I’ve been to a place where all rivers run north, flowing up to the Arctic. I’ve travelled eight hours by car and then five hours by train to reach a place of six seasons: summer, fall, river freeze up, winter, ice break up and spring. I sat in a wide-bottomed freighter canoe, ferried to where the Moose River empties into the salted waters of James Bay.
Thanks to the kind invitation of the Ontario Writers’ Conference, I came to Moose Factory last month to teach a workshop. It was the first Moose Factory Writers’ Retreat, the brainchild of Jean-Pierre Chabot and the MoCreebec Eeyoud Council of the Cree Nation. I hope it is just the beginning of many more arts-related gatherings.
Imagine taking a workshop in the dining room of the Cree Village Eco Lodge, where the soaring wood-lined structure carries both traditional and modern cultural touches. The natural influences—stone, wood, light—affected every moment of our time in that room.
I’ll never be the same writer. There is an energy in Moose Factory unlike anything I’ve experienced. It is the place. And it is the people.
Moose Factory is where high school students don’t wait for their yellow buses, they cluster by the shore for water taxis (and during freeze up and break up, they climb aboard helicopters to cross the Moose River, and in winter, drive over on the ice road.) Here, school starts early to allow students time off for the all-important goose hunt each fall.
Here, the bright blue sky is big because the land is flat and the treeline marks the horizon with stunted dark spikes of black spruce. A place where walkways are scarce and no roads are paved, where the province’s Highway Traffic Act is powerless and a taxi ride across town is a flat rate.
I enjoyed fabulous bannock burgers at John T’s Wachay Wagon and great fish and chips at the Treeline Diner next to the Northern Store. At GG’s Ace Hardware, you can buy anything. And I mean anything. From ammunition, bagged candy and condoms to groceries, vacuum cleaners and christening outfits.
Compact, neatly maintained bungalows line many of the roads, like any other subdivision in southern Ontario. Except for spruce log tee-pee frames in backyards, and the occasional wildlife that wander through: an unfortunate moose, lingering tree-climbing bear cubs and the ever-present cheeky red squirrels enrich the stories around backyard campfires.
Where to begin? It would take several blog posts to give you a reasonable sense of the generosity and attention I received from Moose Factory residents. When I say attention, I don’t mean fawning admiration or special treatment. I mean people who are present. With you. In the room. It’s remarkable.
It made for a great workshop. I never worked so hard or felt as satisfied at the end of a session as I did in Moose Factory. Our coffee house event the next day was a community celebration of poetry, song, art and prose. The Big Dipper is now also a furred fisher that sacrificed everything to return water to the land. A section of an old freighter canoe, a canvas for the beautiful art of John Reuben, will soon hang on my cottage wall.
But let me tell you story. I was on this trip with Naomi Mesbur and Barbara Hunt of the Ontario Writers’ Conference. Along with Durham Region writers, Erin Thomas and Adele Simmons, we were treated to many amazing moments by the people of Moose Factory.
When The Past Became Present
On one of our several wanderings, Norm, a workshop attendee, former Cree chief and teacher, and now minister, took us into St. Thomas’ Anglican Church. Built in 1885 by the Hudson’s Bay Company, it needs to be restored before it can be used again. St. Thomas’ is an impressive structure, the huge timbers and curved wooden ceiling reflecting the skill of HBC shipbuilders. The massive bell was removed from the cupola and waits silent and still, just inside the entrance. Stained glass windows were also removed and sealed in wooden boxes until their return to the original frames.
We all knew we were being offered a privileged glimpse into this locked and vacant building.
Norm has faith that this historic church will be restored. He asked us to take a seat in the dusty pews. He told us of how the front pews were reserved for management and staff of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Cree worshippers were kept in the back pews. Norm said, despite all the things his people have endured over the years, they never lost their faith. Just outside, next to the river, they once camped close by.
And then Norm shared something I will never forget. He sang a morning hymn. In Cree. The same hymn sung many mornings by the long ago people camped by the river, the church just steps away. Norm’s words and music soared above and through us as we sat in those pews. Just as they must have done in the 1800s and 1900s, as the mist lifted from the river and the sun coloured the tips of the treeline.
Moose Factory is rich in contradictions. Wi-Fi in the Eco Lodge. Pot holes on the roads that could swallow your shoes. While waiting for my first taste of bannock at the Wachay Wagon, I chatted with members of a movie crew. They were filming author Joseph Boyden‘s Through Black Spruce. They were easy to spot among the locals. More than their big city attire, they carried a kind of out-of-place vibe as they clustered together.
I understood that awkwardness. I, too, felt like I’d fallen through the rabbit hole after stepping onto the Eco Lodge dock. I certainly hope that movie crew allowed the magic of the people and the place to move into their hearts. Like them, I was motivated to come for artistic reasons—my next writing project will explore my ancestral connections to Canada’s fur trade. I hoped for some inspiration.
What I came away with was so much richer. Meegwetch.
DID YOU KNOW?
Writescape picks its retreat locations carefully. We’ve always chosen settings that are flavoured by the natural world. We look for landscapes that inspire with lakeside sunsets or sunrises. Trees, gardens and winding paths offer gifts to the perceptive writer. Quiet corners, comfortable, well-appointed rooms and healthy foods nourish bodies and imaginations.
Join us on November 3 to 5 at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching for Turning Leaves. Our guest author Vicki Delany looks forward to chatting on Friday evening and delivering a Saturday morning workshop. With more than 20 books to her credit, Vicki has so much to offer participants. This retreat is suitable for writers at all levels.