Stripped of their tail, fur and legs, the six small beaver strung up side-by-side over the open fire look remarkably like the small pig carcasses commonly dissected in high school biology classes.
“They’re done when the blood stops dripping,” says Leonard Naveau, who cooks the meat slowly over four hours, watching as it turns from pink, to deep red, to near black. A retired logger, life-long trapper and former band chief, Leonard is also one the founders of the Mattagami First Nation’s annual Beaver Festival, being held this Saturday April 25th.
Many of the youth in this 450-strong band move away, seeking jobs or better schooling in the nearest cities, Sudbury and Timmins. Today just 175 members live on the reserve, overlooking the 64-kilometre long Mattagami Lake.
Worried about the declining interest in traditional hunting and trapping among youth on the reserve, Leonard, his partner Linda Penasse, and another couple, Evelyn Boissoneau and the late Willard Harnack, came up with festival six years ago.
But the taste for beaver is highest among the newest residents to the area. The growing community of Polish-Canadians, who left cities like Hamilton and Toronto for the simple life in the nearby railway town of Gogama, are heartily embracing their new digs. “The Polish women are crazy for beaver,” says Leonard. He expects they’ll be the first in line again this year.
On the Beaver Trail
As we zipped over snowmobile trails the sun winked at us through the thick pine, birch and poplar forests, and blinded us as we bounded across wide frozen lakes in search of beaver.
Leonard, his son Larry, and I had left the reserve early that morning. My nerves over snowmobiling for the first time were quickly subsumed by incredulity at the beauty and freedom of driving on the wide-open lakes, their white surfaces sparkling in the late March sun. I revved harder.
Besides, I knew I was in safe hands.
Leonard spent half the year for the first 17-years of his life, deep in this bush. The oldest in a family of seven, he was his father’s right-hand man, trapping and hunting for food and fur. Nearly every family in Mattagami lived that way then, says Leonard.
Today it takes Leonard 40-minutes to get to his family’s trapline on skidoo. It used to take two days; Leonard snowshoeing miles ahead of their four-dog team, to pack down the deep snow.
But out on the trapline, not much has changed.
Father and son scouted four beaver houses on McPhee Lake the day before, looking for telltale signs of gnawed trees and snow domes on the lake’s edges.
We park the ski-doos about six metres away from the first den, where the ice is still thick. Leonard bangs a heavy metal bar against the ice listening for hollow sounds. He hears them near the edges of the rounded den. He and Larry chop through two sweet spots with axes, ice chunks flying. Using oversized ladles, they scoop the beaver’s trash out of the fresh holes – dozens of poplar twigs, picked clean of bark.
On thin ice now, each man lies on his stomach peering into his hole, looking for the passageway. Staring past their reflections in the clear, spring-fed lake they pass a long L-shaped stick between them, poking at the den’s walls until each finds a doorway.
Designed for an instant kill when a beaver, otter or marten swims through and hits the trigger, the jaws of the conibear trap snap around the animal’s neck packing 90 pounds of pressure. The Naveaus use large metal pliers to spring the traps, mount them to the bottom of long pieces of thin, dead trees, and fix them under water in front of the passageways.
We set nine traps that day. The next morning we pull a disappointing three beaver from the ice. Two are adult-sized, their meat too tough for the festival. Three more traps are set on a nearby lake.
Over the next two days we catch nine beaver. Leonard and Larry keep the smallest one for roasting, a sickly one is fed to the dog, the large beaver are given to people on the reserve to eat, and six of the best kits are skinned, frozen and stored until the Festival.
Last week, the North Bay Fur Harvester’s truck stopped by the reserve to pick up the Naveaus’ fall and winter pelts – about 30 in all. The fur truck makes this trip four times a year, stopping for just 15-minutes in small and large communities in a wide loop from North Bay to Fort Frances.
Beaver pelts, if they’re sold at all, are currently fetching about $29 a piece at auction. Leonard and Larry will be lucky to get $870 for their weeks of work. North Bay Fur Harvesters is a co-op, trappers only get paid once their furs are sold. But trappers like Leonard and Larry form the backbone of Canada’s modern-day wild fur trade.
So why do they do it at all? To maintain their traditional practices, to get outside, and for Leonard who is looking to keep busy during retirement, to keep busy. Any money they do make will go to spruce up their camp, a wooden cabin near Grassy River where Leonard’s father and grandfather’s traplines sit today, and where they bring their family to relax, fish, hunt and trap.
The Festival starts around 10 a.m. The large, Community Centre hosts skinning and stretching demonstrations and friendly folk man craft, sales and information booths lining the gym. Local Trapping Councils encourage you to run your hands along their tables full of lynx, marten, wolf, fox, beaver and otter pelts.
A beer garden and hot, fast food will keep you full until the feast. When the beavers are cooked, usually around 5 p.m., Mattagami residents put out a homemade spread. Turkey, ham, bannock, and salads – lots of salads – are served alongside bite-sized beaver samples.
The houses on Mattagami Reservation tell stories of the lives lived here. A few mansions perch on the edges of the Lake, bought with money earned in the fly-in mines, like de Beer’s Victor Diamond Mine just south of James Bay in Attawapiskat. Most houses are modest and well kept, with requisite pick-up trucks and four-wheelers in the driveways. A few are small and run-down. One or two have no running water.
Aside from a few elders, you won’t hear much Ojibway spoken. “I wish I could speak my language fluently,” says Larry, who understands but has trouble conversing in his father’s first language. A lot has been lost in one generation. But it’s not yet forgotten.
Last summer, two teenaged boys from the Reserve asked Leonard if he would take them moose hunting. They took a government-sanctioned week off of school to practice learn from their elder. Larry’s stepsons and Linda’s grandsons love to fish and hunt. They like to watch Leonard when he skins. In May and June, Clara Wesley, an elder from Attawapiskat, will teach moose and deer-hide tanning here, restoring a skill lost to the band. And by summer’s end, a Trapper’s Museum will house elder’s stories and knowledge about a traditional skill that shaped their community – and the country.
Click here to see a slideshow of my pictures from the trapline.
Mattagami First Nation is 180 km north of Sudbury and 80 km south of Timmins on Highway 144. Exit on Mattagami First Nation road, it ends at the reserve.
WHERE TO STAY
Basic hotels can be found in the nearby town of Gogama. Stardust Motel is noteworthy for its well-kept 1960s architecture, tel: 1-877-820-4311; Morin’s All Seasons Resort offers full suites complete with kitchens for $105.00/night, tel: 1-888-221-6004. But the best bet is the newer Lise’s Lakeview Retreat, tel: 705-894-2413.