“You need to wear a lifejacket,” advises Darryl Moore, a guide through the waters of Footprint Lake around Nelson House, Manitoba, home of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in Canada’s boreal forest.
Though the water seems flat and calm, this is a hard rule: “dead heads” — trees floating at or just below the surface of the water — are a major risk to traditional harvesters and gatherers, boaters and fishermen in the area.
Damming in the 1970s created these dangers, distorting water levels and causing trees to float around or sink underwater and eventually roll up along the shoreline, smothering vegetation and vital habitat.
Learning the Nisichawayasihk Ways
As Darryl motors along the edge of the community, kids swim off shore — some calling out to Darryl, who is the outdoor education instructor for the community’s 1,200 students.
He teaches the kids, whom he jokingly calls “George” and “Georgettes,” how to make snow shoes, paddles and fishing houses.
He also helps them learn how to trap and hunt responsibly and insists that they follow the community’s customs and traditions, including feeding the elders before feeding themselves.
The people of Nelson House consider themselves part of nature, believing they always have and always will look after Mother Earth.
The Conservancy is committed to partnering with Indigenous people throughout Canada — together we are shaping the future of the boreal forest.
Darryl grew up in the Nelson House community and spent many a winter night camping under the stars at his grandfather’s cabin and learning the Nisichawayasihk ways of life.
He speaks both Cree and English and has collected a vocabulary of 5,000 Cree words for local teachers.
Guided by Ancestors
Darryl shares stories from his childhood and points out cultural landmarks like the old dancing ground (once flooded, now moved to a new location) and the place where his traditional wedding ceremony took place just this fall.
At a sheer granite wall, he notes two circles that are recovered from actual footprints by Cree ancestors to guide travel down the river.
Like the “dead heads,” these signs once disappeared underwater but were recovered, chipped out, restored and moved 20 feet up on the wall to be visible to future generations.
In 2012, the hydro company put in a new generating station on the Burntwood River in partnership with Nelson House that keeps water levels more consistent than past hydro development that caused significant changes to surrounding lakes and rivers.
And the wildlife is returning.
For the first time in 40 years, water levels are low and steady enough, so geese are nesting, ducks are flying and eagles are thriving. Muskrats — once a mainstay of the community diet, clothing and economy — are again building dens along the shore.
When Darryl shared the good news with the elders, they advised against trapping until the populations had a chance to multiply — an example of achieving sustainable conservation using traditional First Nation values.
Pulling back up to the dock, the spines of black and white spruce and the laughter of swimming kids return.
Darryl remarks that with all the fresh air on the water “you won’t be able to fight your sleep tonight.”