Morning At A Cree Village
I am bundled as I have never been bundled before: down-filled coat, fleece-lined boots, goggles, fur hat and about five layers of almost everything else.
I certainly must look like a marshmallow woman. But who cares about fashion, when the trip I am about to take is in a wooden box on runners towed by a powerful, black snowmobile, the lifeline of the north when everything is frozen.
Daryl McLeod, a native Cree — padded, helmeted and goggled like me — helps my well-worn bones into the box.
“It’s warm today, only minus 12 [10° F],” Daryl comments.
“What’s cold?” I ask.
“Minus 50 [-58° F]; then we stay inside.”
I plant myself in the box with my back to Daryl, who’s driving the snowmobile, and facing Byron, Daryl’s 15-year-old son.
Daryl revs up the machine and we zip off from Cree Village Ecolodge on Moose Factory Island, headed up the frozen Moose River.
Moose Factory Island
Moose Factory Island is situated near the southern end of James Bay, a former fur-trading post that was the first English-speaking settlement in the Canadian province of Ontario.
Designed and operated by the MoCreebec people, Cree Village Ecolodge is the self-proclaimed first indigenous-owned eco lodge in the northern hemisphere.
Built at the edge of the Arctic, this 21st century facility is one of the most ecologically friendly inns in Canada.
There is no standard air-conditioning system here, but instead, highly efficient, low-noise ceiling fans.
The walls are cedar or ceramic tile, and low-emission paint was used on all painted surfaces. Four of the lodge’s bathrooms feature composting toilets.
Modeled on a traditional Cree shabatwon, meaning “long teepee with doors at each end,” the grand Cree Village Ecolodge overlooks the picturesque Moose River.
We are headed on a day tour up the frozen Moose River and then overland to a Cree camp on another ice-covered river somewhere in this vast northern land.
We fly along the frozen riverbed, a wide swath of white rimmed by dark spikes of spruce. Then we swerve off the trail and head inland, bumping and jolting along a winding path through the seemingly endless, uninhabited forest.
The trail winds and curves, willows whip against us, and the shadows of trees and brush make patterns in the snow.
Byron and I talk about school, the land that he loves, his family, the reserve, the problems of youth, and his ambition to be a bush pilot.
He points to a beaver dam, a snow-covered mound of sticks and mud emerging from a bed of frozen cattails.
Gray Wooden Cabin
We arrive at a lonely gray wooden cabin that will come alive in the spring goose hunt. During this time, schools close and whole families take to the bush to stock up for the summer season.
But today the forest is silent, the scrunch of our boots the only sound. Within a few minutes, Daryl has split wood and tosses it into the pot-bellied stove.
With practiced efficiency, he adds sliced potatoes to chunks of moose meat in a big cast-iron frying pan.
When everything is sizzling hot, he serves it up with hunks of bannock bread and we eat outside on the cabin steps. The moose meat is tough and hard to chew. “It was a big old moose,” laughs Daryl.
The wind comes up and it’s getting colder. The whiteness, emptiness and silence are overwhelming.
I imagine how early explorer Henry Hudson felt locked into this ice-covered land for the duration of a 17th century winter. We are lucky to be heading back to the warmth of Cree Village Ecolodge.
We enter through a cedar-lined entrance over stone-tiled floors, some bearing what look like footprints of northern animals. The great room is a modern version of a Cree gathering place, where in the old days they came to share stories and celebrate the hunt.
“They used to join two teepees and cover them with deerskin or moss,” explains lodge supervisor Greg Williams.
The cathedral-like interior, with its vaulted ceiling, huge windows, cedar walls and 48-foot-tall (14.6 m) poles of lodgepole pine, is the lodge’s focal point. Guests mingle in the dining area or on cozy couches around the fire to swap stories.
Opened in 2000, the 20-room lodge combines the Cree values of hospitality and living lightly on the land.
Hospitality means the lodge personnel give guests an insight into the Cree way of life, and provide tours and excursions into the wilderness.
“Living lightly means that every detail, from the exterior building materials to keep out the cold, to the interior furnishings, maximizes the use of natural products.” Williams explains, as we tour the lodge.
He points out the wool carpets, wood furniture, cotton sheets, organic mattresses, wool blankets and hemp tablecloths. “We minimize the use of synthetics. Even the paint is non-toxic,” he adds.
My Room At the Lodge
My room, decorated in shades of warm cream, beiges and brown with its own picture window and solid-wood hickory furniture, provides me with my own private view of the activity on the frozen river.
Snowmobiles and cars fly up and down the ice road as if they were driving on a city street.
Guests come from all over the world. In the summer, they kayak or canoe across the Moose River to bird watch at the bird sanctuary on nearby Shipstead Island, and they dig for fossils in the shale on the river’s shore.
During summer, one can hike around Moose Factory Island and learn about fur traders in the island’s Centennial Park Museum.
“One of the favorite activities is just chatting with some of the elders,” says lodge supervisor Williams. “Even for me, their stories about living off the land, deep in the bush, are riveting.”
In winter there is plenty of snowshoeing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. More-adventurous guests take off for a couple of days of winter camping with an experienced guide. The tents are heated and food is provided.
As for me, I am content with a luxurious 21st century tepee.
As the sun sets and the northern sky catches fire, I am curled up in bed under cozy wool covers and natural cotton sheets in a room that is so well insulated that I do not even have to turn on the heat.
If You Go
Cree Village Ecolodge
Rooms start at US$ 126 per night, including continental breakfast at the 66-seat restaurant. Lunch and dinner are extra.
Moose Cree Outdoor Discoveries & Adventures