After working in Quebec’s Cree region and experiencing it’s beauty first-hand, I wanted to share it with my husband. Being avid canoeists, we decided to explore the region by canoe this summer and chose the Rupert River, a famous fur trade route.
We bought a few maps, drove up north and found ourselves standing at the bridge where the James Bay highway crosses the Rupert river at Plumb Pudding Rapids. We stood there for a while, admiring the beauty of the waterfalls. My eyes shifted back and forth between the waterfalls on the upriver side of the bridge (they looked like Niagara Falls to me), and the very rough water on the downriver side. By the time my husband innocently pointed out how rough the water was, for the third time, my stomach was in my throat. The rapids looked rough and I wondered if it was like that all the way down to Waskaganish. I began to doubt if I could, in fact, canoe it. We walked slowly back to the parking lot beside the bridge, during which time I began wishing I had taken up hobbies other than canoeing, say maybe stamp collecting or Ukrainian Easter Egg painting.
However, my fears soon subsided upon meeting Robert Weistche, Chief of the Waskaganish First Nation. He had, quite by chance, parked his car in the lot beside ours. Robert told us a great deal about the river, and assured us that the whole river was not one continuous stretch of whitewater, despite what I saw before me. Next, as fate would have it, a vanload of Cree elders pulled into the parking lot to have lunch while we were talking. They invited us over for a delicious meal of smoked whitefish and bannock and listened to our plans for canoeing the river. Fortune smiled on us because Alex Weistche, one of the elders, had been guiding canoe brigades of Cree young people on the river for years. He was kind enough to draw each of the portages and camps onto the maps for us with such precision that afterward we were able to navigate them flawlessly, even when we were caught by the dark.
Before we left for Waskaganish, Robert pointed out that a Cree camp downstream near the bridge has been traditionaly known as a “happy place”. A long time ago, those staying at the camp typically left food for the next weary traveler coming in. This became a theme for us during our trip, as we too were made happy because we were provided for in many unexpected ways during our journey. Things would often turn up just whwn we needed them, beginning with our meeting the Chief and the Elders prior to our trip on the river.
We drove down the bumpy road still under construction into Waskaganish where we met Nathalie, on of the teachers, who kindly invited us to sleep at her place for the night. The next morning, Bob Patton, the local Tourism Officer and his co-worker, Gordon, helped us get set up and drove us back up to the Bridge so our car would be waiting for us in Waskaganish. Talk about a helpful bunch of people! We waved goodbye to Bob and Gordon, and as our canoe bobbed over the waves, I turned around occasionally to watch them disapearing. We didn’t expect to see anyone else for several days, so I just wanted one last look. After paddling into the evening, we pulled into a nice spot on a rocky island in the middle of the river. We sat by the warm fire, eating our first meal under the Northen Lights as they danced gracefully over the horizon. We were lulled to sleep by the sound of the river gently lapping at the shore.
We set off early the next morning. The winds were calm and we made good progress as the power of the river pulled us along quickly. We discovered quickly, however, that the westerly winds became brisk with the approaching of the midday sun. When we were paddling on the wide, flat sections of the river, we often found ourselves battling 3-foot waves and moving backwards faster than forwards. It was then that we pulled to shore and lounged around on the beach or went fishing, resuming paddling in the evening calm or even after sunset. We would rise before dawn the next morning and go as far as possible before the wind came up. It was on these days that we were particularly grateful for Alex’s map of portage routes and Cree camps. Normally we camped on a beach or a rocky outcrop, but occasionnally, when paddling into the night we wouldn’t have found a suitable camping spot without his map. We wished he could have come along with us, but having his notes on our map was the next best thing.
We did our first portage early the second day. These portages were used for centureies by Cree moving between the coast and the inland. The trails are well-maintained by the Cree Youth Brigades on their annual canoe trip going upriver from Waskaganish to “Old Nemaska” and back. These were the brigades Alec had helped guide. This “summer job” for young people not only provides upkeep on the trails. It is also a wonderful “bush time” with elders who teach traditional knowledge of survival as passed down by their forefathers. For every fallen log we didn’t have to climb over on a portage, we had them to thank. I was told that in the not-to-distant past, men would carry up to several hundred pounds of equipment and supplies on a portage trail. On the days that I dragged myself over some of these trails with a fraction of the wight that those people carried, I came to the conclusion that those Cree were tough! We set up our third camp on an island below the “Quatre Chutes” (Four falls). We decided that this was going to be our favorite camp, so the next day became a self-declared rest day. We lounged around on the beach and the rocks and cooded the fish we caught for lunch. The peaceful sound sof nature had driven away memories of the honking horns and ambulance sirens of Montreal. Our pace of life had slowed to follow the soothing rythms of the river. After only a couple of days on the water, we were beginning to recuparate from the ravages of hectic city living. We had driven 1,200 km for this, and it was worth it. Pristine wilderness such as this is simply not to be found around Montreal. That night, we stretched out on the beach to watch the Northern Lights and then crawlwd into our sleeping bags and fell fast asleep.