The second annual Journey of Wellness was completed this past month In Mistissini. This journey which started in Nitchequon on February 24 covered approximately 500 kilometres and took the participants about 30 days in total. James Alfred Gunner, the same Jimmy leading the regional journey (see p. 10), started this event last year. It now coincides with our annual Wellness Week.
The public health department of the band wanted to promote healthier lifestyles through our culture and the same time give our youth the opportunity to experience the hardships and difficulties our people went through daily for their survival. And finally the participants wanted to assist in the campaign of bringing our people home, to have a treatment facility closer to the inland communities for people with failed kidneys. They raised over $11,000 from local sponsorships for their walk.
Group leaders Charlie Iserhoff, skilled trapper and hunter, and Kenny Wapachee, on his second journey, said the weather made it more difficult this year. In the first three weeks they had only a couple of days of sunshine and most of the journey was through blizzard or hard snow fall. But both agreed, though, the hardest was when a member of the group couldn’t continue and the sadness felt by everyone in seeing this person having to leave the group. “The support in kinship formed is so strong that when something happens to one, everyone is affected,” said Kenny.
Charlie had also to deal with snow blindness making it harder still, but traditional knowledge soon got his eyesight back. Our Elders say snow blindness is caused by not only straining to see, but at this time of year, there are other particles in the snow that eventually irritate your eyes enough to cause snow blindness. A simple remedy is to wash the eyes with noxema; this burns for a few minutes but after washing it out, within a day, your eyesight should be restored.
There were 14 people on this journey with six joining at about the halfway point, including five women. Each member was responsible for their own supplies, which were towed on a handmade toboggan with the help of sleigh dogs. All walked the full distance on snow shoes. On the average they tried to cover 20 kilometres per day which meant starting at about 7 a.m. and setting up a new camp at 5 p.m. When they first started everyone found it hard but after a few days it started to get easier as they learned to pace themselves and muscles seldom used stopped aching.
Such a journey is not without mishaps and this one had a major incident caused by one of the dogs given to them for this trip. The dog could not be trained and wouldn’t pull the sleigh so was allowed to run freely along the way. A couple of times it chased caribou onto their paths, stole food and, worse yet, this dog was a female and went into heat. Usually you would use this to your advantage by putting the dog in the lead sleigh, but this one was free and ran off the trail whenever she wanted and, of course, the other dogs tried to follow and this caused many overturned sleighs, eventually injuring one of the women. She had to be airlifted to Chibougamau where she stayed in the hospital for a few nights, but upon her release she returned and completed the last day of the journey with the group.
We wish to congratulate those who took part in this journey of wellness and may you continue on this journey throughout your life. Many thanks to Charlie Iserhoff and Kenny Wapachee for their leadership. Many, many thanks to all those who have helped make this possible, Elders Sam and Minnie Awashish, William and Emma Matoush, Matthew and Shequewe Matoush, all who donated equipment, food, supplies and dogs. Most of all to James Alfred Gunner who started it all.
All the participants were welcomed home with a traditional feast and a large dance was held in their honour. Emotions were high for everyone, especially when they talked about events that happened along the way, how they stood together always knowing that our saviour was their true guide in this, their journey of wellness.