Alfred Matoush and Greg Shute, 1987. Photo by Chris Smith.During my two summers with Alfred I practiced decision-making skills and honed my powers of observation. I learned to watch the 100-mile-long Lake Mistassini for subtle changes in the wind and weather. I learned to choose campsites that provided a breeze to keep the bugs down and, just as important, that provided protection from a maelstrom we experienced that lifted a canoe into the air and sent it cartwheeling down the beach. I watched Alfred search out ancient portage trails marked by the subtlest of blazes or perhaps a handful of caribou moss stuffed into the crotch where it didn’t belong. I felt privileged as Alfred showed our group the grave of a young Cree baby located off a portage trail near Temiscamie Lake. A grave in the middle of a magical glade of Caribou Moss and Jack Pine with a weathered white picket fence and the delicate pink of blooming Sheep Laurel. He showed us sites where the old ways were still practiced, where muskrat and bear skulls hung from trees in honor of the lives taken to sustain a Cree family. Alfred guided Chewonki trips for six years, and I had the good fortune to travel on his last two extended trips. In 1988 I arrived with our group in the village and immediately stopped by Alfred’s house. He was 76 years old and was having knee problems and would not be able to join us on our annual trip. I invited him to dinner at our campsite just across the narrows from the village. Alfred joined us and was introduced to each of our trippers. He stayed until just before dusk, when he and I paddled back across the narrows to his house. It was a beautiful night; the water was like glass and the drone of a far-off floatplane mixed with a chorus of Hermit Thrushes. We sat for a while and drifted just offshore. The sun dropped below the northern shore behind a jagged outline of Black Spruce and Jack Pine. It was then that I realized I was experiencing, with my good friend, the realization that there would be no more long canoe trips for Alfred. No more extended journeys in the bush to his family hunting camp at Indicator Lake, no long snowshoe trips to check beaver traps. We sat in the canoe without speaking until it was almost too dark to see. Neither of us wanted the emotion-filled moment to end. We parted with a hug and Alfred telling me to have a “good trip,” and his last words were “I love you, Greg.” I continued to visit Alfred for several more years whenever I traveled to Mistissini. Each time I arrived he would always have his Chewonki T-shirt on, and each year I brought him a new one. With each annual visit I watched his health decline until he was no longer able to live at home and moved to the Cree elders’ housing in Chibougamau. The last time I saw my friend he was as sharp as ever. We looked at maps of the Mistissini region, and he traced his favorite routes with his finger. I’m sure he was remembering every detail of a lifetime of travel by canoe, always adding comments like “Very good fishing here” or “Very hard portage.” In 1986 I had no idea that I was witnessing the end of an era and that in the next 20 years the boreal forest surrounding Mistassini—which seemed so vast, so remote—would be burned by massive forest fires. Roads would be built to salvage the dead standing timber, and places that took us three weeks to travel to by canoe would become a short three-hour drive from Mistassini Poste. During the 1980s and 1990s the Cree, as well as the forest and the wildlife of the region, were experiencing unprecedented change. In the summer of 2013—Chewonki’s 99th year—I discovered the Cree Radio Network website, which has recordings of ten Cree elders telling stories of the past. I was totally surprised to see that one recording was from Alfred. Although the recording was in Cree, hearing Alfred’s voice again and his deep belly laugh immediately took me back to a place and time I will never forget. I am grateful to the Cree Radio Network for archiving important voices and stories of Cree elders, and particularly for allowing future generations to hear the voice of a man from whom I learned so much and for whom I have the deepest respect and gratitude. -Greg Shute, Chewonki Director of Outdoor Programs. Read more stories by Chewonki alumni and friends in Chewonki: 100 Years of Learning Outdoors. Available on-line.
July 1986, and I am leading my first canoe trip in the Mistassini region of central Quebec. This morning we paddled away from the Cree village of Mistassini Poste, today known as Mistissini. Our group is now camped at the north end of Abatagouche Bay. We will spend the next month paddling over ancient canoe routes and portage trails with Alfred Matoush, our Cree guide. Tomorrow we will emerge from the protected bay onto Mistassini Lake, 100 miles long and the size of an inland sea. At the time I didn’t think too much about why Alfred called an early stop to the day and choose this particular campsite. Tents were set up quickly just as it started to rain, a scene all too familiar to Mistissini trippers. I followed Alfred into the moss-covered woods, where he took down a Black Spruce and gathered some tinder. In less time than it takes to describe the process, he had a fire going and a pot of soup simmering. It was a cool day, and we were all filled with the anxiousness that comes with meeting new people and traveling in unknown territory, and the hot soup made everything good in our small world. During the evening the wind came up and as dusk fell I looked out at a sea of whitecaps. Without speaking a word, Alfred had presented lesson number one of the trip: choose your campsites carefully and never take this lake for granted. Alfred spoke only broken English and taught us by his actions—actions that had their foundation in a lifetime of experience and travel in the bush.