Centuries before the Hudson’s Bay Company built its first post on the Rupert River, Indians in their birch-bark canoes were traveling on the turbulent waters. Descendants of those Indians now man the company canoe brigades to bring fur out from the inland posts.” —from The Rupert River Brigade by J. W Anderson in The Beaver December 1935 …and now another generation is gathering down the bank, preparing once again to paddle up the Rupert River. At 9 a.m. the Elders begin to gather and chat. Pick-ups loaded with canoes pull up, the boys climb out and the crowd slowly grows. Whole families are sitting on the dock and standing in the road, perching on top of the big boats around the canoes, and watching from the deck at the back of the Kanio-Kashee Lodge.

Alec Weistche gives the signal and we line up in front of the boats as the people watch quietly. Walter Katapatuk says the prayer and Billy Stephens speaks about listening to the guides. Billy reminds the boys that their families and friends will be thinking about them. A hundred of the people line up, shake our hands and murmur Wachiye. The feeling of pride in their eyes as they make their farewells is tremendous.

David Blackned and Alec bark out a few sharp commands and we move from the ceremony to the river in a blink. Soon we’re paddling up the south side of the river, then poling up a short and rocky rapid. The boys are trying their muscles, flexing against the strength of the river. After seven hours of poling and paddling it’s clear that we’re going to work hard on the long climb to Nemaska. We’re also going to have to work carefully. At the base of Smoky Hills rapid we paddle pasta moose that drowned trying to swim the rapids—a silent witness to the power in the river.

Smoky Hills is the first test: a one-kilometer portage, a short paddle, then a longer portage. Near the top of the second portage, Alec points out the grave of Sanders Weistche’s younger brother. The climb is slow and the bugs swarm as we begin to sweat. Michetuuch manichuushich, buddy (lots of bugs)! The bigger bugs bring their own knives and forks, and nothing short of buckshot stops them. Slap them hard and they spin to the ground. Stop to watch and they wake up, shake it off and come after you looking for dessert.

That old man David really knows how to get the boys to work. Two boys fall; when David found them he began yelling in a very loud voice. He tells them that when it comes to girls they move pretty quick, but when it’s hard work they’re not quite so fast. The boys laughed, picked up their bags and marched off up the trail. David has a big bark, but he always sends us back to work with a grin.

The best part of the portage is the end. As I drop my load with a sigh of relief, the wildflowers along the trail dance brightly in my eyes: sunny yellow buttercups, magenta fireweed and bog laurel, dog-tooth violets, Labrador tea and the tiny white bells of bog rosemary.

Around the fire at night the guides tell stories of weskach siibii (the river long ago). Eight men traveled in a boat 30-feet long, with a cargo of 4,000 pounds. One man was the cook and the rest were porters. On the first trip over the portage, the cook carried the pots and cooking gear, and the others carried the boat. The story-teller pauses as we groan at the thought of carrying that massive boat over twisting paths, through swamps, up hills, ever up as they climbed the river to Old Nemaska. After the first trip the cook would stay and prepare tea or set up the camp if they were stopping for the night, while the porters went back for their loads: 100-pound bags of flour, salt, gunpowder and other trade goods. The porters were paid $10 for each pack carried from Waskaganish to Old Nemaska; most men carried two bags, while some men were able to carry three.

The land changes as we climb the river. Near the bay the Rupert runs between steep spruce-covered banks that hide miles of flat muskeg. After a few days of paddling the banks begin to descend to the river, and are clothed in poplar, birch, tamarack and the occasional pine. Here the river thunders through a narrow gap between two enormous shoulder-rounded rocks. From a half a kilometer away I can feel its strength battering at my eyes and ears. I lie on a rock 100 metres below the chute and the ground trembles beneath me.

The land continues to change as we move inland. Now the banks slope gently to the water, and the shore and dry rolling hills are broken up by cliffs and jumbles of rock. We see more and more sandy beaches, and the water clears as we move up out of the muskeg that dumps its suspended clay into the lower Rupert. This area was burned out a few years back and Alec recalls taking a brigade through an area that was still hot and smoky. To see the land being renewed in this way must have been an awesome and terrifying experience.

We travel with wooden chests bursting with canned food, coolers fitted with eggs and meat and 25-pound tubs of lard. The guides hardly ever open a can; they rely on bush food, or chsheyuu midjem (Elder’s food). The boys eat like bears in the spring; anything they can get their hands on is fair game. Except for a few dry spells we were fortunate with the nets; during the trip we ate walleye, pike, sturgeon, whitefish, trout and sucker. After a. few days we can see the difference between canned food and bush food. There’s not many meals that make you feel as strong as a good bowl of nimeu muushkamii (sturgeon broth) before the day’s hard work.

I’m paddling in front, just behind the canoe with the gun and one of the boys hears a low hum on the shore. We look over and spot a porcupine, shuffling about on the upper edge of the beach, chewing on some low poplars and minding her porcupine business. In a flash we run up the beach, wooden paddles in hand, and Alec comes and shows us how to kill her properly. The boys that were paddling behind us pile out of their canoes and run up. David sings softly as he walks over to see the animal, but his song stops when the video camera comes out Chisheyiyuu midjem, he says, and he gets back in his boat That evening we eat a full meal and we listen to stories about the animal while it is prepared and cooked. The next morning nothing is left but the bones and the stories.

Alec and the boys are frying steaks in lard, while another boy and I try to figure out how to make instant mashed potatoes—DUH! We don’t have enough milk. Can we use coffee whitener instead? Probably not, we decide and then we realize that we probably don’t need much milk, as our milk is condensed. Someone goes to get water and Alec explains the Zen of camp cooking: “When I make potatoes, boy, I’m not gonna looking on a box to see what it says. This is bush cooking, boy!”

We’re traveling on Alan’s trapline now, and we hear bits and pieces of his family history as we move up the river. On the third day of the trip we passed the place where his grandfather is buried. Just below the James Bay highway we pass his winter camp, next to Dondus and Malcolm Hester’s cabin. The grave of Alan’s mother is a short paddle upriver from these cabins. She died in labour, as she was unable to expel the afterbirth…

We’re beginning to notice traces of another and more recent story as we paddle. At the bottom of the portage between these graves there is a Hydro camp. An old broken down shack slumps by the river, and there are iron rods standing in the rocks at the base of the rapid. There is also a large garbage dump hidden in the willows near the top of the hill. Occasionally we pass past old flow meters and surveyor’s marks. Every relic reminds us that there was a plan to kill this river and that the plan may not be totally forgotten.

Our seventh day on the river is our first Sunday and already our day-off routine seems pretty well set Get up late, cook, eat, swim, cook, eat, swim, cook, eat, go fishing. For a little variety we all wash our clothes on the sandy beach in front of our tents, with horse flies and deer flies to speed up the action. Sometimes the boys play checkers. David is the Wayne Gretzy of Cree checkers, and he watches and growls advice while the boys play, but none of us are willing to challenge him.

After a two-hour paddle we reach the highway. It looms around the corner, a trafficless remnant of a civilization we have almost forgotten after eight days in the bush. We line the canoes up under the bridge. As if to remind us of what we’re happy to be missing, a trailer truck rumbles over the bridge as we prepare for the portage. At the top of the portage we drift above the enormous rapids and a story brings us back to long ago. Alec points out a hole bored into a large rock. “Two sorcerers were traveling down the river and they had a battle here, a test of strength,” he tells us. The first attempted to show his powers by shooting a large hole in the rock. The second shaman laughed and let his canoe drift back over the edge of the rapid and into the falls. When the other reached the bottom of the long and difficult portage, he found the first lounging by the bank and waiting for him—and there was not a drop of water in his boat.

Stu (the video consultant) and I have nightly conversations when we compare notes, tell stories about our travels, talk about the boys and the Elders, and try to understand everything that is happening. One thing that we see when we talk with the people is that they tend to avoid eye contact We think this is because when you live close together, privacy is not really an option. Eyes meet briefly and then move away, as if the look were one place where privacy can be maintained. Alec and David’s eyes are very alive and full of energy, though, even when they seem to be looking nowhere. And sometimes when you talk with them you look up quickly and they catch you off guard, and appear to be looking through your eyes and directly into your brain.

It’s hard for Stu and me not to feel like small children as we try to understand and learn something about the Cree way of working on the river. Stu has plenty of canoeing experience. It seems that our experience doesn’t always help; in fact we often have to unlearn things we’ve been practicing since we were kids. Even the first year Cree boys have been hearing about this trip since they were babies and practicing bush skills during the goose hunt. Our ignorance is the object of a lot of jokes. But the boys were very helpful—especially when they know that we’ll be washing the dishes.

After the highway we stop and set the nets out, as we are running out of food. We order our groceries over the bush radio, then make up our personal wish lists and call them in to Waskaganish. Takeout orders from Jacob’s restaurant, chocolate, fishing hooks and batteries are on almost every list, and I’m anxiously waiting for the new tent I ordered through the mail a month ago. For a day and a half we wait and fish and catch up on the sleep we missed. We’re just starting to get restless when the drone of Stanley’s Beaver bush plane is heard and suddenly tents are coming down and bags are being packed. “Hamburgers are coming, buddy!”

The plane arrives before 2 p.m. and by 3 we’re paddling again. We stick to the south bank as the river narrows in its many courses, until we reach a spot where Alec signals a stop. The boys hop out of their canoes and begin pitching stones across the river. At this, the narrowest place on the river, the people have always stopped to test themselves by trying to throw stones across the river. Three of the nine boys are able to throw a stone clear across the river, over what looks to be a gap of about 80 metres.

The next day we head up a small tributary of the Rupert, on our way to a portage that leads into Lac Nemiscau (Lake Nemaska). We camp at the top of a portage blocked with trees that have blown over since last summer’s forest fire. The pool at the Bottom of the portagege smells of fish, and I finally catch my share. The next morning we clean and cook the seven fish we caught together. It barely makes a small snack for the 14 young men and Elders in our party.

It’s not hard to see why we have to use the food the land provides when we can. On our way into Nemaska Lake the next day, we pass some petroglyphs (drawings) on a rock face above the water. To my eyes they are faded and unclear, but the questions they inspire echo in my mind. What people left these drawings? When and how did they make them, and what do they mean? The boys are full of energy as we reach Old Nemaska! Arm wrestling! Swimming, hackey-sack and wrestling in the sand. There is a group of girls around somewhere and the competitive urge is awake. Alec delivers a short lecture about staying in the tent tonight, then he adds a few words about behaving themselves in Nemaska (three nights away). The boys quiet down briefly and head for their tents, muttering that they don’t need anybody shouting at them like that.

Chief George Wapachee comes over to welcome us as we paddle in, so later we walk over to his house to chat and watch mother smoke fish. Sarah Wapachee is smoking 40 whitefish and a dozen small sturgeon on poles over a large fire. She hums quietly to herself, her hair wrapped in a bright flower-patterned scarf. She hums quietly to herself as she puts on a leather work glove and walks to the fire, then turns and places the fish. She prepares a whitefish in less than one minute and we calculate that she must have cleaned over 120,000 fish in her lifetime.

The next morning we sit talking by the fire without waking the boys. Alec tells a story. A family was paddling in the bay where we saw the pictographs. A water-spout came and turned their canoe over, knocking a hole in it Everybody drowned, except for a small baby who somehow managed to get into an air pocket in the overturned boat And so we’ll stay put today, as Lake Nemaska is big and windy, and our tents are warm, dry and safe.

We paddle on Sunday in order to make up for the day off, and so we come to Nemaska at supper-time the next day. A crowd gathers almost immediately, and the guides go up and shake hands with the Elders who have come down to meet them. It seems that not only the food and the weight of the packs have changed. In the old days, when the brigades from Waswanipi and Mistissini arrived at the bay, the young ladies were taken to an island far from town. Negotiations took place, not for a dam but for marriage, and a happy conclusion led to many days of feasting and dancing.

We still have the dancing and feasting; for three days we rest and share stories with the people of Nemaska, who are preparing their own canoe brigade. And something remains: the knowledge passed on by our guides, the strength rising from work shared and a feeling of pride in our memories of the river.

Ted (Gojibwesh) would like to thank the many people who read this story, thought, laughed and took the time to help make it better. To the people of Nemaska, who took such good care of us during our stopover. And to the people of Waskaganish: dzenanaskwamden misiway!