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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 River.

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 Big Bend.

 I 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 Whapmagoostuui.]
 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.

 I 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 be repeated.
 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.
 Our overland 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 waterfall.
 Apparently no one had ever come across our way before.

This story first appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 94 in 1998.


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