Running his business from rented farm fields just outside of Ottawa, John Cole said his new career began as a fluke one morning when he was headed out to get a cup of coffee.
“I had popped into a restaurant for my morning coffee and there was a table of First Nations people that at the time I did not even know were Cree. They were all dressed in camouflage and, being a hunter and outdoorsman, I decided to introduce myself,” Cole recounted.
As it turned out, the people at that table were the Visitor family (George and Clayton Visitor and other relatives) who were visiting the area from Chisasibi to do some goose hunting.
Ontario allows for other First Nations to hunt throughout the province provided that they acquire the permission of the First Nations whose land they hunt on, in this case the Algonquin. Many James Bay Cree are welcomed down south to hunt the geese, which farmers often see as a nuisance.
“They said that they were down here hunting geese and so I laughed because there really was no shortage of them. They told me that they really didn’t know the area and so we exchanged phone numbers as they were heading home at that point. I told them if they ever wanted to come back they could call and I would help them out as I have a lot of connections,” said Cole.
Cole was delighted to hook his newfound friends up with some keen spots for shooting geese.
A combination of specific attributes make Cole’s home region particularly attractive to the waterfowl. As he explained, this is where the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways meet, bringing thousands of Canada geese as they fatten up for their migration either north or south depending on the season.
“This area is rich with farmland, which yields corn, soya beans, grain, wheat and grasses. There is also plenty of water in the area providing them safe places to roost,” said Cole.
And, the birds will often stay in the area for a month to a month and a half.
As word slowly began to spread, Stewart Menaneskum and Andrew Coonishish from Nemaska were the next to contact Cole for help to find a sweet hunting spot.
In facilitating these hunts for his newfound friends, the idea began for an outfitting camp. The Cree, he noted, were enthusiastic about how many birds they could get down south between their traditional breaks.
After many years of hunting with the Crees, Cole said he saw an opportunity to take more Cree hunters and their families out on goose hunts. So he consulted with the Crees he had come to know and was told that this was a great idea.
“I told them not to sugar coat anything and to let me know if they thought it would work and they said most definitely. With a little bit of investment and advice I was able to start this camp in 2011,” said Cole.
Since that time Cole has met many more Crees from northern Quebec and Ontario. He is constantly refining the experience through what he learns about his clientele and is happy to accommodate them in any way that is feasible.
Initially, he offered to put up cabins and tent frames. But most Crees preferred hotel accommodations as this trip is seen as more of a vacation than a traditional hunt. Fortunately there is a Days Inn at Bells Corners on the west side of Ottawa only 15 minutes away from the fields.
“I am in the midst of building pits as they always want to cook their geese as soon as they get them as some of them haven’t had any for a while,” said Cole
This he is doing with the help of Menenskum, who is teaching Cole how to cook them traditionally.
In the meantime, Cole now has spots set up for the Cree women who have accompanied their hunters to pluck their geese and prepare them for safe storage. When not plucking geese, some of the women opt to sit with their husbands while they wait for the flocks to come in. Other women take advantage of the city shopping and tourist attractions in nearby Ottawa.
Getting a spot at Shaawinihan can be tricky because Cole can only take so many people. He can only accommodate six hunters at a time to avoid overcrowding the fields.
Cole has been spending a great deal of time in the north during his off seasons to learn more about the people he is serving and to revel in the richness of their culture. He recently attended Old Nemaska Days where he saw how geese are spun traditionally. He also went fishing with his Cree hosts. He raves about the hospitality he found there.
But, it’s through his time at his camp that Cole has really learned about the Crees and their vast knowledge of hunting.
“With the whole experience I have had with the Cree, I profess to know quite a bit about goose hunting. But you learn more every day and I have learned so much from these people about patterns and the way it’s done,” said Cole.
Some Crees have even begun to bring their children to Cole’s camp to shoot their first goose. Cole said he does his best to celebrate this life event for the youngsters.
Cole accommodates his customers in any way he can, from driving the women to the local Tim Hortons for a coffee-and-bathroom break to ensuring that someone with reduced mobility can comfortably access a quality hunting spot.
Such is the case for Luke MacLeod who is of reduced mobility but is able to get a good hunt at Cole’s camp, which he has visited twice.
“I like going there because the geese go there first and sometimes you just can’t wait and you really want to have a taste of goose,” said MacLeod.
But, McLeod said that by no means does this goose getaway replace the traditional hunt with family in the bush. For Crees, he said, these kinds of getaways can serve as a precursor to the hunt as it can take the pressure off getting geese during the traditional break. And sometimes Goose Break now offers slim pickings.
“I was talking to some people who hunt along where they diverted the river and they lose their spot as soon as the gates are opened to allow more water in the springtime for the fish to spawn,” said MacLeod. “Then there is the fact that we are a lot more people now as the population has grown and so people are looking for other places to hunt.”
MacLeod’s two hunting experiences down south have been fruitful, getting 17 geese between three hunters in a day the first time he was there and then managing to kill seven in just four hours sitting out in Cole’s fields the second time.
“When we get geese up north they are not full of food, but down in the south they are and so what we have to do is clean them immediately. We do that here as well in the north but it is more important down there because it is warmer. Here we can leave the geese out sitting on the ice but there isn’t the ice in the south and so they have to be done immediately,” said MacLeod.
The biggest difference MacLeod said was that they were not able to spin them and so they instead improvised cooking the geese at a relative’s nearby home, cooking them in the oven and then on the BBQ over wood chips. Though not the same, he said it was quite good. And, because he was able to share the geese with those near and dear to him, it was all the better.
While business is booming at the Shaawinihan Outfitting Camp for the upcoming season, those looking to squeeze a day on those fields can visit the website at www.shaawinihanoutfitters.com