We awoke to a cold, misty morning on Mattagami River. I squeezed some toothpaste onto my brush and took a glass of cold well water outside to brush my teeth. The others started emerging from their tents and trailers to the cabin after Leonard put on a pot of coffee. The air was thick with anticipation.
“I’m not sure if I should go,” muttered Gordon, a flicker of self-doubt in his eyes. He’s 76 and the ‘mountain’ we were about to climb (all 450 metres of it) hadn’t been scaled in the last 50 years. We would have to boat in and break trail over unknown terrain to get to the top.
But a cuppa boosted Gord’s resilence. We loaded up our packs with water, sandwiches and granola Alice’s luxurious contribution of smoked salmon, organic crackers, goat’s cheese and pesto. Leonard threw his machette in the boat, and each Miller girl took their own axe or hatchet to slice through the thick bush.
Leonard’s partner, Linda, waved us off with a final “You’s are insane,” and “I’ll be waitin’ right here,” and we launched!
We killed the motor on the boats, paddling along narrow stretches of the river to get as close to the base of the mountain.
“Portage!” hollered Sue with glee when the lead boat hit a beaver dam. If portage can be defined as lugging a motor boat across a tiny beaver dam – then we completed three – hardcore no?
When we could go no further we hopped out of the boats carefully treading the dank muskeg to solid ground. Over the next two hours Leonard led us in a slinking line up Masawajo.
We walked on the floor of an ancient birch forest, among jack pines and climbed up steep, craggy bits – those damn axes in hand.
Gord – or Jajo – his Ojibway name – was third to get to the top. “Imagine Dad, we’ll be telling your great grandchildren tales of how you made climbed this mountain at 76 – wearing old running shoes with no tread!” said Laurie.
We all felt good. Leonard took a cigarette from his case and lit it, a hint of a smile. I snapped pictures of the vista. Alice lay spread eagle, eyes closed – soaking up the journey.
She was the most serious about the spiritual side of our quest. She’s been studying with Angaangaq or Uncle, a renowned eskimo healer from Greenland.
Before lunch we lit a fire and Alice led a smudging and tobacco ceremony. With a long length of smoking dried sage she came to each of us. I took the smoke in with my hands, moving it over my whole body in a ritual to cleanse out the bad spirits or negativity – and make room for the good stuff.
The first time I discovered smudging I was in a circle of over 500 teenagers at a youth conference at an Ottawa university. The healer came round and smudged each one of us. I thought of my grandmother who passed away the year before, and for who I felt I hadn’t really mourned. When it was my turn I began to bawl. I was embarrased and shocked. But I never forgot the power of that ritual – and have wanted to explore Native spirituality ever since.
Alice lit a tobacco pipe and passed it round. We gave thanks to the ancestors. Leonard sprinkled tobacco on the fire and we left scraps of our meal for them.
Back at the camp we were flushed with our accomplishments. But part of me was dissapointed. Where was my moment of Great Spiritual Enlightenment on Masawajo?
Then I looked around at my newfound, long lost relatives. Leonard was beaming – he was proud to have followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. Gord was aching but grinned when I handed him a cold beer. Laurie, Sue and Alice were engaged in various states of yoga posture – willing their muscles to bounce back. Ian cracked another joke.
And I realized this was the first step – chipping away at my ignorance by listening to Anishinaabe stories, sharing bannock and making new friends.