Mojo Men of the Great Whale
Great Whale River from the LaForge 2 Complex
|Rutsen Eagle portages his
gear with a tumpline 150 feet up the banks of the Great Whale
Story and photos by BILL SEELEY I
vividly recall one particular rainy day at summer camp on Lake
Temagami. I was 12 years old. We were between trips, and, as
canoeing was the only activity, there was nothing to do but enjoy
the lazy pace.
I wandered into a cavernous, barn-like
building which was referred to only as 'the Lodge' and noted the
following inscription that was written on the bow end of an ancient
canoe mounted high on the wall like a trophy: "2000 mile mojo trip:
Hudson's Bay, Great Whale River, Belcher Islands".
Jimmy Carr steps in the drink on a cold and rainy day
as he and Steve Springgate line a channel in the chain of
mountain lakes on the 35-mile overland portage bypassing The
don't recall lingering there, yet I stood enchanted in some state of
ethereal awe, captured by the musty smell and the dim natural light.
That is probably just the stuff of fading memories. I am sure that I
had something more important on my mind, like horseshoes.
But, deep down, I was hooked. It wasn't until many years
later that I bothered to read the story which hangs framed beneath
the canoe (hammered out on a manual typewriter that probably still
resides under the accountant's desk in the office). It is a tale
about four of the camp's faithful who, in 1915, traveled north by
train, schooner, the sweat of their brows, and the toil of their
seasoned backs, into what was then uncharted wilderness.
It wasn't until still many more years had passed that I
seriously contemplated retracing some of their steps. You see, it
was the stuff of dreams. The Inuit village of Great Whale River on
the eastern shore of Hudson Bay was a great, mysterious, and
mythical place. [Ed. Note-The town has three other names in its
working languages; Poste de la Baleine, Kuujjuarapik, and
Each time I pull out my trip journal from
the summer of 1997 the pages fall open to the following entry. It is
July 26th: I awoke well past midnight, startled from sleep by a
thunder storm rolling down the steep canyon walls towards us. At
4:30, our usual wake up call, the thunder was still heavy.
It was a boom and a boon! We got to sleep for another
hour! The thunder has a quality of immediacy here. Perhaps it is our
elevation. We are still 600 feet above Hudson Bay and the canyon
walls themselves rise to nearly 1200 feet above sea level. They were
buried in the clouds this morning. The river cannot be more than a
couple hundred yards wide. In any event, the river flows nearly
straight as an arrow, calm and swift, for 40 miles, through high
canyon walls that amplify the deep rumble of approaching storms.
That day the sun came out, the wind died down, and a
couple of our comrades went shirtless despite the fact that the
temperature remained chilly. Just around the bend from our campsite
we discovered a Cree hunting camp on a sandy spit jutting out from
the north shore of the river. The canyon walls are craggy, granite,
and so steep that it seemed they had simply been sheared off into
the river. But there was a Cree camp nestled in among the willows of
nearly every creek entrance, usually comprised of a wooden frame
(for a wall tent) or a cache of long spruce poles carefully leaned
against each other like a teepee (for a small circus style tent).
This was a surprise. Evidence of permanent camps had been scant
above the second gorge.
The biggest treat of the day came
late in the afternoon, when, at Falaise Yachisakw, we followed the
river north into what we refer to as The Big Bend.
Three metre falls at the head of the second gorge on
the Great Whale River.
should preface this story by saying that Steve and I were hoping to
find an occupied camp. The river gets shallower towards the end of
the canyon, and the sand spits seemed ideal for sturgeon fishing
(which is done by stretching nets across the current in the sandy
shallows where sturgeon feed on vegetation stirred up from the river
bottom). We had come across Cree families in the past, on other
rivers, at this time of year. They had usually been out in the bush
stocking up on smoked sturgeon. The number of camps in the vicinity
pointed to this as the primary hunting and fishing grounds for the
Cree of Wapmagoostuui. We had reason to believe our experience would
We had only vague information about the
35-mile overland portage route that cut across the Big Bend. We knew
where it started, and that there was a six-mile portage in the
middle, but the rest we had inferred from the lay of the land. Now,
although that narrowed the field of possibilities to two branches of
the same general route, it still would have been nice to simply come
across someone in the bush who could tell us about the condition of
the trail, and point out the exact locations of the portages.
Well, stranger things have happened. So when we rounded
the corner, and I saw canoes cached on high racks (to keep them out
of the snow drifts I suppose) on the east shore, I started scanning
the bank for the smoke or heat haze of a curing fire. The camp was
set low, on a flood plain, so, from the vantage of our approach we
could see only the tops of the canoes on the racks. Nonetheless, my
gaze fixed on what appeared to be the head and shoulders of a person
standing, just beyond the lip of the bank, in an orange, hooded
sweatshirt, with her back to us. My heart skipped a beat. The wind
was in our face. No one at the camp would ever hear our approach.
We would just have to wait until we landed, and hail them
from the beach. It wasn't until we rounded the point that I had to
concede that it was not a person. It was in fact a scarecrow of
sorts, an orange garbage bag full of twigs, strung on a tall post,
that Steve thought served some sort of function during goose season.
The camp was impressive. It probably covered five acres of open
taiga. The ground was as flat as a putting green, and, with the
exception of an occasional clump of scrub willow, was carpeted in
lush caribou moss. There were five frame structures, several spruce
pole caches, and an uncountable number of tent rings. And there were
caribou trails everywhere. During the fall, when the caribou return
from the tundra, this spot must turn into a city. Unfortunately, no
one was there for a late summer holiday.
excursion came off without a hitch. Our notes proved accurate
enough. We asked around when we arrived in Wapmagoostuui and
discovered that our route differed a little from the Cree course.
After a six mile portage they would walk two more portages of about
the same length WNW back to the river. Our route followed a bunch of
(thankfully) shorter portages, WSW, through a chain of high mountain
lakes, to a steep creek, the highlight of which is a narrow 50 foot
Apparently no one had ever come across our way
This story first appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 94