It was the worst of times; it was the best of times. No matter how a hunt turns out those words are true and is a part of the experience. Hunting is a traditional practice of the Crees and is a part not only of the life but the culture. Hunting for big game was never a sure thing. That’s what makes it an adventure as well as a food-gathering exercise.
The Caribou hunt in James Bay opens for non-Natives in November and ended this year on February 15. Normally, this doesn’t matter to Crees as we can hunt year round, but this year we were joined by Christopher Covel of New Hampshire.
Weather played a part as always, February being a frigid month that far north. Hunting during this time of year is not for the faint of heart. The nights are particularly cold when the occasion calls for the elimination of organic wastes. An outhouse can cut down on wind chill but not on the actual chill itself.
Our water started out as snow and had to be melted daily. Due to a limited supply of propane we often had to use the wood stove for cooking. On occasion a bannock cooked for over five hours before it was done.
However, the hunting has always been exciting despite the rigors of the weather. Our trip was twofold in that we wanted to hunt and we wanted to play some serious cribbage. Of course the “Red Gypsy, as we nicknamed Neil Diamond for the trip, had a card or two up his sleeve. I only found out after noticing he won so many games. But I give him credit as we stayed up the first night in order to keep the fire alive. No one had gotten used to the cold and a new camp is always damp. The Red Gypsy nickname was given in jest as a result of finding so many missing objects near his sleep area.
I discovered the first night that cold ashes from the wood stove killed the outhouse smell. It was a new lesson for me; you always learn something new in the bush.
Neil Diamond was getting a little freaked out as bush fever hit him first. Neil had gone so far as to advise us the stove we were cooking on could kill us. Ernie reminded everyone that it could only do so in an enclosed space and we weren’t in one.
It was a hopeful time when we made the ptarmigan stew. There were so many it seemed unreal. A great taste but one that lasted all week as we never got a chance to taste caribou. Covel remarked that the meal was better than many he had in five-star restaurants in New York City.
Yes, Will on the Grill can make a mean boiled ptarmigan. A hint to all those going out into the bush and want to add a little something to an already great dish is to use garlic salt or a garlic salt substitute.
There isn’t much of a change but is for the better when carrots, potatoes and a dry soup mix are added. The soup mix is the one with noodles, dried peas, rice and so on. The soup mix isn’t a flavour like chicken stock and so I used the backs of the ptarmigan to make the flavour for the broth. A touch of Cayenne pepper helped to fight off the cold.
We didn’t know at that point we would be entering into a survival situation. As I said later, the TV show Survivor had nothing on us.
Covel and I went looking for the snowmobiles one day. We had been told they were about 50 kilometres from our camp. It turned out they were only 36 kilometres away and we drove past them onto a road that was unplowed. Eventually we went off the road. It took us about five and a half hours to get out using a combination of physics and Cree ingenuity. We cut channels in the ice to reach the dirt road. The snow shovel came in handy to clear the channels and snow from under the truck. A tree and a 55 gallon gas barrel provide a fulcrum to lift the back of the truck so the front tires could dig in. Branches were added to the channels to get some friction. Throughout the entire affair I give Covel great credit as we never complained but worked relentlessly. We knew we could expect no assistance where we were and made it out as night was falling. The land and the Creator were with us that day.
Another big thumbs up goes out to some of the workers at Hydro-Quebec. The LG3 cooks contributed three onions to our supplies. It seems like a small thing but they enhanced many a meal for us. The local convenience store was for authorized Hydro-Quebec workers but they made us honorary workers for a short time to buy some more supplies. Mario, the head of the LG3 garage, loaned us a spark plug changer so we could get the skidoos going. Perhaps there are some benefits to the new relationship everyone talks about.
The trip, though, was grueling as getting stuck meant both Covel and I threw out our backs. We still worked on gathering wood. Neil rose to the occasion taking on a lot of the work as Ernie was also down with an infected ear.
When we finally got out to where we were to hunt, a blizzard forced us to turn back early or risk not being able to make it back to camp. In the end only Ernie managed to kill a caribou and the rest of us came back empty-handed but wiser for the trip. We survived the cold and the hardships. We learnt what we could expect from each other in the far north and it made us stronger for it.
Oh, and Mr. Diamond was headed for glory before I skunked him to win the cribbage tournament. A small victory, but on this trip it was one worth savoring nonetheless.