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Assuring the Future by sharing the Past

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

"Cultural experiences top the list for Aboriginal Tourism in Northern Ontario"

I sat quietly at the boardroom table of Northern Ontario Native Tourism Association and glanced over the list handed me for filming Aboriginal Tourism destinations. Being a lifelong resident of Thunder Bay, Ontario I was no stranger to visiting remote destinations, but this project meant covering 80 % of Ontario - a round trip of 130,000 kilometer's by land, water and air.

I selectively packed my gear with no preconceptions of what I was going to experience, yet I was surging with emotions of excitement, wonder and yes, a little fear. My objective was to film these locations, services and people to establish their condition and future potential as a tourist destination. Early one misty July morning, I kissed the family goodbye and aimed the wheels west. The first stop was Quetico Provincial Park where Glen Nolan of Beartrack Cultural Wilderness Adventures was waiting to take me on one of his canoe experiences.

The Quetico watershed is 4,800 kilometres of untouched Pre-Cambrian rock forest steeped in history as a trade route accessing Lake Superior. Glen offers guided canoe trips from the standpoint of Aboriginal significance and hands-on learning. The local plants and wildlife are shared as food, medicinal remedies and in story. Animal behaviours are offered for up close study as they naturally occur before you. The stealthy approach given by a canoe equates to many photographic opportunities for species like common loons, eagles, moose and beavers. The parks lakes are closely connected and easily accessed by short portages. With thousands of smooth rock islands to camp upon, it’s no wonder this park is known as the Canoe Capital of Canada.

Ah-son-ji-goh-nun simply translated means “something that is left behind to be returned to “describes how these ancient people felt about this one-of-a-kind landscape. There are pictographs and historical gathering sites that have been used over thousands of years by Anishnawbe people, voyageurs and today’s adventurers. Pieces of pottery and arrowheads can still be found along the way by keen eyed observers. Modern day regulations like no glass containers and a ban on gas motors has assured this pristine wilderness will remain for generations to come.

Further west along the Rainy River and just 40 miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi River lies the burial grounds of Kay Nah Chi Wah Nung “place of the long rapids “where many of North America’s indigenous peoples traded goods for the past 8,000 years. This site has been recognized for its national historical significance because of the ceremonial burial rites practiced here. Countless artifacts have been uncovered showing materials brought from other cultures across great distances. Although many sites have been unearthed and examined by museum authorities, some undisturbed burial sites still remain and can be seen adorned by plant life foreign to the area. These mounds grew in size over the centuries by the layering of deceased individuals and their belongings on top of former graves. Today a Visitors Centre has been built with a complete historical display of photographs, pottery, tools, clothing, dwellings and artwork.

Along with its value as a travel route, the river had an abundance of fish which hold great importance as a food source. Among the various species, sturgeon with its great size and tasteful flesh was highly prized. Over the years fishing pressure depleted this ancestral resource, so the elders empowered the youth with the challenge to revive it. Presently the Manitou Rapids First Nations operates one of the worlds few sturgeon hatcheries. They have developed insights through their own initiatives and forged new ground in rearing eggs and stocking procedures. Their goals are rapidly being met for providing a sustainable level of sturgeon for both consumption and sport fishing.

Heading northward following the eastern shore of “Lake of the Woods” through the region known as Sunset Country, I arrived in Kenora. This town is a cottager’s paradise that doubles its population during the summer months. The local economy is so dependant on this business that the local grocery store, hardware store, restaurants and hotels have drive up parking for boats. The lake is home to the cruise ship M. S. Kenora. The ship offers daily cruises that take in the sites of sandy beaches, pictographs, eagle nests, pelicans, loons and the many unique cottages ranging from fourth generation cabins to modern architectural marvels costing millions of dollars. It’s not uncommon to see Hollywood movie stars enjoying the privacy of an island retreat. Aboriginal theme cruises are planned for international tourists to enjoy quality resorts and partake in weekly pow wow activities. The lake is known to be one of the top angling spots in North America. Late every summer it hosts an International Bass Tournament drawing professionals and spectators from across the USA. I continued my trek northward towards Sioux Lookout and was anticipating a few hours of relaxing fishing time on Lac Seul. Mahkwa Lodge is truly one of the best all-round Canadian fishing destinations. Lac Seul is recognized for having the largest sized walleye and record northern pike in Ontario. The resort is staffed by Lac Seul First Nations (Bear Clan) and was started to create employment and income opportunities. The amenities are first class and feature a towering log structure serving as the dinning hall where trained ladies prepare meals fit for a king. Young men of the band use their knowledge of this immense body of water to put you directly onto great fishing. At midday the boats gather together and the guides prepare a traditional Canadian shore lunch of fresh pan-fried walleye, caramelized onions, molasses beans and a side dish of genuine hospitality.

Heading home for a quick refresher and change of clothes, I gathered my family and headed east. The north shore of Lake Superior is astonishing with breathtaking beaches, cliffs, waterfalls and rocky peaks. Just outside of Marathon is Pukaskwa Provincial Park and Heron Bay Pic River First Nations. Pukaskwa is Ontario’s only National Wilderness Park and its 1,880 square kilometer's makes it Ontario’s largest National Park. Along its shoreline are large stone structures created by people 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. These Pukaskwa pits, are made from smooth rocks and may have been hunting and fishing shelters or lookouts. The park offers hiking trails and canoe routes to experience the inner beauty of an unchanged boreal forest. Pic River First Nations people staff the park and its interpretive centre. I was fortunate to have met Collette Goodchild while she watched over the new tipi encampment. She sat drinking cedar tea and made peelings from the bark of a red willow sapling to cut with tobacco for ceremonial uses. She proudly displayed the beaded pouch that held her eagle feathers that were given to her by the elders for her volunteer work and personal triumphs. I later spoke to Chief Roy Michano about their plans to offer boat tours from the mouth of the Pic River. They are building a heritage location to showcase their people’s history in the region, from the time of the “pits” to the importance of the logging industry.

Manitoulin Island is a jewel of Aboriginal experiences. Wikwemikong (The Bay of Beavers) is made up of Odawa, Ojibway and Pottawatomi peoples. These “people of the three fires” formed the only official unceded Indian Reserve. The community runs a modern golf course, ATV tours into the backwoods, pow wow festivals, art gallery, bed and breakfast, boat tours and a theatre group. The area gathers large numbers of spectators for the annual pow wow celebrations. Many local dancers have become recognized champions and are adorned with handmade spectacular regalia. My favourite attraction is the Jesuit mission and the rock walls that stand testimony to another time. I felt like I was looking at the ancient ruins of the Aztec or Roman empires. Recently completed is the Ojibway Cultural Foundation in West Bay, built for the purpose of sharing art forms, it also includes conference rooms, a healing room and gift shop. Just outside of Massey is “Trails of the Eagle Clan” where Matthew Owl guides wilderness outings along the routes travelled by his ancestors. The main lodge is located along a serene creek system that flows into the north channel of Georgian Bay. The backing mountain range offers hiking trails, horse back riding, and clear mountain lakes to paddle on. For those seeking fewer physical activities there is a long sandy beach to soak up the sun. Matthew is well versed in ecological knowledge of the land and his people’s history. I’ll share with you his story of creation - Long ago mother earth grew lonely and asked the creator for a companion, so the creator knowing his touch was so powerful it would burn this being to ashes, took a shell lying on the beach and blew sand through it, thus man was created from that breath and today when an Anishnawbe person holds a shell to his ear he can still hear the breath of the creator.

The near north of Ontario is well above the reach of blacktop and gravel roads. Year-round access is completely reliant upon air transport and during years of extreme cold a winter road winds its way across frozen lakes from one community to another. The main tourist attraction has been the lure of countless untapped lakes to fish. Even today as you fly high above the rich green landscape and dark blue waters you can imagine how many lakes have never felt the touch of a paddle or the churning of a propeller blade. Many of the communities adorn descriptive names given from the land - Bearskin Lake, Big Trout Lake, Sandy Lake, Muskrat Dam, and Summer Beaver to name just a few. I flew into a number of new lodges and was amazed at their level of comfort. With a dedication to open at least one new location each year, lakes are being continually scouted for resort possibilities. Instrumental to this plan was Jack Rezny - a greying gentleman nicknamed “the dinosaur“. Jack headed up the marketing for Moccasin Trails and books the fishing trips through his home in Chicago. The transportation issue has now been streamlined by partnering with Wasaya in Thunder Bay and connecting to Webequie, and Bearskin Lake for short floatplane rides into each resort. One group from Wisconsin I ran into had caught and released 2, 400 walleyes during weeks stay. Each of these locations have the modern amenities like propane stoves, fridge, hot water, mattress beds, fireplace, new boats and motors. The far north segment closely followed the footsteps known as the “Homeland Tour “. This is a once in a lifetime trip that immerses you into the lifestyles of Canada’s native people. It begins in Thunder Bay under the watchful eye of Nanabijou “The Sleeping Giant “- a mountainous peninsula whose profile resembles that of a person laying down. Dig for gem stones within open pit mines for purple crystals called amethyst or step back in time to the early 1800's and walk through the worlds largest recreated trading post. Old Fort William is a working trading post just as it was when the North West Company operated it, complete with French voyageurs, native trappers and Scottish gentlemen. Its native camp cooks bannock, smokes hides and builds birchbark canoes. Enter the Great Hall to the sounds of bagpipes and smell the aroma of fresh baked bread. Upstream rages Kakabeka Falls the “Niagra of the North “ with camping sites, walk trails and swimming beach. Two hours north by air , I arrived at the community of Webequie. Its here the famous Winisk River trips originate. My first stop was a short boat ride over to the mainland and a small encampment known as Northland Ways Adventures (Lillian’s Camp). Its here guests are invited to share in Aboriginal life. Traditional meals are prepared over an open fire and shared with people of all ages. The hands of experienced ladies knead the dough for bannock and carefully dry fish to make the fish flakes. Traditional foods I sampled included moose, caribou, goose, fish flakes, bannock, dumplings and wild berries. With appetites filled you sit around the fire and listen to elders share their visions of the future and stories of the past. In native tongue the stories are translated of their first experiences with European culture and appreciation for modern fabrics, building techniques and supplies. Lillian’s aunt shared her life experiences from wearing rabbit socks and using moss diapers for her children, to visions of an economy based on tourism where her great grandchildren could profit from sharing their past. The night wraps up as canoes head back to the island and you are left under the protection of aurora borealis “northern lights “as they dance across the darkness. After a comfortable sleep in a log cabin and a bush breakfast, you step into 20-foot freight canoes for a day’s journey down river. Winisk River Camps have trips for anglers or eco adventurers. The river is extremely rocky with many white-water sections. On occasion you are asked to walk a short portage as the guides navigate the rapids alone. One portage has a log railroad where the whole canoe is pushed across rails to the calm water on the other end. There are three main stops along the river with the first being Bear head Camp, the next Goose Camp and the third Tashka Rapids. While waiting for our floatplane to arrive, we headed across the river to a spot where the ladies had set some nets to catch fish for the group. Its easy to forget what it means to be reliant upon the bounty of the land, when you have a convenience store on every block. As the nets were pulled along side, smiles grew large as walleye and white sucker were untangled and brought aboard. Off in the distance the hum of a plane could be heard and soon after the circling “Beaver“ float plane touched down on the river . The pilot was a young native man named Arthur who had recently finished Aboriginal flight school and was eager to make his mark as a bush pilot. The charter first flew us to Peawanuk and then to the tent camp of Hudson Bay - Polar Bear Park Expeditions located at the mouth of the Sutton River. Peawanuk is the former community of Winisk that had to be abandoned when the Winisk River swelled during a spring ice flow. Prior to meeting Sam Hunter at tent camp, we were treated to a tour of his one-of-a-kind wooden tee pees and a meal of fresh caribou. The excitement grew as we could see the coast of Hudson Bay and the array of trails cut into the soft vegetation by centuries of caribou migrations. The tundra was a melting pot of colour - light green moss, orange lichens, brown shrubbery and dark green dwarf pines. Looking down I saw countless numbers of waterfowl flying in formation as if to rehearse the migration south. In the distance several white dots caught my attention and Arthur side slipped the plane over for a closer look. Along the shore of a circular water basin stood a mother polar bear with two cubs. They were trying to stay cool while waiting for the arctic air to start forming pack ice. We flew low over the many tributaries forming the mouth of the Sutton River. Below I could see Sam and his guide Nick waving from the bank of the river in a section that widened and offered a deep pool to land the plane. As I climbed out, I could see these two men were seasoned veterans of the landscape. They each shouldered rifles worn and rusted from the salt air. I wondered if they could fire if needed to keep any curious polar bears away from camp. This notion was always on my mind and added a degree of adrenalin to this part of the tour. On the southern horizon I could see the end of the tree line, and to the north a world unlike that which I have ever seen before. While the crackling ambers heated the water for a cup of tea, Sam told stories of his childhood and history of the Cree people. Nick stood scanning the land around us through a spotting scope and pointed out some grey whiskered seals sunning themselves on a sandy point. With only a few hours of light left, we walked out to fly fish after some sea run brook trout. The river bottom was smooth clay littered with pebbles and strewn with rich lengthy weeds. For being so far north this river was remarkably fertile with insect life. On the first cast a scrappy three-pound squaretail tumbled and twisted his way into my lap. It was a beautiful silver colour faded together with red and orange highlights. The next hour confirmed my belief that we were fishing a world class spot. Every drift of the fly was met with a strike and ensuing tug of war.

At one point the trout kept getting free and upon close inspection of the fly, I noticed the shank of the hook was worn off from the battles of previous fish. After a great dinner of fresh trout, I climbed into my sleeping bag and started piling my camera cases against the tent flap. Sam came in and said “you really think that’s going to stop a 1200-pound polar bear”. He left reassuring me the size of the white prospector tents intimidated the bears from coming close. I slept very little that night and jumped up every time the wind blew and made rustling noises outside. The next morning the group went boating out into Hudson Bay on a guided tour. We spotted several types of geese, waterfowl and numerous seals laying on the sand or popping up for a curious look around the boat. With the tide going out, we landed onto a rocky shoal and looked around for any sign of caribou or polar bears. Rock hounding for a moment I turned over some sandstone and was amazed at the fossils formed in it. These were examples of million-year-old shells and insect life. The sights were overwhelming and I couldn’t believe I was still within Northern Ontario. I reluctantly left vowing to someday return to this land of mystery.

My final trip took me to Bear Island First Nations located on Lake Temagami - home of the infamous Grey Owl. Its here the Temagami Anishnabai Tipi Camp is operated by Virginia McKenzie where spiritual renewal and self healing is offered amidst a historic old growth forest. Secure aboard her pontoon boat you are taken over to a remote point of Bear Island where you unpack in one of several large colourful tipi’s. A soft bed and warm fire instantly comfort your spirit and the selection of tasteful meals and stories cement your bond back into nature. It’s a combination of retreat and adventure experience, where you can walk trails beneath 300-year-old trees in one of the worlds only old growth pine forests. The glowing fire brings you closer with your inner being, for a cleansing of spirit, body and mind. The most endearing thing is the energy and passions of your hostess. She shares her excitement for life, her passions for the environment and pride in her community. I feel all these features made for a simple innocence that I have not felt since looking into my sons eyes the moment he was born. Virginia’s camp offers nightly stories and songs set to the beat of hide covered drums. She teaches that spiritual life is not gained through written or spoken words - to form a relationship with the wind, one must experience wind, and to know the spirit of the sun, one must experience sun. Virginia’s father told us about Grey Owls wedding on Bear Island, and how his dad was the best man. At the ceremony Grey Owl didn’t have a wedding ring so they used the ring from a White Owl cigar, a paradox that always makes him laugh.

During my flight on the native owned Air Creebec, I could see below me the railroad tracks used by the Polar Bear Express that makes its run into Moosonee. Upon landing I was escorted aboard a water taxi and braved the large waves to get across to Moose Factory and the Cree Village Eco Lodge. I was amazed to see such an elaborate structure fitting into this remote environment. At first glance it appeared to be the Hilton of the north, but truly it was an architectural marvel of environmentally friendly materials and services. The amenities included hemp carpets, bio degrade able toilets, safe soaps, and all wood furnishings and fixtures. The dinning room was nestled below towering timbers, and offers a cuisine of Aboriginal and Canadian delicacies. Activities include boat tours in James Bay to the bird sanctuary, helicopter sight seeing, canoeing, kayaking trips, winter dog sledding, and cross-country skiing to name a few.

Newly opened is WA- SH- OW James Bay Wilderness Adventures located upriver on the southern shore of James Bay. Modern lodging and dinning are offered within the main lodge. Walking trails stop at three settlements representing specific time periods for the Cree people. The first is an example of trapping cabins and prospector tents from this century. The second is a teepee camp with tools and clothing from the post European contact era and the third from pre- European contact days showing the primitive ways of sustaining life in such a harsh environment. Along the river you can take boat tours to view hundreds of bird species or groups of feeding Beluga whales. The Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre in Moose Factory presents a look into the life of the areas Cree people. Artifacts are displayed of fur trapping means and methods, clothing and symbolic photographs important to the region. Within the courtyards log walls are huts and teepee’s, the way they were used since the beginning of time.

I now reflect back upon my “ summer on floats “ with affection , and as the event that broadened my horizons to the challenges of Aboriginal people in Northern Ontario. I had conquered my fear of flying and truly came away with a respect for life in the remote reaches of Ontario. These world class destinations and cultural expressions are a remarkable gift worthy of exploring. I believe it’s important to discover what’s available in your own backyard before you can appreciate the vast differences the rest of the world has to offer.

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