am familiar with has to do with survival and bringing in some food. We fished with nets so that we could bring in as many as possible in a short time. As a matter of fact, I only remember fishing with a rod once at the back of a moving aluminum boat while moose hunting. I spent the day leading out my entire line and reeling it back while trolling along the Opinigau River in Polar Bear Provincial Park, northern Ontario. I did this more or less to break the boredom of travelling on the hunt for three or four hours and I finally caught a trout for all my efforts.

On this day at the lake, I let my friends enjoy their fishing and I paddled in contentment. It was a pleasure for me to dip my paddle quietly into the cool fresh water and manoeuvre our canoe to fishing spots here and there near the shoreline. As the mist dissipated and the sun shone brighter, the fish were biting less.

At one point we were surprised by the sounds of distant thrashing and crashing in the bush and trees from the far side of the lake. I scanned the shore and noticed a large bush shaking and leaning from side to side. We kept fishing but I quietly moved our canoe closer, knowing that anything on shore would have a hard time swimming out to us on the lake. The movement on shore kept changing and the thrashing moved from one bush to another. In the dense foliage, a dark figure crawled in and out of the veil of leaves and brush.

I kept us a safe distance from shore and we scanned the forest. Suddenly, up popped the very large head of a huge female bear or muskwa, as we call her in Cree. She was obviously standing up straight and checking us out. Quickly we realized that her concern was for the two little cubs that scurried out of the bush on the shoreline. We realized that they were heading for a little clearing at the water’s edge for a drink.

As mother bear watched, we stopped the canoe to take in the natural scene that was unfolding in front of us. The cubs were equally curious about us and they peered out at us floating on the lake. The braver of the two young ones, walked onto the trunk of a fallen tree into the lake and popped its head out of the bush to have a better look at us. It was exciting to watch a young cub perk its ears up and stare innocently at us humans floating in the canoe. That moment didn’t last long as the mother grunted a command and the cub quickly returned to the safety of the shore and near her. We watched the bear family for about half an hour as the cubs frolicked on the shore like a couple of mischievous kids. My southern friends were exhilarated at this unusual sight and they were also a little scared.

On the James Bay coast bears are rare as the muskeg landscape does not provide a favourable habitat for them. The only time people up north come into contact with bears is on dry patches of land near camps or anywhere that people have left food or garbage. Much of the time my bear sightings have been on the northern highways or at garbage dumps. It was wonderful to catch a glimpse of the bear family out on its morning walk for a drink. The fact that we had not caught any fish didn’t bother us at all. It was great just to spend a few precious minutes in touch with nature at its best with life in the forest, on the lake and in the sky teeming all around us. I guess you could say it was heavenly.

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