The gordongroup documentary film team travelled to James Bay to capture the spring goose hunt activities on camera last April. While we were there, I mentioned to our hosts that my husband was an avid hunter and that we lived on a 200-acre farm in Eastern Ontario. The next thing I knew, a Cree contingent was planning to drive 12 hours to hunt in Grenville County.
I had suggested the second week of November for the hunt, because there are normally a fair number of geese at that time, as well as an abundance of wild turkey and deer. A letter of permission was acquired from the local Algonquin and Mohawk Indian Chiefs " more of a courtesy than a regulation " and the Ministry of Natural Resources was informed that we would have a visiting delegation of Cree coming to harvest on our property. The Cree informed me that they were only interested in hunting geese. So we planned to take them to the St. Lawrence River. They could comfortably stay at the McIntosh Inn, in Morrisburg.
As the first of November approached, I began to worry. I hadn't received final confirmation on the number of hunters. Finally, I received an email explaining that the men of the Salt family in Waskaganish, whom I had met last April, were indeed coming to hunt. In addition, they would be bringing their wives, their elderly parents and some children. And they had decided that they would like to stay at our farm instead of at the Inn.
When I broke the news to my hunter-gatherer, Jim, he was more than accommodating. After all, he had signed up to spend the weekend hunting with people who had it in their blood. He was pretty excited.
I rushed home from work on Thursday evening, anxious to arrive home before my guests landed after their long journey. I finished making up beds and waited. Finally, by 8 pm, the extended Salt family, including Gordon Blackned and Jack Diamond, had successfully GPS-ed their way to the Fisher farm in Oxford Mills. And they were hungry. After introductions were made I dished out some of the Farmer's homemade mac-and-cheese and we settled down to get acquainted.
Within minutes our guests were conversing enthusiastically in Cree, interspersed with the occasional English word and peals of giggles. When it was time to turn in for the night, I showed the women where I had set up beds for our dozen guests. They carefully tested the mattress that I had made up for the elderly couple, Johnny and Clymie Weistche, to ensure it was adequately comfortable. Clymie presented me with a pair of moosehide and beaver slippers that she made herself. They are so beautiful I almost don't want to wear them.
At 3:30 Friday morning, my husband and I rose to prepare breakfast for the hunters. The bannock that I made myself in an attempt to impress Johnny remained uneaten. I gave the biscuits to our dog, who wondered what sin he committed to receive that surprise in his bowl.
The men, including 70-something Johnny Weistche and 12-year-old Riley Salt, headed out to the St. Lawrence River Friday morning at 5 am. There they met up with my hunter-gatherer's party, who were very excited to learn goose hunting from the pros.
Unfortunately, with our unseasonably warm fall thus far, the geese were not exactly abundant. The men followed tradition and allowed young Riley to take the first goose, which he did with ease. He performed a perfect goose call with his mouth that was so realistic the local men thought he was using a calling device. The elder Johnny took the second goose, and that was it for the day. The men swapped hunting stories and compared notes. They bonded over a shore lunch that my husband cooked over an open fire. Some of them were tasting venison roast for the first time, and we gifted them with a few bundles from the freezer to take home with them when they left.
At one point, the hunters noticed a beaver swimming into its dam. Jim asked Gordon if they liked to hunt beaver. "œThe beaver is the reason why we are here," Gordon answered. "We are the beaver people."
On Friday evening, the hunters tucked into a hearty meal of beef stew, lasagna and baked beans. I was proud to see them eating my cooking, because at the Fisher farm I rarely gain access to the kitchen: the Farmer is chief cook around here.
The second day was even worse for hunting. As the temperature rose to a nice Cree summer day, the geese went elsewhere. But despite driving 12 hours to hunt and then coming up empty handed, we didn't hear one word of complaint or discouragement from this group. Always positive, often giggling, they just took the day as it came. We assured our guests that the geese were abundant when the cold came, descending upon the riverside bird sanctuary by the thousands. They agreed to return in the spring to see for themselves. Our guests decided to spend Saturday afternoon shopping in the area, while my husband headed for his deer stand on our property. He had been hunting before and after work for a week leading up to our guests' arrival, hoping to present them with some fresh venison as a gift. No such luck. He thought he hit something Saturday night, because he heard the telltale "˜thud', but he couldn't find the animal. He must have hit a tree. One of our guests, Gordon Blackned, presented Jim with a gift of a gun support stick that might improve his aim for next time.
On Saturday evening, we stood outside the barn watching the horses as a flock of geese began to approach. Riley did his call a few times, and I watched amazed as the geese made a slight change in direction to fly right over our heads. He is the Vienna Choir boy of goose callers; hopefully he will still be able to hit that high pitch when his voice changes. The director of gordongroup, Bob Chitty, arrived to take all of us out to dinner Saturday night. It seemed like we had known our guests much longer than just twenty-four hours, as we chatted over our meal. By the end of the weekend, I got over my insecurity about being a non-conventional wife who rarely cooks, doesn't know how to pluck her own goose and didn't personally create the wood carvings that decorate my home. I got to know the Cree women fairly well during our short time together, and I admire so many things about their culture. They are very good at taking care of their elders. The families are all very close, and the men take their women, children and parents along with them to hunt camp. Everyone plays a role in the smooth operations of the hunt. It's quite different from the way things are done around here, where hunters usually retreat to a men-only hunt camp for a week or two during deer season.
As our guests prepared to leave Sunday morning, Jim announced that he was going out on his ATV to look for the deer that he might have shot, one more time. Riley announced that he was going with him. We watched with binoculars from the farmhouse as their red vests wove in and out between the trees. Again we saw some small groups of geese and the Cree called them in to fly right over our heads. When Jim and Riley returned, the soft-spoken boy joked that he was going to stay at the farm. We told him that he was welcome to return, anytime.
As the trucks were loaded up with Christmas gifts instead of geese, we posed for a group photo with our new friends. One by one the Salt family formed a receiving line, giving us hugs and saying goodbye. Johnny, who had spoken only Cree all weekend, whispered a gruff "œthank you" in my ear as he hugged me. I can't be positive, but I think my husband had a tear in his eye when they left. It was quite an experience for him, getting to know these people.
By the end of the weekend, we had gone through 5 dozen eggs, 5 pounds of bacon, four loaves of bread and a kilo of coffee. I am still doing laundry from the 14 extra beds (two more guests showed up on Friday night) one week later.
Jim is planning to go hunting and fishing in James Bay next year, with his new friend Gordon. It looks like the beginning of a long friendship.
I am looking forward to the spring, when the Salt family promises to return, and the Fisher farm turns into a hunt camp again. The introduction to this fascinating Canadian culture is worth every bit of effort.