Is Keewaydin Walking Lightly on the Planet?

Comment from A Wilderness Canoeist

 

I have very much enjoyed your research. I spoke with you last year

when you were beginning your project. I am the trip director for the

Chewonki Foundation in Maine and although we no longer run trips in

wood-canvas boats I still enjoy an old Chestnut of my own.

As I was reading some of the trip journals that you have posted on

the Web site I was struck by the photo from the 1999 Labrador Plateau Trip (found in the Temagami Sections list).

The photo I refer to is the group with the massive pile of caribou

antlers.

I have been leading extended canoe trips in Labrador and Northern

Quebec for the past 17 years. I remember vividly my first month-long

trip in the Mistassini region and I still have a set of caribou

antlers that was given to me by our Cree guide Alfred Matoush. I have

paddled and hiked past many very tempting caribou antlers since that

time that I have left for the next traveler to observe, enjoy and

hopefully leave.

I have led ten, month-long trips from Schefferville, Quebec to the

Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq at the mouth of the George River on

Ungava Bay. It wasn't until my third or fourth trip on the George that I

really begin to consider the impact my small groups of 10 had on the

land. On a shallow section of the De Pas River that flows into the

George there was the body of a dead male caribou with a large rack.

The carcass was on the shore near the first rapid of the trip. For

several years, the skeleton marked the entrance to the rapid for me. Each 

year as I passed, I watched as first the body was eaten by

scavengers, and later, as the rodents began chewing on the bones and

antlers. This last trip only small pieces of bone were left, the rest

chewed by porcupines, voles or lemmings. My annual observations of

the carcass and its decomposition left me more connected to the land

in a way that I can not clearly articulate. My point is that

even though the George River caribou herd is estimated at one million

animals and antlers are dropped yearly and are found everywhere, they

are still important to the overall health of the ecosystem.

In the past few years, the De Pas and George have received relatively

light pressure from canoe trips, but returning annually as I do, I have

noticed the impact that even a small group can unknowingly have on the

landscape.

Below Pyramid Hills on the lower George there is an amazing waterfall

that flows off the Labrador Plateau and drops over 150 feet. The

Waterfall is a three- or four-mile hike from the river through the barrens.

About two thirds of the way to the waterfall is a barren hill with

magnificent views of the lower George. I have hiked to the waterfall

on each of the trips on the George. This past July when I arrived at

the top of the hill, there was a new pile of rocks left since my last

trip. I was upset that miles from any village someone felt the need

to leave a sign of their passing. Again, in the notes from the

Labrador Plateau Trip, there is mention of building a cairn of rocks on

a hill beside the Caniapiscau. The native-made inukshuks are an

important part of the link to the past in the North. Those made by we

more recent travelers do a disservice to the native people of Canada.

On the George at Indian House Lake there are Naskapi tent rings that

are, in some cases, thousands of years old. I have witnessed where

canoeists have removed stones from the rings to hold down there own

tents, with no understanding or regard for the impact they are having

on important historical sites.

It is easy to think of the North as a vast unspoiled wilderness and

today in most places that is true, but it won't take much to change

that.

I hope that these observations are taken only as something for leaders

to think about and not some kind of "Leave No Trace" lecture because

that is not my intent. I usually keep my opinions to myself, but after

seeing the picture of the antlers and having been there myself, and

making my living by guiding, I couldn't pass up a "teachable moment."

Maybe it's that I just turned 40 and I'm getting crotchety in my old

age! My own caribou antler is a powerful symbol through which I

relive an incredible experience each time I look at it. Like the photos

of the river trips, it was given as a gift not taken from the land.

 

I have seen the changes in the Mistassini region over just the last 17

years and the George more recently. I want to make sure that when my son is old

enough to travel the waters that I have explored, that he is able to

experience the same primitive feeling of exploration of the unknown

that I have. I hope he can still sit near a tent ring on Indian House

Lake and imagine the scene thousands of years before. I hope he can

climb a barren hill beside the George River and when he arrives on top

not find a pile of stones left by a canoeist from the 1990's.

If I have at least given your trip leaders something to debate and

think about then sending this e-mail is time well spent. It has at

least made me put down into words some of the thoughts about my own

travels in the North. I make a point of talking to my own trip leaders

about the times that are a changing, and we have to be even more diligent

in teaching and role modeling a low-impact environmental ethic to our

clients.

Keep up the good work and perhaps we will meet on a river somewhere.

Thanks for listening.

 

Greg Shute

Wilderness Trip Director

gshute@chewonki.org

The Chewonki Foundation

 

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