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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Youth learn traditional skills and to overcome challenges while paddling for weeks

BY Ben Powless Aug 25, 2020

For some of the youth embarking on the four-week canoe trip, it was their first time paddling a canoe. For others, it was their first time leaving the community.

Trudy-Lynn Mattawashish, 13, from Mistissini, was in the former group – never having paddled before. But after leaving on July 6 to paddle two weeks up Lake Mistassini to Osprey Lodge, and returning on July 31, she knows it won’t be her last time. 

“It was a trip that changed my life,” Mattawashish told the Nation. Growing up in Gatineau, she had never spent much time in the bush learning traditional skills. 

That’s changed after she joined 17 other youth in learning how to paddle, fish, cut wood, make a fire, prepare and cook fish and geese, make nightlines and to sew, among other survival skills. 

“I feel more confident now, and happy because I know what I can do if I ever get lost in the woods,” she said. 

Still, the journey wasn’t easy. “We did 17 kilometres of paddling in one day – that was one of the biggest challenges.” 

Mattawashish describes getting up in the morning, having a breakfast of pancakes, eggs or cereal, and leaving by 10 am for 10 hours of paddling, with a few well-earned breaks for snacks and drinks. 

Soup and sandwiches were normal for lunch, with goose being a special lunch and dinner. Other dinners included fish, chicken, mashed potatoes and baloney – and once, poutine, a reward for catching fish on the nightline.

Most days only involved three or four hours on the water, she said, leaving time to set up camps and go swimming or play games like hide-and-seek before heading to bed. Days not paddling were spent fishing, swimming or doing other group activities. 

Mattawashish said she would definitely go again. “I had a great time, making friends and paddling a lot. After I got back, I just wanted to paddle again. My dad and I even went boat riding to the same camps we stayed at.”

Charlene Awashish, who coordinated the trip on behalf of the Mistissini Youth Office, said this year’s trip had to be changed to accommodate the pandemic. 

Instead of a large community feast for the victorious paddlers, the youth had individual feasts, with catered food. Awards – for things like best bannock maker and best cook – were later delivered individually. 

On the trip, the youth were isolated together and didn’t have to practice specific distancing measures. The only exceptions were when food and supplies were dropped off and had to be cleaned.

The 18 youth were joined by two head guides and two assistant guides as they progressed up the length of Mistassini Lake, making their camps along the shoreline. After they reached Osprey, they camped on an island across from Osprey for a few days for traditional teachings, learning skills like sewing and having sharing circles.

One of the highlights of the trip was a fishing derby, won by Everes Gunner, 13. 

“Me and my friend were fishing on the lake with the canoe. We were trolling and suddenly caught a fish and it seemed big. It was a huge pike!” Gunner enthused.

She describes that as the highlight of the adventure. But the 17-km paddling day was her biggest challenge. “It got a bit windy and my muscles were very sore,” she recounted. “I had to switch partners, but after that we were much faster.”  

Gunner would also do the trip again. “It was very fun, and there was a lot of people to make friends with.” The only thing she would change would be to bring her twin brother – who applied but wasn’t accepted this time. 

Audrey Shecapio from Gatineau was another canoe rookie. She described being very confused at first. “They just put me in the canoe,” she marvelled. “I didn’t know how to steer at first, but I quickly figured it out.” 

Her first night camping also nearly ended in frustration, as she mistakenly put up the fly of the tent instead of the tent itself. Same with her fishing, which resulted in her rod breaking in half and falling in the water. “Let’s just say it was my first time, so I had no idea what to do,” she laughed. 

Then, another disaster struck: Shecapio dropped her phone in the water. “I tried to jump in after it, but my canoe partner wouldn’t let me. I just watched it sink.”

By the end, though, she had learned a lot about her culture, how to make a teepee, prepare fish, make bannock, and to cook a variety of foods. It also made her more confident. 

Describing herself as antisocial, Shecapio said the most important part of the trip was learning how to communicate with others and work together. 

“When you’re in a canoe you can’t do it by yourself or you’ll zigzag,” she said. “So you have to work as a team with the other person.” 

At first, Shecapio felt homesick, only knowing one other girl. By the end, she had made many friends and even bragged to her family. “When I came back, I said to everyone – see, I can survive without you!” 

For Nicole Longchap, 15, it was also her first time canoeing and being outside of the community. One highlight was seeing her friends flip over their canoe, though one friend lost his fishing rod. But they remained in good spirits and were laughing about it at the time. 

Longchap also had to deal with homesickness. She shared how she felt with friends and they told her not to give up – which she did. 

Awashish sees the program as a healing journey. For a lot of the youth, this might be their first time learning cultural and survival skills. For young people aged 13-15 who want to apply in the future, they can find applications at the youth centre in the summer. 

In Wemindji, another group of 15 youth took part in a 10-day canoe expedition that covered a traditional route along five different campsites to Old Factory Lake. It’s the 26th year the event has been organized. 

Betsy Hughboy, the trip coordinator for the Wemindji Youth Office, said the journey is an important one for young people to “learn our history, practice our traditional way of life, how our ancestors used to travel by canoes, fishing, cleaning and prepping the food they caught that day, respecting the land.”

She said the trip took on extra significance this year, with the youth “distancing themselves from what we’re experiencing right now. Life is kind of stressful in town, there’s a real peacefulness to the land.”

For Hughboy, a similar canoe trip as a youth helped her feel proud and accomplished. “When I signed up, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It was challenging, but when I finished the expedition, I had a great sense of pride and accomplishment that I did it.”

She noted that many youth express similar sentiments after finishing their voyage. 

For Wemindji youth from 13-30 who want to apply in future years, Hughboy said they should contact her office. They also sometimes take adults if there’s space. “It doesn’t matter if you have canoe skills or not – the guides will teach the youth at the lake.”

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.