Paddling down the Moose River, we head to James Bay, four paddlers in two silver canoes, helped by the receding tide. This is the sub Arctic, wild and lonely with no signs of civilization, no cabins, no camps, just tall, dark lodge-pole pine and a rocky shore.
But before the Moose River was 'discovered' by Henry Hudson early in the 17th century, and the fur trade established; it was a busy water highway for nomadic
Swampy Moose Cree. They moved with the seasons, in their birch bark canoes, carrying their families and possessions, from campground to campground. Moose Factory Island was their summer gathering place.
Then in the late 17th century, Swampy Moose Cree lives changed forever. Stovetop style hats made from clipped beaver fur became the fashion of choice for English men. The rush was on for beaver pelts. The fur trade, which centred on the land around Hudson Bay and James Bay, expanded to meet the demand for these stylish hats. The English built a fort on Moose Factory Island to defend their trading territory. The French anxious to expand their own fur trading position captured the English fort in 1686, and renamed it Fort St. Louis. Restored to England by the Treaty of Utrecht early in the 18th century, it was destroyed by fire a few years later.
Despite these wars between the English and French, the fur trade flourished. The recently established
Hudson Bay Company received a Royal Charter to trade and immediately opened their second trading post in North America at Moose, now Moose Factory. The post assumed its position as capital of the James Bay area, and became Ontario's first English speaking community and a meeting place for the governors of the Hudson Bay Company.
Historical documents record that the Moose post continued to prosper and in 1850 construction began on a squared log Staff House to be used as living and sleeping quarters for the unmarried staff and a surgery. Now, in the 21st century, the tired old Staff House partially sinking into the permafrost contains a small museum of Hudson Bay Company memorabilia, pictorial records and historical artifacts of life on a trading post and a mini history of the fur trade.
The once nomadic Swampy Crees, that traded furs at the Hudson Bay Company Trading Post on Moose Factory Island, are no longer nomadic, but hunting and trapping are still a way of life. In the early spring when the first geese come honking in from the south, schools close and families take off to their hunting camps. Or, you might spot a tanned hide stretched on a rack outside a modern day house and savor a bit of bannock cooked on a stick over an open fire at the Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre. But the Moose River with its continuing history is our waterway for the day. It is tidal, with its water surging out towards James Bay in the evening, and flowing back in the morning. Paddling is easy in the warm autumn sun, as we travel with the tide as it flows into the Bay. We pass Tidewater Provincial Park on Bushy Island, an unmanned and not maintained Ontario Park with twenty campsites and two kilometres of trails.
The river widens. Conversation ebbs and flows. We recall canoe trips, when it rained and snowed, the tents leaked, the canoes dumped; and other trips where there were no bugs, no traumas, the skies were filled with stars and everything was perfect. We don't even think of those explorers who came before. It is dip and paddle, dip and paddle as we develop our rhythm. The canoes glide down the river.
A couple of hours pass and it is lunchtime. We beach our canoes on a stony shore and pick up a fossil as soon as we step on land. In fact there are dozens of fossils on this rocky beach. We feel like those explorers of long ago, hundreds of miles from nowhere. But unlike those explorers, we do not exist on salt pork and dried peas but devour asparagus wraps on whole wheat bread, apples and hot coffee prepared by the cook at Cree Village Ecolodge. Too cold for swimming, we relax on the shore.
The tide comes in, and we ride it back to our landing dock on Moose Factory Island. Like good canoeists, we pull our silver canoes from the water, and hoist them on a rack just outside the lodge door.
Built twelve years ago by the
MoCreebec Council of the Cree Nation, this award winning cedar lodge was one of the first buildings in the north to be built using sustainable principles required for a rugged northern climate. Except for the roof and a flood at spring breakup, it has weathered well. Weathered well means, a heavily insulated cedar log building with wool carpeting, natural wood accessories and triple glazed windows that have stood the test of time.
From the cathedral style window in the great room, we look across the river to the rocky shore, lined with tall dark lodge-pole pine, and I spy a black bear.
Katherine McIntyre is interested in Canadian and Central American tourism, aboriginal tourism, aboriginal art, architecture, the Canadian north, hotels and inns. She has written for Canadian History Magazine (formerly the Beaver), Country Connections, Windspeaker, The Revue (Guatemala), Heritage Canada, Medical Post, Lighthouse Digest, and Lodging News. She lives in Toronto.
The Moose River basin has been home to the Moose Cree for thousands of years. The Cree call their home Mushkegowuk. In many ways, this is the economic birthplace of modern Canada, a rich ecosystem that includes, in part, a teeming wildlife population of black bear, woodland caribou, marten, beaver, wolf, fox, lynx, moose, sturgeon, pickerel, northern pike, whitefish, and numerous varieties of trout. Due to the rich animal life, in the 1600's the Hudson Bay Company incorporated what are now two of the oldest existing communities in Ontario in Moose Factory and Fort Albany. This area was the economic engine that drove the Hudson Bay Company expansion west. This area of Northern Ontario continues to be one of the few places in our country where traditional practices and lifestyle continues to exist in harmony with contemporary and responsible harvesting and recreational use. --