The Beatles wrote and sang about many great events, and for this particular road trip, their words have specific meaning. Chiiwetaw, Waswanipi Old Post – a nation explored.
With a gracious invitation extended from event organizer Diane Cooper, The Nation Magazine funded this expedition and team leader Aaron MacDevitt chose his brave kayaking sidekick/exploring bud, Ray from Dorval, to accompany him. Here’s how events unfolded…
Somewhere past Val D’Or…
We city boys loved the fact that we were now traveling along an unknown, unlit, deserted highway late at night with absolutely no signs for Waswanipi. Coupled with the fact we had no idea how far it was, we were strongly comforted by the fluctuating gas gauge as well as the abundance of yellow and black road signs warning of moose. We therefore took the only obvious security measure left – we put on our kayaking helmets.
Despite our obscenely late arrival, once across the bridge we were immediately welcomed by some youths led by Peter Trapper. Merrily, he escorted us to our lodgings at Annie Blacksmith’s cozy bunker where we finally settled in for some much needed rest. Incredibly, some 10 hours since we left Montreal, we had made it.
Next morning the meet and greet began. Our most excellent host and Chiiwetaw organizer, Diane Cooper, was there to make arrangements for the trek to the river.
Not, however, before Michel Reid served up some mouth-watering grilled chicken sandwiches from River’s Restaurant and Oudaa Store’s charming Marilyn Bearskin helped us pick out a “lucky lure” sure to land us the big one. Dorothy Dixon, Sarah Ottereyes and Lisa Neeposh were all instrumental in providing much-needed advice as well as a running commentary on our apparent lack of proper “bush clothing.” Ha, ha, ha, ladies; let’s laugh at the city folk.
All kidding aside, Diane Cooper and her support team proved they know how to run a well-organized event. Upon arrival at the river’s bridge, we were immediately set up with a water taxi and loading crew. Smiling faces were happy to help move our seemingly endless supply of frivolous city gear into the boat with only a few friendly snickers at our expense. Before we could utter any version of thank you, we hopped aboard and were subsequently whisked away into the swirling rapids towards our destination, Waswanipi’s Old Post.
In English, Waswanipi means “light reflecting off the water” and that’s just what we did during that boat ride, we reflected. Here we were, traveling along unknown waters into unknown territory with two people we’d never met who spoke only Cree. Awesome!
Earlier on, we had been given an outline as to what would be going on during the two-week gathering in terms of events and activities, but not of how it was all to make us feel. We were getting our first impressions out there on the water. This was going to be special.
As we glided along, a sense of familiarity and comfort seemed to fill the air around us. Lines of green trees stood proud and welcoming. Our guides pointed ahead and we saw the camp nestled on a splendid island, serene in its setting. Old Post Waswanipi.
We had been well advised to bring lots of bug juice to help repel unwanted pests. However, nothing could prepare us for the swarm that awaited us on the docks. What a feeling it was to be surrounded by hordes of smiling children, gently tugging and giggling, welcoming us to their home. Their enthusiasm cast a spell over us both as they lifted and shifted our gear up the slopes of the shore.
For the next four days we were enthralled at the openness with which we had been welcomed and felt an integral part of the gathering. The fire chiefs even assigned us as head bonfire makers and scary storytellers to the youths. Numerous activities and cultural exchanges made this a memorable adventure. One of the highlights was witnessing the arrival of the Youth Canoe Brigade from their 10-day paddle. It is an annual event tracing the ancestral routes from Chish Kumkw Lake to Old Post. Everyone gathered on the shores and applauded their dedication and efforts. Later, elder David Neeposh led a ceremonial prayer-giving thanks to the river with offerings of tobacco. It was said that, although he had not smoked for over 28 years, he still carried tobacco in his pocket to this day.
Chiiwetaw is a wonderful cultural gathering that provides an open environment for sharing and growth. The feeling of community and belonging is overwhelming. We felt privileged to be a part of something so special and won’t soon forget our experience and the friends we had made. Now, if we can only find our way home.