Caribou Steaks With The CreesJoseph Weber
When Meredith Rodger snowshoed into a Cree camp in the deep woods of central Quebec, the first thing she saw was a stake crowned with bear and beaver skulls and moose and caribou antlers. She was so intrigued by this Cree monument to the animals they hunt and eat that she hardly felt the howling wind and 13F temperature.
For Rodger, a 45-year-old teacher from Ottawa, the icy-cold trek was part of a week-long immersion into one of North America's oldest cultures. She had joined with Cree guides David and Anna Bosum, who take groups of up to a dozen on five- and eight-day jaunts along their trapline, or hunting range. The Crees, who have lived by trapping for generations, proved to her how canvas tents with spruce-bough floors keep warm in subfreezing temperatures. They showed her how to make cough syrup from tree bark, and how beaver-testicle slices on the eyes can cure snowblindness. They even demonstrated scapula divination, a mystical method of tracking game by reading char marks in the shoulder bones of roasted animals.
A trip to the Cree world is surprisingly easy--a 19-seat plane operated by Cree-owned Air Creebec (819 825-8355) flies the 325 miles from Montreal to Chibougamau's airport in 70 minutes. Your tour begins 15 miles away at the six-year-old village of Ouje-Bougoumou. Built on the site of traditional Cree hunting grounds, this modern community of one- and two-story wood and glass buildings rises on the north shore of Lake Opemiska. The structures house offices of the Crees, a tribe with about 13,000 members scattered in nine "bands," across Quebec.
Ouje-Bougoumou, Cree for "the place where people gather," offers a window onto a culture rooted in the old and adapting to the new. You'll see tents and dwellings where natives smoke meats and perform rituals. Nearby, you can visit a 21st century plant that uses sawdust from a timber mill to produce clean, safe heat and helped the village win a U.N. award for sustainable development.
The wild gives the most intimate view of the Cree universe. The Bosums lead showshoe and dog-sledding trips in winter and canoe and hiking treks in summer. You help pitch tents, stoke fires, and fix traditional food. Expect a lot of fresh meat, especially beaver, moose, rabbit, and caribou. "The nearest thing to a vegetable is bannock with fish eggs," says Lawrence Millman, a writer from Cambridge, Mass., who has spent time with the Crees. Bannock, a Canadian trail staple, is unleavened bread commonly smeared with boiled bear fat.
Among the Crees, night is the time for telling stories. You might hear about Chikapash, who uses a monster's ears for a tent and ribs for a canoe, but errs by letting its fat fall on a woman's hands. (The monster's severed head then charges the hero.) In the daytime, you learn such crafts as making snowshoes.
ROUGHING IT. The price of this cultural immersion ranges from $594 to $1,190 per person, depending on the number of days and season (winter is more expensive than summer). For reservations, contact the Bosums at 418 745-3629. The package includes taxi service to the village, meals, and camping gear, but not the $453 round trip from Montreal. Information is available at the Ouje-Bougoumou Website, www.ouje.ca.
As a guest of the Crees, be prepared to rough it. In winter, sunglasses and extra-warm clothes, especially for the hands and feet, are a must. Insect repellent is recommended in summer, though you can always use beaver grease or frog urine.
If you crave showers and soft beds at the end of your stay, you can check into the 12-room Capissisit lodge in Ouje-Bougoumou for about $38 a night. If you're tired of caribou and beaver, the hotel restaurant serves a nice plate of bagels and cream cheese.