By PETER G. ELLIOTT
(Note: Peter Elliott was a student at Chapleau High School in the early 1970s, and over the past 30 years has become a well known Canadian writer, producer, director, editor, cinematographer and screenwriter.
“Swamped by a Thunderbird” was originally published in “Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul" and is used with permission from Peter... mjm)
When I was twenty-one, I landed the best summer job in the world working up north in the bush with Lloyd Walton. He was the film producer, director and cinematographer for Ontario Provincial Parks and I was his all around assistant.
That summer, we had to shoot film footage for six commercial spots promoting the parks, so along with another Parks’ employee named Felix, we headed up to Quetico, a large wilderness park in Northwestern Ontario. At Quetico we met Shan Walsh, the Parks’ naturalist, who had decided to take us on a canoe trip to Mackenzie Lake. Everything was arranged, including extra help from his sixteen year old daughter, Bridget.
After a full day of paddling and portaging - that is, carrying our boats and supplies on our heads and backs for those parts of the trip we couldn’t navigate on water - we arrived exhausted at our campsite at Trousers Lake.
That first night, Shan told us of an old coffin lying on a tiny windswept island in the middle of Mackenzie Lake where an Ojibwa chief was laid to rest years ago. Only a skeleton remained in what was now a sacred place. And further up the lake, on a rock not far from the burial site, was a pictograph of a thunderbird. Lloyd and I were captivated.
Pictographs are paintings of animals, people, canoes and mythological beings painted long ago on rock faces rising out of the water. They are sacred places where novice archaeologists sometimes encounter supernatural experiences. A pictograph of a thunderbird is of special significance. The thunderbird embodies the power of nature itself. It is a very potent symbol: neither good nor bad, just powerful.
Between Mackenzie Lake and us were two long gruelling portages, with Cache Lake lying in between. Traveling light, we’d leave most of our camp behind, stay at the old ranger cabin for one night and then head back
It was a long, muggy and buggy day of portaging and paddling, and towards the end of the second portage, large storm clouds appeared and the sky began to darken. The wind picked up, and thunder and lightning flashed all around us. Lloyd grabbed the camera and ran ahead to shoot me walking with the canoe on my head - and bolts of lightning striking somewhere behind me. Finally we reached Mackenzie Lake. The rain stopped and we quickly paddled the last two miles to the ranger cabin. Two Americans were already there, but there were ample bunks, so we welcomed them to stay.
That night a thunderstorm raged overhead, and while the rain pounded on the roof, I lay there listening to the show and falling asleep with the “cozies”. In the morning, the sun was shining, and a light breeze came from the west. Shan wanted to show us the island with the coffin, so we headed out for a pre-breakfast paddle.
After a couple of miles we wanted to go back for breakfast, but Shan insisted, “It’s only another mile.” A half-hour later we approached a small, rocky islet crowned with scraggy pines. Carefully disembarking, we walked to the middle where we found a stack of rotten wood.
With quiet respect, Shan lifted up what resembled an old wooden door, and there amongst the dried red pine needles lay the skeleton. Suddenly, a strong breeze came out of nowhere, lifting the hair on the back of my neck. We stared in silence, offering our respect.
The two Americans sharing our cabin were right behind us, and when they approached the island, the winds whipped up even more furiously. Shan put down the door, and out of respect for native beliefs and traditions, Lloyd quietly sprinkled some tobacco around the grave. I was starving, but Shan was leading, so while Felix, Lloyd and I shared his Kevlar canoe, Shan and Bridget paddled ahead in the aluminum canoe.
We headed up the lake a couple of miles to the pictograph sites. As we approached the first odd little pictograph on the face of a big rock, the wind picked up again. We had to paddle with all our might just to stay in one place while Lloyd filmed the rock.
Now we approached the thunderbird pictograph. Located on a small rock outcropping on a point, it resembled a rust-coloured stick figure reaching out with its wings. We tied up, disembarked and Lloyd set up the camera. As if on cue, the strong gust of wind blew through again. The camera’s battery cable got finicky, and I had to hold it together with my hands so Lloyd could get the shot. The wind blew even stronger. Waves lapped furiously and banged the aluminum canoe against the rocks, causing rivets to pop out. Eerily, as soon as we stopped the camera, the wind immediately subsided. By now it was almost noon, and Lloyd had the shot, so we started back to the cabin for our late breakfast.
We strung up our rain ponchos as sails and let the warm breeze push our canoes down Mackenzie Lake. Racing along at a good pace, we passed Coffin Island, but as we rounded the point, we headed directly into the wind. The ranger cabin was still two miles away, so we dropped our makeshift sails. Large waves were rolling behind the point like a set of big, wide rapids. Shan and Bridget started into them, and feeling a little uneasy, Felix, Lloyd and I followed. The water was warm and the canoe would always float, but we had unprotected camera gear and extra weight. Paddling with all our might, we went for it.
As waves began splashing over the gunwales, and we bounced up and down, Lloyd began bailing. I just kept paddling like crazy. Then it happened. It seemed as if the lake just swallowed the canoe all around me, and suddenly we were in the water. We grabbed for the cameras, shoved them back in the canoe and began kicking our feet. Suddenly I started to smile. It wasn’t funny, but there was nothing else to do.
Then I noticed the Mishipeshu painted on our submerged bow. We were lucky. Shan and Bridget paddled towards us, threw us a line and towed us to shore. We lost all of our still pictures and film footage that day, including the lightning storm, our swim in Cache Lake and… the thunderbird!
A sudden awareness came upon me. That’s it! The thunderbird did not want to be filmed. Whatever spirit world existed, it was present today and not happy with what we what we had done. It was willing to spare us but not our film. After a few hours, the wind lost its power, so we piled into our canoes and finally headed. It was very late, so we spent another night at the cabin. It was some time later when we learned we should have found a native elder before heading out and asked permission to film the sacred places.
Then, in accordance with Ojibwa tradition, we should have left a small offering at the site of the thunderbird. Apparently, if we had done this, all our difficulties could have been avoided. The return trip is always much easier, and I can’t even recall our journey back.
After a wonderful dinner, we explored an archaeological site on a beach just across from our tents. It was an ancient native campsite, and it was there I found a broken arrowhead. There was no one else on the lake; but that evening everyone but me heard voices coming from that beach, voices speaking an unknown language. I didn’t need to hear them; I already had proof enough. The hollow winds arrived again while I lay in my tent that night. I could hear the nighthawks hunting and the lonely loon call in the distance.
I thought of the long portages, the sacred site of Coffin Island, the thunderbird and the swamping of our canoe. Mackenzie Lake is one of those places where one comes face-to-face with the power of nature, neither good nor bad, just powerful. Although I was sad to return to the city the next day, I felt alive and revitalized. I knew I would be able to survive until my next adventure to a magical place, when I would be reminded again that we live in a spiritual world.
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