“I’m surprised you know how to drive on unsealed – New Zealand speak for “gravel” — roads,” commented Karen Owens, who is better known as The Nurse.
I snorted softly and tried to calculate how many thousands of kilometers I would have chalked up over the years of living in northern Saskatchewan. It is a sparsely populated area with vast distances between settlements along the Churchill River.
We – namely The Nurse, Bonnie – the widow of my high-school English teacher – and I – were headed for Stanley Mission.
The original name of the settlement was Amachewespimawin which means “the shooting up hill.”
Historically the Cree paddling down the river for the winter would aim an arrow at the steep cliff on the river. If it went over it signaled a good season; if not, it could be rough.
We arrived at our destination and did a ticky-tour down the main street. Not much had changed in the 24 years since I’d been there. A bigger Co-op store where Jeannie has worked forever, a fast food restaurant and a gas station, a few buildings renovated or gone missing.
Living in Stanley
When I went to teach in Stanley Mission in 1976 there was no road, so we flew in on bush planes that landed on the river with pontoons in summer and skis in the winter.
There was no telephone, no radio or television and we got mail once a week on Wednesday. It was also the day milk came in. After school we would rush to the store, open a carton and sip. If it was sour it went back in the fridge.
In January 1977 I bought the shell of a log house from Annie McLeod for the princely sum of $500. With no electricity, running water or insulation I had to learn bush skills quickly: chopping wood, using a chain saw, hauling water, banking the cabin with snow.
The McLeod family across the street adopted me and without their help I wouldn’t have survived. When nipapa saw me crossing the street to get water from the river, for example, he would send one of the kids to accompany me to make sure the ice hole was open. It was covered with a piece of plywood and there was a pick nearby to chop if necessary.
The log cabin became my base until 1992 when I went on a round-the-world trip and then moved to New Zealand in 1994.
When I had my pointy-little-house-on-the prairie near the town where my parents lived from 1992 to 2010, the McLeods would visit me. We kept in touch via Skype and Facebook over the years.
Returning to Stanley
Driving into town was coming home.
Sallie took us on a tour of the new developments on the reserve: schools, the band office, houses.
While the main street hadn’t changed much, the building that stretched across where the air strip used to be is now a proverbial suburb.
“No problem. The three of you can stay at my house,” announced Annie. “Annie, you can stay at Jodie’s and Wendy (her daughter) can sleep with me.”
The next morning, The Nurse, Bonnie and I went to the new band office, the administrative center of the reserve. Impressive.
There is a gallery of elders so I took photos of the photos of those who were closest to me. A good time for some reflection.
Jodie took us on a tour of the building and introduced various people.
Jimmy Charles – now a guidance counsellor – told me that I had him write an essay when he was 17 about what it meant to be successful. He went on to say that he still keeps it 24 years later. His story touched my teacher’s heart.
We were given books and posters of the Holy Trinity Church, a significant historical site in Saskatchewan.
Jodie also gave each of us a beaded card-holder made with home-tanned moose hide.
The leather has a pungent smell and now every time I open my handbag to give out a card, a wiff takes me back to my time in the North.
The Nurse – whom I’ve known since February 1995 when I taught at the University of Waikato in New Zealand – now lives in Cambodia.
Our paths have crossed many times and she was the only one of the over 500 people I invited to my 50th birthday party at Timbuktu who showed up.
When planning her trip to meet up with me in Canada in August 2016, she declared that her two primary agenda items were to visit a reserve and to meet a traditional medicine woman. As we say in Cambodia – “can.”
Besides being the director of education – a job she does very well – Sallie is also practicing traditional medicine.
The Nurse was most impressed with the local remedies. Later in the day Sallie took her out on the river to show her where rat-root grows.
Although I didn’t know what the traditional medicines were when I lived there, they worked.
And they cured everything from the worst sore throat I’ve ever had to the flu to an infected cut.
Touring the Churchill
John-John – the fastest boat driver in town — called Annie who phoned Sallie to see if we were ready to go out on the river. Yes.
We met him down at the dock and shortly after Joseph roared up.
While out on the river Joseph and I reminisced about the time he had rescued my mother, father, aunt, uncle and me after our boat went through the Little Stanley rapids backwards.
Joseph also mentioned the time he was driving my father’s boat when we stalled going up Big Stanley rapids.
Had it not been for his quick response we would have plunged into the ice filled river and hyperthermia would have taken us out very quickly.
Meanwhile, my sister and sister-in-law sat in the back of the boat, oblivious to the danger.
Over the years I’ve done more tours of the river with Joseph than I can remember. He is the perfect little brother/guide/friend.
Bonnie, Lisa and John-John
As always, our first stop was the church.
I wanted to visit the family graves and pay my respects: cocum, nipapa, nimama, our sister and her grandchildren children who had died in a fire. More memories of people who are important to me.
The next point of interest was the rock paintings. They were done with a special type of dye centuries ago, depicting life as it was then.
The walk up to Nistowiak Falls was longer than I remember. But, then again, 24 years may have something to do with it.
Bonnie was in her glory as we strolled along and she picked and ate wild raspberries, chokecherries, pin-cherries, strawberries and other fruit known only by their Cree names
As we were heading out, Lisa yelled, “You may be the first to leave, but we will beat you there.” And she was right as John-John was in front of the motor.
At Drinking Falls Lodge, the McLeod women hauled out a “snack” that was enough food to feed a fire-fighting crew.
Norma – who owns the lodge – arrived and told us to pick out a mug or flask as a souvenir. Much appreciated.
While we were munching, Joseph and John-John took their fishing rods and caught 17 walleye/pickerel in about half an hour.
We headed for the McLeod trap-line where family members have their various cabins.
It was another deja vous as I have been there a number of times. While the men filleted the fish – without a bone in them – the women got to work preparing the feast.
Fish, bannock, and vegetables fresh from my mother’s garden. Really, does it get any better?
After the meal we hopped in the boats and headed back to town to continue visiting at Annie’s
For me, it was an encounter that left a feeling of reciprocal love.
On the drive south, The Nurse and Bonnie waxed eloquently about how they were overwhelmed by the McLeod family’s hospitality and generosity. They were also pleased that they had been invited to visit again.
The trip to Amachewespimawin/Stanley Mission marked a special time for all of us.
And I’ve told my McLeod family that next time I will invite myself to stay longer.