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: