A subdued sunset on Clear Lake petered out as clouds moved in over central Canada, bringing rain the next day. It is cool, and the mornings in late September welcome a sprinkling of frost over the brilliantly yellow leaves of the poplar and aspen (some trees already stripped clean by winds). Shrub berries, like red huckleberries, weigh heavy on branches just waiting for their demise in the stomach of a passing black bear.
A person named Grey Owl was sitting on a log, tending a small smoky fire by the lake. He is almost 130 years old (born the same year as my own father, 1888). Grey Owl was born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney at Hastings, England. He motioned to me to sit beside him and I did, rolling a chunk of worn log next to the flames.
The man, a self-proclaimed half breed, had lived much of his life with the Ojibway, and from them learned native habits and prejudices. But first, in 1925 he had moved to northern Quebec where he served as trapper and guide. There he met and married a young Mohawk girl, Gertrude Bernard (Anahareo). She helped change his lifestyle from trapper to world famous conservationist and author. When two beaver kittens were left orphaned because their mother had died in Grey Owl's traps, Anahareo convinced Grey Owl to rescue them. The two orphans were adopted and named McGuiness and McGinty.
The beavers are grown and long gone, he said with a twinkle and smirk, perhaps meeting the fate that he and Anahareo had spared them once.
Few beavers remain on the Riding Mountain plateau now. Grey Owl no longer wanders into the townsite of Wasagaming either, where he used to tell stories at the Wigwam Restaurant. When alive, Grey Owl did not stay long at his assigned remote cabin on Beaver Lodge Lake in Riding Mountain. He moved to Prince Albert National Park. His body was laid to rest in 1938 on the hillside overlooking the cabin on Ajawaan Lake.
"Sometimes," Grey Owl told me, his favorite old companion while he served as the Riding Mountain naturalist in 1931, "a beaver named Jelly Roll, swims past in the shadows fading to dark night.
Grey Owl, known most popularly as "The Beaver Man,” then told me the Cree story of the Moose People.
The Cree (also Assiniboine, and Ojibway) are the largest group of Aboriginal people in Canada today. The name Cree comes from a French word, Kristinaux, shortened to Kri. The Plains Cree call themselves Nehiyawak.
Cree people of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are known as the "Plains Cree" and make up a large percentage of the First Nations population of the so-called Prairie Provinces. Plains Cree once lived on the prairies, hunted buffalo, and traded with other natives and curious Europeans. Today, most of the tall grass prairie has disappeared and the few remaining buffalo are in special parks like Riding Mountain and Elk Island.
How the People Hunted the Moose (a First Nations' Tale)
One night, a family of moose was sitting in the lodge around the fire, and a strange thing happened. A long pipe floated through the door spreading sweet-smelling smoke as it circled the lodge, passing close to each of the Moose People. The old bull moose saw the pipe but said nothing, and it passed him by. The cow moose said nothing, and the pipe passed her by also. So it passed by each of the Moose People until it reached the youngest bull moose near the door of the lodge.
"You have come to me," the lad said to the pipe. He reached out and took the pipe, and started to smoke it.
"My son," the old moose said, "you have killed us. This is a pipe from the human beings. They are smoking this pipe now and asking for success in their hunt. Now, tomorrow, they will find us. Now, because you smoked their pipe, they will be able to get us." "I am not afraid," said the young bull moose. "I can run faster than any of those people. They cannot catch me." But the old bull moose said nothing more.
When the morning came, the Moose People left their lodge. They went across the land looking for food. As soon as they reached the edge of the forest, they caught the scent of the human hunters. It was the time of the year when there is a thin crust on the snow and the moose found it hard to move quickly.
"These human hunters will catch us," said the old cow moose. "Their feet are feathered like those of the grouse. They can walk on top of the snow." The Moose People began to run and the hunters followed them. The young moose who had taken the pipe ran off from the others, still certain he could outrun the hunters. But the hunters were on snowshoes, and the young moose's feet sank into the snow. He tired, and then the humans killed him.
After they had killed him, though, they thanked him for smoking their pipe and giving himself to them so they could survive. They treated his body with care, and they soothed his spirit.
That night, the young bull moose woke up in his lodge among his people. Next to his bed was a present given him by the human hunters. He showed it to all of the others. "You see," he said. "It was not a bad thing for me to accept the long pipe the human people sent to us. Those hunters treated me with respect. It is right for us to allow the human beings to catch us."
And so it is to this day. Those hunters who show respect to the moose (and beaver and other creatures of the woods and plains) are always the ones who are successful when they hunt.
Hunters and trappers and voyageurs were displaced in Manitoba by farmers eventually.