Boreality Winter Trip Log

The Boreality creative team consists of Katherine Bitney (writer), Sid Robinovitch (composer), Mandy Malazdrewich (photographer), Ken Gregory (soundscape artist) and me, Janine Tschuncky (project coordinator). We have four trips planned to the boreal forest, one during each season. These trips are part of stage one, the gathering of raw materials which will inform the poetry, photography, sound and music during the creation phase. In the third and final phase, these elements will all come together in a variety of ways including a performance by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and a special issue of Prairie Fire magazine featuring boreal forest writing. We are in the beginning stages, birds gathering twigs for a nest.

I decided to keep a log while we were away so that we could share our adventures with friends back home. Because not all the stories are mine to tell, this log is made up of my own reflections and recollections of events as I experienced them during our first trip into the boreal forest from December 15 to 19, 2008.

We decided to start the project in the Pine Falls, Hollow Water and Bissett areas for a couple of reasons. Partly because we didn’t want to risk travelling to the far north during such a cold winter, and this is the area that I am most familiar with. Once the decision was made, everything came together quickly through a connection Michelle Forrest had in Hollow Water with Aboriginal Elder Garry Raven, Sue Hemphill’s connection in Pine Falls with Blaine Klippenstein, and the connections I still had with the people in Bissett.

I was thrilled to be starting with this area because I’d lived in Bissett three times during my life. Each time I connected with different aspects of the boreal landscape. When I was eight, and my family first came to Canada, the Precambrian rocks were my best friends. I often spent hours by myself, climbing or sitting on the rocks overlooking the lake. When I was sixteen and my mom was ill, canoeing on the lake during the summer months became my refuge. The third and last time I lived in Bissett was for a year, just after my mom died in 1980. This time I connected with the plants and animals of the boreal forest. I learned how to cook wild meat, pick and preserve wild plums, high bush cranberries, blueberries, mushrooms, wild strawberries and some of the medicinal plants in the area. On each occasion, I was nurtured in some way by the landscape, and even today, Bissett still feels like home.

This strong connection and intimacy with landscape was a new experience for me. In Switzerland I had been nurtured by a loving grandmother, an extended family, great bread, cheese and chocolate. Although the landscape there was spectacular, and I loved the mountains and gorgeous lakes, in some ways it was just a backdrop that I took for granted. I didn’t turn to it for friendship and refuge the way I did to the landscape in Bissett and the surrounding area.
This project offered me another entry point into a landscape and community that was precious to me, but one that I had also come to take for granted and had grown distant from in the last six years since my father and stepmother moved to Pine Falls.

On the Sunday before we left, my excitement turned to anxiety. I worried that spending five days with strangers would be difficult, that some of our plans would fall through and that because it had been so long, the landscape itself would no longer recognize me.

Boreality – Winter (December 15-19, 2008)

Monday, December 15
Boreality ProjectThe first day of our trip was brutally cold, with the wind chill making it around -48. I worried that the cold would affect the team, but they were cheerful and willing. We stopped in Pine Falls for lunch and then set out for Hollow Water, another hour north. This is where the boreal landscape really starts. One minute we’re driving through farmland and the next we’re into the Precambrian rock and jack pines. Around 2:00 pm we drove down Garry’s long driveway to his house on the Wanipigow River. Three large dogs ran up to the van and I was a bit nervous about getting out, but the dogs were friendly and just wanted to play. One of them stole Mandy’s mitten and it took some convincing and chasing to get it back.

Björk greeted us warmly. She’s from Iceland and her interests led her to study Aboriginal teachings with Garry. After several years of learning, she now teaches the medicinal herb workshop, does the cooking for visiting groups and assists with sweat lodges and just about everything else. We were invited to make ourselves at home in their comfortable, warm home. I had forgotten the wonderful intensity of heat a wood stove can give off.

We had arranged to stay in the “little house,” which was close to Garry’s house. That way, we’d have more time to experience the forest, rather than having to drive back and forth to Pine Falls both nights. It turned out it was indeed a very “little” house, with a wood stove that we were required to keep going. Staying in the “little house” meant that we would also have more time to experience not only the boreal forest, but each other.

We unpacked the equipment, the snacks, and the few clothes we’d brought. Everything flowed easily and effortlessly, as though this team had always worked together. By the time we went out the sun was starting to go down. Mandy took photographs, Ken recorded sounds, and Sid and Kate were outside to experience the forest. Because of the cold, we couldn’t stay out for long and soon went back to Garry’s to start our first workshop.

Boreality ProjectWe relaxed in the living room and Garry started talking. I wondered when the workshop was going to start and soon realized that everything he said and did was part of the teaching, and that I needed to let go of my ideas of a schedule while we were here. We learned more about how Garry had been actively looking after the land for over eighteen years and how he’d built a learning centre where students, teachers and people like us came from all over the world. After a few hours we moved our conversation to the supper table, where the topic changed to food and gardening.

That evening Garry came up to the “little house” with a flip chart and markers to start our formal workshop on traditional teachings. He told us more about the importance of the sweat lodge and the medicine wheel as tools for deep healing. Some of these teachings seemed very familiar to me. I had studied shamanism and traditional teachings in Hawaii. Listening to Garry made me realize how much Manitoba’s boreal landscape, and the people living in it, had to share with us.

It was late when Garry left, and we were tired. We settled down for the night in close proximity. I took my job as the fire keeper seriously and got up at least five times to stoke it and add more wood. I barely slept. Partly because I was worried about the fire going out, and partly because the landscape itself seemed to be talking to me, and I didn’t want to miss a word.

Tuesday, December 16
Boerality ProjectDespite the cold we were eager to go outside and see the sun rise. We were grateful for the substantial breakfast Björk had ready for us later. She’d made porridge, pancakes, sausages, eggs, bread, sugarless blueberry jam and tea from red clover harvested in the area. After breakfast the others went out.

I stayed inside with Björk and helped prepare lunch. We soon found that we shared a love of good food and a concern for how food choices are affecting the health of people on the planet. Björk was eagerly learning everything she could about food and healing, and her cooking and caring were a reflection of this.

Boreality ProjectWhen Garry got back from teaching at the school that afternoon, we started our medicinal plant workshop by walking down the edges of the Wanipigow River to look for weekay. We couldn’t actually harvest the plant at this time of year, but we could get a good look at the leaves and learn to identify how they were different from the cattails.

When we got back from our expedition, Garry invited us to drum and sing with them before continuing the workshop. The plants we learned about were all picked and harvested in the area. Garry and Björk have taught many people how to build sweat lodges, make bear grease and use local sacred medicinal plants for healing. While chewing on dried bits of weekay and sipping juniper/cedar tea, we learned about yarrow, red willow, raspberry, red clover, blueberry, poplar, cedar, juniper and a few others.

Björk described how bear grease had to be melted very slowly and carefully, and how it was used in the sweat lodge to help with aches and pains. The jar of pure bear grease she passed around had a very strong smell. She’d also made some that smelled medicinal, more like cedar and less like bear.

Traditional teachings are not complicated, but they are not always easy to follow. Many of us prefer the illusion of separation to living our lives in recognition of the oneness among people, the earth and its creatures. Between the cold, learning, pondering on the teachings, making sure we got what we needed artistically, and keeping our fire going, we were all very tired that night, and very full. Mandy and I agreed to share the job of fire keeper and I slept well and only got up once or twice.

Wednesday, December 17
It felt warmer today. It probably wasn’t – it’s just that we had become obsessed with the weather (especially those of us with lousy winter boots) and with finding ways to make it more bearable.

After breakfast we had a sharing circle. A sharing circle is an opportunity for everyone to talk without interruption, to give thanks and to share whatever is present in one's heart. When it was my turn, I chose to share a story about my mother, who is buried at the Bissett cemetery. Although I’ve made peace with her in so many ways, I had never gone back to visit her grave since she died in 1980. I was surprised that the story came out of my mouth with a group of people I hardly knew, but it was finally the right time to talk about it. Garry was very kind, and had some good suggestions.

The teachings work in powerful ways. Most importantly, for our project, which requires us to “listen” to the voice of the boreal forest, the teachings are a lifeline, or a direct connection to the landscape. I was grateful that we had started this project with the visit to Garry and Björk’s.

After the sharing circle we had our last meal together, cleaned up the “little house” and said our goodbyes. Again, I was surprised at how easily everything flowed, how kind and patient everyone was with each other.

The drive to Bissett was soft, very quiet, and we arrived there around 3:00 pm. Jeanette, who was at the San Antonio Hotel when we got there, put us up at their motel just across the street. I walked down to the school to see if I could catch Cheryl, our contact for the Christmas concert that night and the school visit the next day.

When I got to the school, Cheryl asked if I would help her take the Santa chair to the curling rink for the concert. Neither of us had a car, so we carried the big wooden armchair between us from the school to the curling rink, which entertained those who drove by. Back at the motel, I had a bit of time before supper to prepare an offering for my mother (mandarin oranges, almonds, walnuts and apples) for my visit to the graveyard the next day.

Because it was so cold, we drove to the curling rink for the Christmas concert despite the fact that it was only a ten-minute walk. The hall was decorated with a big Christmas tree, a stage had been built, and seating had been set up for about fifty people. The dainties and punch were along the far wall, ready to go. I was thrilled to see Alma MacPherson, who is now the oldest living member of the community.

The cold takes a lot of energy and after the concert I was ready for bed. Tomorrow would be a big outdoor day. I wondered why being here has always felt so safe to me; that despite the cold, my body felt bigger and stronger than it usually did in the city. What qualities do jack pine, poplar, rocks and gold have that make me feel stronger?
I did a bit of research into the qualities of the boreal forest landscape, and here’s what I found. Fascinating, and not surprising, that this landscape has such a powerful effect on so many people.

Bisset Gold MineGold is nearly indestructible. It stands for integrity, safety and well-being, is an energy generator and removes blockages and has the power to strengthen. It helps one to realize one’s potential. The poplar tree helps us find the determination to face life’s hardships. Every bit of the jack pine is used in making medicine, even the cones can be boiled up. The Precambrian rock is ancient and enduring.

So, it seems that on many levels, the boreal forest is concerned with our safety and survival, and we need to be concerned with its survival. Spreading across Canada, it is one of the largest forests in the world and acts like a lung, taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.  We are dependent on it not only for oxygen, but also for clean water. I knew more about the plight of the rain forest than I did about the forest in my own back yard. I decided that this would change.

Thursday, December 18
Alma MacPhersonI woke early and went for a walk. It was still very dark. The loop around town only takes about fifteen minutes. On my walk I passed the post office, grocery store, little park, town hall, two churches, the school and the empty space where mine buildings used to sit, and then it was back up the hill towards the hotel.

After breakfast we drove to the cemetery, about a mile or two out of town. It hadn’t occurred to me that the snow would be covering all the flat grave markers. Kate and I started clearing off some of the snow, but we couldn’t find my mother’s marker. It was too cold to continue searching and so we stopped and I left my little offering in a clearing, making a promise to return in spring.

After the visit to the cemetery, we drove to the other end of town where we could get a good view of Rice Lake from the rocks beside what was now an abandoned house. After a few hours of being outside, we looked forward to the turkey soup Jeanette would serve for lunch. I wondered who would show up for the school visit and how it would go.

Boreality ProjectThe school was lively that afternoon because it was the last day before Christmas break. Alma MacPherson was the only elder who turned up, but with Cheryl, all ten kids and the five of us, we had a nice group for storytelling. We made a circle of chairs in one of the classrooms and Alma told us stories about bears coming into town, two baby owls they had raised, and about what life had been like in Bissett when she first moved there many years ago. It didn’t take long for the kids to join in and tell their stories.

After the school visit, we walked out onto the lake. It was gorgeous with the sun going down, and at first, felt much warmer than it really was. We didn’t go as far as Currie’s Island because it just got too cold. Our feet, and the tiny bits of our faces that showed, were freezing. We went back to the hotel for supper. We finished the evening in the bar telling stories of people we knew who were endlessly resilient, kind of like the gold sitting in the ground beneath us.

Friday, December 19
BorealityWe were on our way to Pine Falls by 8:30 am. Before we left, I had stocked the little rack in the hotel lobby with Prairie Fire pamphlets and information on the writer-in-residence project that people in the community could access. We’d had our last breakfast and said our goodbyes to Jeanette, who had made us so welcome. I felt sad to be leaving Bissett, but also excited about meeting Blaine in Pine Falls and going to the Powerview School to share stories with the kids there.

Blaine is a writer, photographer and storyteller, and has lived up north most of his life. After having started a fiddling program for kids living in the north, he recently published Andrea’s Fiddle, a book for children that includes an instructional CD.

We were eager to hear Blaine’s stories, but first we had a presentation to do for his class and another class he’d invited. Later, Blaine took us to his home and made lunch. Blaine’s friend Gerald was staying with him and joined us for the afternoon. It turns out that Gerald had gone to school in Cranberry Portage with my brother and a few other boys I knew from Bissett. He showed us some pictures of a moose hunt on his cell phone and shared stories about life in Grand Rapids, where he is from.

By 3:00 pm it felt like it was time to head home. We said our goodbyes to Blaine and Gerald and left with an invitation to visit Grand Rapids on one of our next trips. The ride home was quiet as we wondered what would be waiting for us back in Winnipeg, with Christmas just days away.

The team had gotten along so well that returning to the pre-Christmas world felt almost harsh. People in the city were more edgy and stressed and it felt strange to navigate the next few days without a team. Despite the extreme cold and all the work it took to organize, this week away felt like a huge gift.

Since December
Since our first trip, I’ve read more about the boreal forest and the challenges facing it now and in the future. I feel more certain that our artistic endeavours, while not political, can nevertheless make a difference by creating awareness and building new relationships. By reconnecting to the forest, I also feel more connected to myself.

Thanks to Sue Hemphill, who set up a visit at the Manitoba Museum, we met three remarkable people who have been working in the area of forest ecology and conservation for many years. They shared some of their stories with us. Their outlook was fascinating, more from a scientific angle. It gave us a lot of food for thought, especially the conversation about the burn and renewal cycles that all forests live through.

Thanks to Kelly Hughes and Ariel Gordon, we launched the Boreality project at Aqua Books on January 29. We were thrilled that Garry and Björk were able to join us for the evening. This event was also the kick-off for the Boreality writer-in-residency, which invites writers living in Manitoba, and especially those writing in or about the boreal forest, to work on their manuscripts with Kate. If you visit, you may still be able to listen to an audio recording of the launch.

After a meeting with Ron Thiessen, Executive Director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness, we decided that we would like to partner with the people living in and around Fisher River, which is on the west side of Lake Winnipeg. For more information on Fisher River and the Fisher River First Nation, check out the links on this website. This is a very active community deeply involved in the preservation of the boreal forest as well as in creating a welcoming atmosphere for those interested in ecotourism. We’ll keep you posted as to the next event at Aqua Books, where the team will share their adventures, photography, sound and poetry from the spring trip.

by Janine Tschuncky