Sharon’s Lasting Impressions of her Trip to Mistissini by Sharon (Guest Blogger)

A town's dog falls in love with Sharon - more photos found on link to Flickr down below

A town’s dog falls in love with Sharon – more photos found on link to Flickr down below

My daughter, Ariel, and I made the 1200+ km trip to Mistissini, Quebec to visit our friends; Andi and her husband, also Andy.

Andy had accepted a position in the Cree school board, teaching cabinetry. I was utterly thrilled for them both – what an incredible opportunity! To spend time in the Canadian north, living and learning the culture, language and traditions of the Cree people!

And, of course, yes, I would go up to visit them the first chance I had!

We left bright and early on a Saturday morning. I drove from Toronto to Quebec City, where we spent the evening exploring the sights of Old Quebec City before retiring to a small motel in the university district. The following morning, a quick tour of Montmorency Falls, then on to Mashteuiatsh near Roberval, where we met up with Andi. We stayed the night in an old hotel run by the congenial grandson of the original owner, Mr. Robertson – whose forebears were Scottish and who spoke not one word of English. We enjoyed his cooking in the morning, then packed the car and headed north.

Ariel and I were utterly enchanted by the rolling hills and sparkling lakes. We arrived, after three hours, in the modern little village of Mistissini, perched at the top of a long peninsula jutting into the southern end of Lake Mistassini.

We drove into a new development, built at the edge of town – and pulled into the driveway of a neat, contemporary house, set across the road from the lake.

Stepping out of the car to greet Andy, I knew I would like it in Mistissini. The air was crisp, redolent with the scent of spruce and pine smoke. Birds called to each other and sunlight glittered on the water.

We enjoyed a hearty meal prepared by Andy, then settled down with a steaming pot of tea, and chatted well into the night.

On Tuesday we rose early. I decided to accompany Andi on her morning walk – as we set out, we began to gather dogs, accumulating a small pack that strode along with us, veering off to investigate flashes of colour that darted in the underbrush, or tromp happily through small streams; always returning to us – our companions all the way out and back.

In the afternoon, we visited Andy’s class and met his students. They offered shy smiles when we were introduced. Some of them showed us their work – with quiet pride; well deserved – elegant carved feather boxes and complex designs of animals, flowers and landscapes executed in parquetry and inlay. Beautiful work.

Wednesday took us to Ouje-Bougoumou, a village about a half hour from Chibougamau. Andi was invited to write an article on the building maintenance program being run for adults. Ariel and I went to explore the village while Andi conducted her interview. I returned to take a few photos for her article – she wrapped up and we went to visit the cultural center/museum. It was very interesting.

On Thursday, we awoke to the sound of dogs barking. A lot of dogs.  Mistissini is truly the village of dogs. We took another walk, accompanied as usual by a canine entourage. One in particular, I took a great liking to – a small one-eyed Pomeranian – with the sweetest disposition you could imagine.

After our walk, we decided to drive out to Murray’s Lodge – a camp about 8 kms from the village, where Cree cultural activities take place – but it was closed as everything was in the process of being moved to the summer camp in Mistissini…still, it was quite interesting to walk around the site and look at the different buildings; Andi described the function of each structure – I tried to match it to the unique motif painted or embroidered on the door-cloth that covered each entrance. Some were quite clear – like the mittens and boots embroidered on the sewing lodge – others, not so much.

When I lifted one of the cloths aside, sun filtered through the canvas walls of the anteroom, illuminating wooden beams from which tools and animal hides dangled; cut logs laid in neat piles; and a floor carpeted with sweet-smelling fir and spruce boughs! I could imagine myself sitting in the lodge, maybe on a fur spread across the scented boughs, the warm golden glow of firelight dancing on canvas walls, listening to songs of long ago…

I was disappointed that we had come between events; I would have loved to have seen the crafts, listened to the stories, and tasted the much vaunted fry bread. But I enjoyed this quiet meander through the camp, and I could see Ariel did as well.

We went to see the beach after we left the lodge – it very neatly laid out and well maintained, with picnic tables, out-buildings, a swimming platform.  We were met by a tiny little dog in a bright red sweater. He was the exact colour of the sand; we figured the sweater helped keep him from melding completely with the beach. He was very happy to play with us for a while.

We returned to Mistissini in the mid-afternoon to begin cooking. After a most excellent Christmas-in-June dinner – triggered by a broken freezer and a beautiful turkey in danger of thaw; I went out to wander the town alone, and take photos of the fiery sunset. Standing alone at the edge of an inlet, my senses pushed into high gear – I was acutely aware of pine smoke, a chorus of frogs, dogs barking…and the vastness of the wilderness that surrounded me…it was…daunting, but my heart raced….

Friday morning dawned cold…this was our last day in town. We wanted to make the most of it. We drove to Chibougamau; walked around the beautiful Lake Gilman, identifying the plethora of plant life, insects and birds, and then visited the friendship centre where I purchased a beautiful handcrafted barrette (made by one of the local artisans from Mistissini). We returned home to start yet another sumptuous meal – moose stew with dumplings (Andi asked if I knew how to cook moose meat …why yes, I DO know how to cook moose meat!) and a delicious wild rice salad that Andi whipped up, made with toasted walnuts and dried blueberries.

It had been a week of pure wonder – of sharing wine, tea and quiet talks with my dear friends;  experiencing new places and new cultures; discovering plants we have never seen before and landscapes as beautiful and alien as a new world.

And it was quickly coming to an end.

I woke up early Saturday and packed the car, then I went out for a final walk. A group of dogs at my feet as I wandered the quiet streets. Everyone, it seemed, had been partying hard the night before, and the town felt oddly deserted.

I would miss this place very much – the clean crisp air; the dogs who seemed to belong to everyone and no one; the gentle voices and warm smiles of the people; the restful rhythm of a village in tune with its surroundings, responding not to the hours on the clock but to the changing of the seasons.

We had a two-day trip back to Toronto. We were reluctant to leave – not only two of my closest and dearest friends, but the village itself…

But I know we’ll be back again…the north, it calls to us….

** Sharon’s beautiful pictures of her trip to Mistissini can be found here:

Welcome to Mistissini!!

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Timmies or Busted Gut!

After much anticipation and excitement, Tim Hortons opened in Mistissini last week. A giant blow-up of the signature brown cup hovered over the new franchise, beckoning me. I stopped in to have a look as I passed by on my daily walk. Half the population of the town was standing in a snaking line. I planned to come back once the fervour died down.

A few days later, driving past Tim Hortons with Andy, I had a sudden craving for a rich café mocha, with whipped cream – a treat I reserved for myself on Fridays when I worked downtown Montreal.

This time, the other half of Mistissini’s population was standing in line. I was desperate for my café mocha. My need had escalated, and now I required a double chocolate donut (with glaze) to accompany it.

Lining up is torture for me. After a few minutes my legs wobble, my back aches and my eyes cross…

Brainstorm! I recalled a setup for fancy coffees at a nearby gas station.

We headed across the street and prepared a cappuccino for each of us. On the way to the cash, Andy grabbed a cinnamon bun from a shelf. I normally check due dates on any item I purchase along with the ingredient list, and the caloric values, but it seemed fresh enough.

Andy was violently ill the next day. A stomach flu? We did a quick inventory of everything we consumed the last day and the only difference was the cinnamon bun.

I pulled the wrapper out of the garbage and noticed that cream cheese was on the list of ingredients. What could possibly be in cream cheese so that it has an everlasting shelf life? Isn’t cream cheese supposed to be refrigerated?

Maybe the pastry was the culprit, maybe not, but next time I will stand strong at Timmies!

Canada Dry and Away We Go!

We heard them before we saw them. The trucks lumbered up Cartier Avenue; one gigantic semi to transport our effects into storage, and a smaller one to move our personal items to Mistissini. I feel a tightening in my chest.  This is it. This is REALLY it. Piece, by piece our lives are being disassembled, to be reassembled at another place and time.

The packers showed up the day before, filling our house with the shrill, piercing sound of ripping tape, transforming flat cartons into squares, and the loud, rumpling and crumbling of brown paper wrapping our glassware.

The movers trudged in and out, lugging furniture, heavy boxes and tools. Did we ever not realize how much we had stored in the cellar and garden shed? The movers where unflappable, doing what had to be done. After several runs to Tim Horton’s for energizing large cartons of coffee and boxes of donuts, they just kept on going!

I was packing up our liquor cabinet; a couple of bottles wine (for cooking, of course), a bottle of rum (for medicinal purposes) and brandy (to baste my fruit cakes) to be sent to Mistissini, when one of the movers pointed at my box.

“Nous ne pouvons pas transporter cela,” he said. “Tu as besoin de le cacher.”

Andy and I had discussed living in a “dry” community; and had considered going dry for about four minutes. We were told that being a dry community meant that liquor could not be sold in the town. It was also suggested that we not drink a beer on our patio or leave empty bottles in our recycling as it could cause problems.

No, Andy wasn’t ready to give up our beer and samosa nights on Fridays, and I do so like my glass of red wine …

Stuff, Stuff and more STUFF!

Frank from Martel Express came to take an inventory of our move requirements. We were permitted 228 kilos each to Mistissini. The rest of our worldly goods would be stored at Trois Rivières.

I asked if this was an unusual amount that would go into storage.

“Yes,” he said. “Most people keep their homes, rent them out or have family members stay in them.”

Family and friends offer to help packing.

“It’s not the packing that will be the problem,” I explained to the well-intentioned offers of time. “The packing will be taken care of the movers. It’s the sorting … what goes to Mistissini, what to put into storage, and what to recycle, donate and discard. Only I can do that.”

How much stuff do two people need?  We had held onto much too much, thinking that eventually our children would like sets of dishes, pots, cutlery, bedding. But the latest generation, moving out on their own, prefer things fresh out of a box, IKEA, if possible.

I find myself sorting piles and moving things from room to room, not making a decision. 228 kilos – our computers, favourite books, clothing, would pretty much fill up that quota.

It is amazing what we tuck away in the corners and crevices of our lives. Boxes of photos, school reports, mementos of trips, piles of scrapbooking material, waiting to be pasted and sorted, clothes and shoes that should have found their way to Renaissance by now. It’s a cleansing experience, but oops … I may need my favourite wooden spoon up there.  And there’s that book I want to reread … one day.

Old House, Blue House, Red House New House

Our old house in Pointe Claire Village

Our old house in Pointe Claire Village

Today I told Andy the news the house was officially sold and that the offer and counter offer on our home was approved by the buyer.

We have been e-mailing and phoning daily. Andy sent pictures of the house provided to us as part of the teachers’ package, of the neighbourhood and of his students’ projects.

Our new home house looks remarkably like our old house, but a hundred years younger and it’s red, instead of blue. The new house stands boldly upright, not stooped, its old, aching bones bent from years of heavy snow buildup, ice storms, earth tremors and just general tiredness. After almost two years of dealing with real estate agents, potential buyers, inspectors, and the City of Pointe Claire, it is sold!

First, I tell my family, waiting for after the final signing at the notary’s office to inform my colleagues and human resources at work that I would be leaving.

“What will you DO up there?” My aunt asked.

“Is it safe?”  From my mom.

“Where are we going to have Christmas dinners and BBQ’s and Sunday potlucks?”

“It will be an adventure,” I tell them all. “And I am very excited!”

Would a Rose by any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

Andy left this morning at 5:30 am. for the long drive up to Mistissini, his truck packed with bedding, woodworking tools, food and lots of warm clothing.  He would be starting work the next day. I needed to stay behind until the house is sold.

I am lost in this big old house. Pointe Claire Village fall festivities have passed, and interest in the house has dwindled. Pre-Christmas is a slow season in real estate. Would I be here forever and alone?

Andy calls in the evening. He arrived safely after nine hours of driving.

“Google Maps is slightly off with their time and it is really not as long as they indicated,” he said.

“Oh, and by the way, we are pronouncing it wrong. It’s not MISS-ti-SINI,” he laughed. “It’s called ‘Mis-TISS-ini.'”

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?

A Forest in the Mist

On the Road to Mistissini

On the Road to Mistissini

Mistissini.  MISS-ti-SINI.  The word stretches and flows silkily, bringing me a year back to a scene, coming out of a winding curve on my sole drive to Pacific Rim Park. Before me, an evergreen forest on a mountainside emerged out of the morning fog … A forest floating in the mist.

I search Google Maps and find Mistissini at the tip of a long tongue of land spilling into Lac Mistassini. There are no visible signs of a road, until zooming in farther. A thin line, which I approximate to be about sixteen kilometres, connects the town to a thicker line, leading to Chibougamau. Zooming out, Lac Mistassini, and its neighbouring lake, Lac Albanel, appear as three bold, blue brush strokes on a furrowed landscape filled with countless lakes.

Back to the beginning:  Last June, a job listing appeared in the Montreal Gazette, winking out at me somewhere between penciling in the daily Sudoku and Today’s Crossword Puzzle during my morning commute. I ripped out the ad and folded it carefully into my bag to show Andy that evening.

“Look,” I said, pulling out the ad, “A teaching position for an accredited Cabinetmaker with the Cree School Board.”

Andy had taught cabinetmaking and finishing at Merlin Wood, a woodworking school in Hudson, as well as lessons out of a small shop attached to our home. This was a perfect opportunity for us, as recent empty nesters, to jump-start a new life in Canada’s North.

After the initial application process, thick envelopes of credentials, references, and documentation were forwarded to the Cree School Board.

Summer passed. We still had not had a response.

A surprize phone call came in September to request an interview.

“I feel good about it,” Andy said, having met me at an Irish pub for lunch after meeting with the director at the Montreal office of Cree School Board.

Encouraged enough to begin the planning process of our potential move, we made  lists of equipment and dry goods to transport, things to be finalized. I had even begun compiling lists of caribou and moose recipes (several good glugs of wine, apparently, take away the gameness of the meat, also providing the cook with good cheer).

The leaves had turned and had started to fall.

Still, no confirmation of employment from the school board, until the phone call at the beginning of November.

“Can you be here in two weeks?”

Panic.  We were drifting into the busy Advent and Christmas seasons of family dinners, visiting and related festivities. Our house still had to be sold. Selling our turn of the century home of heritage interest, with roof tiles slipping, eaves troughs dipping, was proving to be a challenge. After two real estate agents and four offers, which fell through, we were now lowering the price significantly enough to hopefully attract a new market.

No … we weren’t ready.  But we were.  Were we?