My parents and my sister and I were afloat, crammed into our little tinner, prevented from landing ashore by the large black bear that stood on the beach between our cabin and us. We urged our large Alaskan malamute to give chase, to no avail. After firing warning shots, my dad cautiously stepped out of the boat to deal with the presumed trouble bear. It took two shots; the second and fatal bullet dropped the bear in full gallop. Emboldened by the bear’s death, our dopey malamute stood barking and snarling over the limp and deflated glossy black carcass. I remember the scent of fear; pungent and invigorating in my nostrils.
At the time, I was five years old and we were at Hill Island Lake, a remote place of rugged majesty and biodiversity 80 miles northeast of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. Hill Island Lake is a long, narrow lake surrounded by big trees and rolling hills of bedrock and glacial till. Most of my memories of the place were formed from the perspective of five-year-old me. The memories are dramatic and emotive, strengthened by a mind ripe with imagination and malleable to new joys and fears and experiences. The formative scents, sights and sounds of the place remain clear in my mind to this day. I vividly remember the night when a primal howling chorus of 20 wolves surrounded the cabin. I can still hear the gnashing fangs and playful yips emanating from the dark perimeter beyond the glow of our 20’ x 24’ log cabin safe haven. I can remember another day, a foggy morning when I met my dad in a dewy willow flat. Wearing his sneaking moccasins, he stood proudly over a bull moose. I saw highbush cranberry jelly bubbling out of a hole in the moose’s side. I could almost taste the tart scarlet bubbles and foam.
The memories of a child are sometimes blown out of proportion. Was all of this real? At the age of 27 I recently had the chance to find out. This past fall my parents and I drove eight hours from Yellowknife to Fort Smith and caught a floatplane to our remote cabin.
My sense of childlike wonder and fascination was rekindled by a story told by Ivan, our Métis floatplane pilot on the 45-minute flight to isolated Hill Island Lake. Historically, he said, Hill Island was an important place of commerce and trade long before the colonization of the Americas by European settlers. At Hill Island Lake three river systems formed trade and hunting routes to the North, East and South. To this day, a stroll on the beach reveals signs of long-term Dënesųłiné inhabitation and traces of their trading partners. Apparently, lakeside esker beaches are still littered with flint knapped arrowheads and spearheads, some made of obsidian glass, an exotic rock with its nearest deposits found in southern Alberta.
Once at the cabin, we open the plywood-shuttered windows and door. Since our last visit many years ago, a bear has been intent on breaking in and has scratched up the plywood window coverings and has bitten the foot-thick spruce logs to test the sturdiness of the structure that was built and lived in by my parents 30 years ago. We also learn that our ursine visitor ripped out all of the floor insulation beneath the cabin.
My parents and I reintegrate into cabin life as if 20 years had not passed. I feel a deep sense of belonging in this place, perhaps because my shriveled umbilical cord hangs in some ancient shoreline spruce nearby. We spend our days on cabin upkeep and exploring the environs. Coffee breaks are spent reading the 1985 National Geographic magazines preserved in the 30-year time capsule of our cabin. Daily activity has interludes of excitement over flushed grouse. Nights are spent cooking over our propane stove, the dim glow of the lantern bathing us and trickling into the dark beyond the cabin walls. One night a lone wolf howls, the mournful cry perhaps a trick of my mind yearning for the wolf pack experiences of my childhood.
One morning I am the solitary hunter, senses alert, stealthily sneaking through the bush in the pre-dawn light. My breath frosts in the October nip and my bare hands are chilled on the cold steel of my shotgun. The nearby lake is a serene mirror. A great grey owl glides silently overhead, the master hunter of the twilight domain who sees and hears all. Now, the morning flight of grouse begins, fluttering torpedoes hurtling from one shore of the lake to the other. The sun begins to rise. On this morning I return empty-handed of grouse and ducks, but with my sights set on a new pursuit. As I walk home along the beach I notice that the serene lake is now bubbling and rippling everywhere with surfacing trout. I don my chest waders and wade into the flowing channel in front of the cabin. The sun is up now, reflecting on the smooth lake. Only the splashing of trout breaks the deafening silence. I can hear them clearly from a mile away. I smile and chuckle uncontrollably as I cast out my line: this is perfection.
On our evening walks we see signs of megafauna, defined trails stamped into the lichen of the sandy shoreline. These are from moose, bear, and wolf, engaging in the cycles of predation that have been played out for millennia. And yet fresh signs are conspicuously absent. An old wolf or bear track here and there, and the odd ancient moose track. The eerie silence holds for the duration of our weeklong stay. October 1 is an unseasonable 24 C. We paddle the lake that day wearing shorts, scouring the shoreline for moose. Still nothing. A few months after the trip we learned how renowned moose hunters in the southern NWT came home empty handed this fall.
After the cabin is shuttered up and we have long since returned to Yellowknife, I reflect on our trip to Hill Island Lake. The majesty of the place was palpable, and yet the experiences of an adult seem to fall short of the perceptions of a five-year-old. Did we actually once see four moose in the marsh next to our cabin? And was the stench of fear during the bear encounter from long ago actually just the scent of a musky and starving black bear? And did a welcoming party of 20 playful, curious wolves actually surround our cabin at night? Certainly the moose my dad shot was not bleeding highbush cranberry jelly; this must have been a child’s simple association of the uncanny resemblance between fresh, frothy moose blood and jelly bubbling in a pot. But I question my memory bank nonetheless.
Was the area ever as bountiful as I remember it? Family members and the photo record tell me that my memories formed in the bush of biodiversity and plenty are real. But I still can’t shake the doubt I have over some of my childhood recollections, especially when I think of the stupefying decline of local caribou herds. I have this distant memory from Yellowknife of walking into the midst of hundreds of Bathurst caribou on a lake near the city. Today, the Bathurst caribou have nearly disappeared. How could a herd that once numbered 350,000 animals and was the lifeblood of the Yellowknife region virtually disappear?
Memory of the land, although sometimes stemming from our own nebulous childhood experiences or passed along from those who came before us, should guide our actions in the face of the drastic changes happening to the north and in the face of tragedies like the Bathurst caribou decline.
For me, I know these things are real. I have felt the adrenaline from close brushes with bears, and have felt the catharsis of killing moose and caribou.
These emotional experiences keep the moose and the caribou in the forefront of my mind. My generation must carry forward the memories of natural abundance and the intrinsic value of our traditional ways of life as we move into an uncertain future. We must keep them real in the face of all doubt.
This past summer a family friend told me when I was a newborn I was given the taste for the land when my dad spread moose blood over my lips after a moose hunt. When I ask my dad about this he chuckles and says he can’t remember doing such a thing. Blood on the lips of a baby, he says, is a pretty wild thing to do. Maybe it was only highbush cranberry jelly.