River Logs – Day 5. Comfortable Familiarity

Location: Fort Chipewyan
Weather: Raining and cool

In the irregular series ‘River Logs’, I will share some of my personal stories from my annual ‘huge summer visit’ to communities along the Athabasca and Slave River. During these visits, I distribute One River Many Relations newsletters, gather new ideas for this website, film stories with Elders and land users, and reconnect with old friends I’ve made along the way. I’ll be in Northern Alberta and NWT until the second week of August.

The press release this Monday was exhausting and I was (and still am) suffering a complete breakdown of my tonsils and a persistent cough. I slept in late on Tuesday and nearly didn’t make the Air Canada flight to Fort McMurray, with a connection to Fort Chipewyan. After squeaking in with three minutes to spare at the A.C. counter, I thought I was in the clear…until being randomly selected for a thorough screening at security kept me delayed till the last possible minute. After running, with a fever, and 200 pounds of luggage, I was understandably covered in sweat, which the security-screening machine had no difficulty identifying as a likely weapon all over my body, prompting further pat downs. I should have asked them to do it with paper towels.

Don't let the smile fool you. I'm suffering a coup-de-tonsil. Sitting next to the pilot seat on the way to Fort McMurray.

Don’t let the smile fool you. I’m suffering a coup-de-tonsil. Sitting next to the pilot seat on the way to Fort Chipewyan.

I did make it, though. I was completely wowed with the shiny new airport in Fort McMurray that replaced its quarter-of-the-size predecessor. While I waited for my 3 PM flight on McMurray Aviation, I interviewed Dr. Kindzierski, a critic of our report, for a future feature article on One River News. My mind has been focussed on the report and how it is being received since it was released. How is it being taken? How are critics attacking it? What kind of pressure is this putting on government to act? How can we keep the pressure up? My pondering of these questions was slightly quelled by the thrill of sitting in the front of the plane, along side the pilot, as we made the final leg of the trip to Fort Chipewyan.

Sitting at the front of the plane! It's really quite a thrill.

Sitting at the front of the plane! It’s really quite a thrill.

Over the past 3 years, I’ve been to Fort Chipewyan more times than I can count off the top of my head. It feels a little like home now when we touch down and I bum a ride from the airport to Doghead. One of the pleasures of producing a documentary with a community is that I’ve been able to remember people’s names long after we worked together. After all, they met me once in an interview for the film, but I’ve ‘worked’ with them for months while editing the documentary. I’ve re-laughed at their jokes, re-shared in their painful stories, and even re-verified the spelling of their name and band affiliation. I’m growing used to surprising people by showing an intimate knowledge of not only their names, but of their lives! This familiarity has afforded me the pleasure of fast friendships, invitations to dinner, or boat rides in the Peace Athabasca Delta.

The view from my temporary office space in Fort Chipewyan.

The view from my temporary office space in Fort Chipewyan.

I went on one such boat ride with my friend Jocelyn and her family last night around 7 PM, heading to Poplar Point. The wind and thunderstorms throughout the day had died down so she thought we’d have a pleasant evening of duck hunting and general joyriding. The air was warm and the bugs were mostly quiet. The sites on the delta were breathtaking: Fingers of God reached through the clouds during magic hour and gave us visions of heaven. Of course, that’s just the way I saw it. Everyone else was ready to shoot Sunday supper. Chief Allan Adam explained a subtle difference between Indigenous peoples and non-natives at last year’s healing walk: when most non-natives visit nature, we are astounded by it’s beauty. But when he visits his traditional territory, he is astounded by it’s bounty. We didn’t see any ducks, though. My friend Ted says that the duck hunting this season has been terrible.

Babies drive boats in Fort Chipewyan.

Babies drive boats in Fort Chipewyan.

Fingers of God on the Peace Athabasca Delta.

Fingers of God on the Peace Athabasca Delta.

Cheese!

Cheese!

We ultimately were chased back through the delta by raging thunderstorm with ‘tentacle lightning’, and took shelter in a family friend’s cabin. While the thunder boomed outside, we were snug and warm. Baby facetimed with grandma in Fort McMurray. The hiss of a gas lantern brightened our spirits. I soaked it all in.

The cell on the left is a thunderstorm with tentacle lighting (not shown) that began baring down on us.

The cell on the left is a thunderstorm with tentacle lighting (not shown) that began baring down on us.

P.S. I was given some traditional medicine and my tonsils are finally not threatening to rip out of my throat.

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About Michael Tyas

Michael Tyas is the managing editor of One River News. He graduated the University of Manitoba with an honours degree in environmental studies, and is a professional videographer and video trainer. He produced the feature length documentary "One River, Many Relations" in Fort Chipewyan. He continues to work with indigenous communities to share their stories around resource extraction, industrial development, and impacts on traditional territories.
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