Meegwetch to all the people of Anishinaabe-Aki
David Meekis of Deer Lake and his family, including his wife Joyce, daugher Cassie Turtle and grandson Hody Meekis.
This summer I spent 50 days traveling through Anishinaabe-Aki in my canoe.
I left Sioux Lookout paddling to Slate Falls then north and west to the height-of- land of the Berens River and downstream to Pikangikum and Poplar Hill, then north to Deer Lake and finally east and south to McInnes Lake where I flew to Red Lake.
For more than 30 years our family has traveled in Anishinaabe-Aki by canoe. This summer was the first time paddling by myself. I am writing to thank all the people who helped me along the way. Each day I followed in people’s footsteps giving me strength, comfort and a deep sense of gratitude.
The story begins one cold day this March as my wife and I returned from a funeral where a dear friend was laid to rest. We were struck by the words of a psalm and back home I dug out our Bible to read them again. My grandfather gave us this Bible 25 years ago. Opening the book I found the letter he wrote to me then. I was overwhelmed by how his words spoke to me so many years later. I wanted to find a path back to my grandfather and his tradition, a world so different from our world today. And I thought, what better way than to travel in a culture that understands how to speak to Grandfathers and our need for those conversations.
Travel in high water brought me to Slate Falls one rainy Saturday morning. I met a man who saw me paddling across the lake and came out in his truck to talk. At the Health Centre I talked to a woman preparing to give a man an IV who told me she had paddled with a group of people to Fort Severn. I met three teenaged boys on the boardwalk in Slate Falls. They asked me where I was going and one of them knew exactly how to get there. When I asked if his family portaged north to the Berens River he answered, “Nobody travels those old ways anymore, not since airplanes.” Prophetic words, as I was unable to find any trace of a trail. Because of him I chartered a flight with Slate Falls Air across the divide. Waiting for a plane I enjoyed the hospitality of Martin Payeur and Jim Muntzert at the idled Springpole gold prospecting camp.
Paddling down the upper Berens I was grateful at Woman Falls for the trail cleared of windfall by people from Cat Lake. I visited tourist operator Louise Coppen on Goose Lake and near Silcox Lake I met Barry and a group of moose hunters from Pikangikum. I am sure they were successful because over the next several days I saw a number of moose. Arriving at Pikangikum I spoke to a man who told me the difference between moose and bear swimming, and at the Northern I replaced my worn-out shoes with a new pair.
Two days later I paddled into Poplar Hill where our daughter Julia had taught one year. Within an hour of arrival I felt completely at home in this wonderful community. I stayed in Poplar Hill four days meeting Anne Anderson, Howard Comber, Jacob Strang, William Strang, Dano the young man who works at the school, Pardamus Owen, Solene Strang the Wasaya agent, gookoominanak and their grandkids at the business centre, Gerry Landry and his wife at the Northern and many other people. One night I had dinner with Brian Beaton and Susan O’Donnell who were working at the band office.
In Poplar Hill the only time I heard English was when someone spoke with me.
I followed the footsteps of Poplar Hill people up the Crookedmouth River. Trails maintained by tourist operator Ed Showalter helped me and I spent several marvelous days on old portages marked with stone cairns and axe blazes. Soon after I met Deer Lake people fishing and hunting ducks. In Deer Lake I talked to Stan Meekis, whose father had been minister of the United Church. At the impressive Health Services facility I tried to follow directions to the band office provided by three young women, amidst much laughter. I tried to get there, but they were right, it’s a long walk, and I gave up.
A couple days later finishing my supper beside a portage on the Kennedy River I met David Meekis with his wife Joyce, daughter Cassie Turtle and grandson Hody Meekis traveling to their camp. We pulled their boat over freshly felled tree limbs and the next day I enjoyed a delicious lunch of pickerel, potatoes and onions with bannock and tea at their cabin. Being with a family I felt a pang of homesickness and it wasn’t too many days later approaching McInnes Lake, helped by Deer Lake trails and those maintained by tourist operator Peter Hagedorn, I decided it was time to come home. I dug out my satellite phone and several hours later flew to Red Lake with Chimo Air.
Back in Sioux Lookout I was reunited with Werner Stunzi, Heidi Engel, Tom Terry and Carol Kenny. Many years ago these friends showed my wife and I that traveling as a family in Anishinaabe-Aki is not about “going on a canoe trip” but an opportunity to participate in the past, present and future of a vibrant culture. And as I did the day before my trip began I spent an afternoon with Peggy Sanders in Sioux Lookout. In a trip concerned with grandfathers those visits with an esteemed and much-loved grandmother served as perfect bookends.
Was I able to find a path, like a portage trail old and seldom used yet still in-the- ground, back to my grandfather? Yes I was, for among the most compelling words in my grandfather’s Bible are those telling us to treat each stranger as a guest. And that is what I experienced, from the land and everyone I met, each and every day of my trip. And so, meegwetch to all the people of Anishinaabe- Aki, thank you for helping me follow in your footsteps and the strokes of your paddles.
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