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Bending Branches

A Chippewan Thank You

By Cliff Jacobson

Saturday is "turnaround" day at many fishing lodges in northern Canada. Eager to take advantage of the morning calm, float planes begin to shuttle fishermen and groceries with the rising sun. By nightfall the airways are quiet again and everyone is tucked into a spacious cabin in preparation for a week of great fishing and story-telling. After the customary breakfast of Red River cereal and Canadian bacon, fishermen will meet their native guides who will motor them out to hopeful spots where trophies lurk. A week later, they'll fly home, keyed high with tales about the great shore lunches and the lunkers who got away. Of course, these good times would be impossible without the services of the gentle native guides who bait the hooks, clean the fish and service the outboard motors.

Cree Lake Lodge is located 180 air miles from LaRonge, Saskatchewan and one fourth that far from the nearest Indian settlement. For this reason, many native fishing guides choose to stay with their families in a tent or cabin near the lodge during the tourist season. Once beyond the trail head, they are completely dependent upon radio telephones and chartered float planes to provide all their needs. This is the story of an eight year old girl and an aging Chippewan guide whose special "thank you" touched our hearts.

Our intent was to canoe the Cree River from its source at Cree Lake to Stony Rapids on Lake Athabasca. We agreed to supply logistical information about canoeing the Cree if lodge owner Clarence Biller would provide a night of lodging and pay for our air fare from Seeger Lake to his resort. Biller could then share this information with clients who would later canoe the river.

It was cold and gray and nearly dark when our ancient radial engined Beaver taxied to the Cree Lake dock. Minutes after the floats touched water, the weather was socked in solid.

Biller greeted us warmly then asked if there was a doctor aboard.
"Yeah," smiled my friend Dr. Tom Schwinghamer. "What's up?"
"A little girl - granddaughter of one of my Indian guides - got a splinter in her eye," said Biller. "Too foggy to fly her out and the radio predicts more of the same tomorrow."
"I'll get my kit," said Doc.

With that, Tom grabbed the medical pack and followed Clarence to a tiny cabin tucked deep in the woods.

As they approached, an expressionless Chippewan man of about 70 worriedly swung aside the screen door and motioned them in. The girl, who appeared to be about eight, moaned softly on her cot as Tom approached. Fortunately, the wood shard had missed the eye, but it was dangerously close. Tom smiled and talked quietly to the girl as he pulled a hypodermic needle from his kit and injected a local anaesthetic. Though it must have been terribly painful, the youngster did not fidget or scream. Seconds later, the splinter was out and the eye was patched. Tom then handed a small bottle of pills to the girl's mother, along with some instructions. Next, he patted the little girl's hand and told her she'd be okay. As he rose to leave, the elderly grandfather - who had said nothing during the operation - nodded an unemotional thank you.

Next morning when we were getting ready to leave I saw the grandfather again. He walked quietly to the dock and for a while just watched while I carried packs through the cabin door and stacked them by a tree. Then, without a word, he grabbed a packsack and carried it to the dock. He continued helping us until all 12 of our packs were neatly stacked on the wharf. Then he returned again to help us carry our canoes to the water. Never once did he say anything.

When the canoes were finally loaded, he smiled broadly and held up his hand in a fond goodbye. Then he turned quietly and shuffled back to the cabin and his still sleeping granddaughter. Unemotional though this exchange may seem, it was one of the most touching experiences of my life. Every one of us could feel the old man's deep, heart-felt thanks for the kindness Tom had shown his granddaughter.

I set my compass for a bearing through the fog then paddled alongside Doc's red Old Town tripper canoe.
"Great day to start a canoe trip," he called.
I looked into the gentle moistness of his eyes, and he replied, "You bet!"



Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.

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