A few years ago, after moving to Southern Alberta, I was set to settle into a writer’s life– hiking in the mountains, paddling, fishing, wandering wherever the road led and writing. But on several hikes, I thought, Is this all there is? It wasn’t satisfying. I felt there was more to do. And I couldn’t write.
I decided to enrol in university and complete a degree in English Literature. I felt that it was the only way to grow as a writer. There is nothing like pressure to make me write. Looking back, I have written an astonishing amount including many essays for courses.
Over the past week, I compiled and submitted two poetry collections. One is a poetry collection for children, and the other is a poetry collection for adults. I wrote about 130 poems over the past three years. There are 14 in the children’s collection, and 91 in the adult collection. I also submitted another children’s book manuscript for consideration.
I was happy to have two poems accepted for the (M)othering Anthology last year (forthcoming from Inanna Publications in 2022), and to have been accepted for a project called “Art In Conversation” hosted by Arts Council Wood Buffalo for which I earned a commission to produce a short story called “The Penny.” In addition, a picture book manuscript is accepted for publication with a small press, forthcoming in 2021.
My goal for 2021 is to edit several of my rough-draft novels, two of which I worked on for university creative writing courses. I also need to edit my collection of columns, which will become a memoir.
The past few years have had incredible challenges, too, but I do not dwell on those. Instead, I see how much my family and I have grown over these years, and I am thankful. And I hope now, finally, I can settle down and have a productive writer’s life.
The southern moon beams over the pastures
and the grass is slightly browning as a cool autumn evening puts it to sleep
All the trees say hello
One by one I touch their needles
and thank them
for coming to live with us
I wish them more growth
I know it is not too much to ask
they are already stretching taller
They drop their needles to feed the soil
where a labyrinth of burrows
are full of furry flurries in preparation for winter
I think of Emily’s blue-bottle buzzing when she died
but I’m nowhere near
for I have come
back to this southern moon
where I have living
I hope 2021 will be full of good health, joy, and success for you and for me. As I heard recently, there is enough success to go around.
I moved to Alberta several decades ago. There, I soon became friends with several Indigenous people in high school. In addition, a family member married an Indigenous person; I have Indigenous relatives.
A good friend of mine gave me her bannock recipe. It is much like the baking soda biscuits I knew as a child. However, my friend’s recipe includes a little sugar and is baked in a baking sheet with sides which produces biscuits like squares.
BIRCH BARK BASKETS
A dear friend of mine loves to create practical and art objects with components of nature. She lives in the Fort Chipewyan area. She makes birch bark baskets.
I had a pair of mukluks. I loved them, but I could only wear them when it was before zero outside. Otherwise, they are too hot and the hide would get wet. The mukluks in the story have beading in a flower pattern specific to the Cree of northern Alberta. A close friend of mine whose family is from Elizabeth Settlement near Cold Lake recognized the pattern while she read the book.
Yes, some people still dry fish to preserve it. My family puts fish into a smoker, but we prefer to eat it fresh. The Indigenous people we met in Wood Buffalo National Park fed White Fish to their dogs because that type of fish is quite boney. Other common types, such as Walleye (also known as Pickerel), and Northern Pike (also called Jack Fish), are usually eaten fresh, smoked and dried.
My family hunts. Additionally, many Indigenous people also harvest wild food. Hunting is a heavily regulated practice in Alberta for non-Indigenous people, while Indigenous people may hunt year-round providing they are Band members. People who are decedents of Indigenous people groups may apply for Band membership. They complete an ancestral family tree, provide their I.D., and the Band determines if the applicant qualifies for Band membership.
In addition, the children pick berries in the story. My family also likes to harvest wild berries. They are plentiful along the trails and wilderness places in the Wood Buffalo region and many other locations in Alberta. They provide plentiful food to animals as well as people.
The story refers to the family checking “traps.” Friends of my family had a trapline west of Fort McMurray. While I was working as a freelance writer for a newspaper, I interviewed the guy who did the actual trapping and cleaning of the furs. He sold them to a fur dealer who in turn sold the fur to clothing manufacturers. It was interesting to learn about the process. There were several other traplines in the vicinity. Trapping is a heavily regulated practice which involves licensing, permits, leasing of land, and many other concerns. The government issues permits for trapping in consultation with wildlife biologists who determine the populations of wildlife. The wildlife biologists want to ensure that all species have healthy populations. When there is an overabundance of animals, more permits are issues. This is similar to the way that game licenses are issued.
Summer North Coming, Winter North Coming refers to elders. Elders are highly respected in Indigenous groups. Bands and associations regularly hold Elder Teas and other events to honour the elders among them. They are revered for their wisdom and experience, and provide comfort and advice to those who are younger.
The whimsical scenes in the centre of the stories were created by the illustrator. Interestingly, I previously wrote in a blog post about how I can fly in my dreams. Also, many Indigenous people are spiritual, whether connected to their traditional beliefs or Christians, or any number of other faith groups. As with all people, there are no stereotypes. People make their own decisions based on their own preferences and experiences.
The family in the story uses a dog sled. When my husband and I visited Wood Buffalo National Park and camped at Dog Head Point west of Fort Chipewyan, there were a lot of ferrel dogs around. They were harmless, but they did get into our food stores. Many people still use dog sleds and it was a traditional means of transportation. The dogs are well equipped to live in the cold weather with their thick fur coats.
As a freelance writer, I interviewed a dog musher who lives just outside Fort McMurray: McMurray Mush. This musher races her dog team in events around the country. She takes great care of her animals; they are like her family members.
The further north I have travelled, the more often I saw Indigenous people using hand-built wooden skiffs. My good friend, the artisan who makes birch bark baskets, uses a jet boat with her family to travel from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray and back on the Athabasca River. Many others do, too.
WINTER CAMPING, QUINZEES
I don’t know if most Indigenous people camp in the winter now, or if quinzees are of Indigenous invention, but some of my family members camp outside in the winter. Also, my kids learned how to make quinzees from other kids.
As we approach the Alberta Free Family Fishing weekend, I can’t help but think back on several great family fishing trips. Some stand out because of the stunning location, others because of the fish that were caught.
My first serious fishing trip came when I travelled to Gardner Lake, a fly-in lake in Alberta. Also on the trip was my new (at the time– I’m still married to the same guy) husband and three of his friends. Okay, so they planned the trip and I invited myself. The tiny plane with floats landed on the pristine lake and we were taxied along to a dock where we disembarked and unloaded our gear. We followed the path to a rough cabin with– one room. It held three sets of bunk-beds, a tiny kitchen along one wall with a window looking out over the lake, with a propane cooker, wood stove, old chrome and formica table and chairs, and no running water. Oh, and the “bathroom” was out back in it’s own little house, otherwise known as an “outhouse.” We all slept in our clothes and there were no showers that weekend, although I took a dip in the lake. I have never heard snoring like that before or since, and I vowed I would leave the men’s trips to them in future, and my husband I would have our own family fishing trips.
The first thing one of the guys did was to set-up a contest. Each day, the one who caught the largest fish would win a prize. Dan had brought little prizes with him, including lures and other outdoor/fishing miscellany. I’d brought along my SLR camera, so while I was preoccupied snapping stunning white pelicans (in northern Alberta?), my husband fished in our boat while the others were also fishing in aluminum boats at other spots on the lake.
After I grew tired of taking photos, I dangled my line in the water. There were a few schools of White Fish around, so we would pull anchor and move; when we catch that type of fish, we did not seem to catch Walleye, which was our goal. White Fish are very boney and the Indigenous people fed them to their dog teams rather than eat them. Once we found a good spot with some variation in the bottom topography, we began to get bites. One of the guys, Brian, was extremely competitive. He determinedly fished all day. Every now and again, my husband and I could hear a shout from another boat some distance away as someone pulled-in a nice one. Towards the end of the day, when we were hungry, not when the sun went down since in the north the sun barely goes down in the summer, we were about to call it quits when I felt a strong tug on my line. I thought I had snagged bottom. Then the “bottom” began to move.
I was careful to keep the tip of my rod up and the line taut. I reeled in slow and steady. As it neared the boat, the Walleye thrashed and shook its head, making me tense-up, thinking I might lose it. I kept the pressure on and finally had it close enough to the boat so my husband could scoop the net under it and pull it safely into the boat. We pulled anchor and headed for shore.
Once on the dock, we did the weigh-in of the day’s catch. Brian was beaming as he had caught a Walleye that looked like the largest of them all. His weighed in at four and half pounds. He was already bragging and strutting around with his chest puffed out. My fish was weighed last.
It was the largest fish I had ever caught. It had barbed fins and bulging eyes. Since I was quite new to fishing, I was not into holding them up for the camera. I let my husband do that. He scooped the scale-hook through its gills and lifted it up. The needle slid back and forth for a few seconds until it settled on five pounds. “Dee is the winner!” Dan called out, using my nick-name. I beamed, but feeling a twinge of pity for Brian who had wanted to win so badly, I patted his back and said, “It’s okay, Brian. Mine is only half a pound more.”
All the guys laughed uproariously. Brian had been beaten by someone new to fishing.
Since that trip, my man and I have fished in many places in Alberta as well as British Columbia. We spent many hours fishing on Canada’s West Coast, particularly on the Georgia Straight: fly fishing on the Little Qualicum River, and down-rigger fishing out between the little islands, such as Gabriola and Lasquitti. We were surprised by sudden gales a couple of times with ocean swells as tall as a two-story house, and I kissed the ground when we returned to shore, but it won’t stop me from going out again.
My father-in-law, who raised my husband to be a fisherman, always had one sort of boat or other. We caught an incredible variety of sea-life from his boat: ling-cod, blue-backs (young salmon), larger Coho and Springs, and several sharks which he snagged with his gaff-hook. I miss those early-morning trips, when we would set-up the down-riggers with our lines clipped on, put them in the rod-holders and then I’d catch a few winks until the bell on the end of a line jingled. I’d start up and grab my rod and reel-in like a son-of-a-bride because the line was down fifty or eighty feet. Most often there was nothing on, but Tom had a fish-finder so we tried to find the schools of salmon and follow them around the Straight. When the bite was on, we really cleaned-up. Tom had a routine of filling his quota and then canning fish in a giant pressure-cooker filled with glass jars. Every year, he would give us cases of canned salmon. As for the blue-backs, they were best enjoyed straight on the BBQ, including their crisped-up skin.
I really miss those fishing trips, all the canned salmon, and Tom–but mostly I just miss my father-in-law, Tom. He was a great dad. We enjoyed many great outings fishing as a family.
Since meeting and marrying a guy from the west coast who loves fishing, I have also learned how to fish. I even touch them! This is one of my favourite places to fish– the Clearwater River near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. One of the most delicious species of fish lives here: Walleye. Also, this is a Heritage River, and there is no industry along the river.
Here I am, after a very wet stormy afternoon on the water. My older son snapped this photo of us from shore as we took a final loop before loading the boat onto a trailer. I have so many great memories of family fishing trips on this river, as well as many other places in Canada.
One of the funniest things that has ever happened is when one of my sons dropped his fishing rod into the river when a fish pulled on the line. My husband cast his line out, in hopes of snagging it. He did! He reeled it in, and handed the rod back to our son who pulled in a giant Northern Pike! Now, that is a great fish tale.