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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 4 , 2002 - Issue 60


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Rainy River Wilderness Acts as Tonic for Soul

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald
Friday and Saturday of last week was my first time in Ontario. Springtime is a magnificent time to make that trip. The area is on one of the migratory paths of birds, and this wild and beautiful land is just beginning to wake.

Peter and Sandra Hapka of Warren, Minn., were our guides. I met Pete on the Internet. He knew me from my columns and thought I would be interested in meeting some of his favorite people and seeing some interesting places.

At the Herald, there were raised eyebrows that I would travel into this wilderness with someone I had met on the Internet. So, I talked my nephew into going with us. It worked out great because he just completed a teaching stint in Canada at the Roseau River Reserve (as reservations are called in Canada) - and of course, Pete and Sandy turned out not only to know almost everyone in the area, but to know rivers, roads and forests, too.

Early Friday morning as we drove north to Warroad, Minn., to meet the Ojibway people from the Buffalo Point Reserve, we came upon a large flock of sandhill cranes. Pete slammed on the brakes and turned around so we could have a better look. The cranes all seemed to turn at the same time to look at us. Their long necks and beaks faced in the same direction, like a row of majorettes poised in perfect harmony.

Lake of the Woods is beginning to melt, so there was water yet and, in places, it looked like a giant slushy from Kmart. The lake stretches beyond the eye and almost seemed to roll around the curve of the earth. Birds were walking on the ice or swimming in the open water.

This is a time for birds. The eagles in this wilderness are as common as red robins. We must have counted more than 20. The pelicans dominated the beautiful Rainy River, which we followed from Manitoba to Ontario. At the city of Rainy River, Minn., where we crossed into Canada, there were hundreds of them - proud, with their heads arched. When they took flight, their wing span was 5 feet or more, and they have those black-tipped wings that look as if they just pulled them from an ink bottle. They have a relationship with the black cormorant, which was almost as numerous.

There were ducks there, too, but these two species ruled. The forest trees didn't have much foliage yet, so birds are easy to see.

The deer at Buffalo Point Reserve in Manitoba are used to being fed, and you can hold out your hand with food. They are particular, though: We offered them bread and canned peaches, but they only sniffed and walked away. That must come from having so many choices.

As we traveled north to the Big Grassy River reserve, there were lakes and lakes. There was more bog, probably, than in the Big Bog area of Minnesota near the Red Lakes.

The bog, my guides told me, is an ideal place for moose to hang out. I waited for my opportunity to see one, but came home without a sighting. I did, however, have moose stew. When we arrived in Big Grassy River Reserve, the Curtis Copenace family invited us to visit. They live on the river, where it dumps into Lake of the Woods. The people at Big Grassy make their living fishing for walleye.

They had a big meal waiting for us: fried bread, bannock, potatoes, corn, wild rice, moose meat and cherry pie. I never tasted moose before and thought it might taste gamey like venison, but it didn't. Curtis' mother, who spoke only Ojibway, did the cooking, and she is good.

From there we traveled east to the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung (which means “the Place of the Long Rapids”), historical centre of the Rainy River First Nation Ojibway people. Human habitation there dates back 8,000 years. In a golf cart driven by Dave Debungie, a Rainy River elder, we toured the area. There are many burial mounds in the trees. One of the mounds was disturbed and had to be reburied. So, each visitor takes tobacco and a handful of dirt and covers the mound. Debungie told us stories about the mounds and his role in the ceremonies of the Rainy River Ojibway people. Sam Bombay, the manager of the centre, said you can find wild strawberries, cranberries, chokecherries, blueberries and flowers. Bombay said there are a number of species of plants that grow nowhere else in Canada.

They are waiting for the walleye run next week and then, they will begin preparing for their May 17 fish fry that is open to the public. The walleye they served in the Hungry Hall restaurant that overlooks Rainy River is some of the best I've eaten

After attending a powwow farther north at Onegaming Reserve, we began making our way back to the states. This Canadian wilderness is a place like no other. And I will visit again, eh?

Yellow Bird's column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Her e-mail address is, or she can be reached at (701) 780-1228 or (800) 477-6572 ext. 228.

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, is the word in the Ojibway language for "Place of the Long Rapids." More than just a physical location on the Rainy River in Northwestern Ontario, Kay–Nah–Chi–Wah–Nung is a place of spirituality, history and beauty. Designated as one of Canada's National Historical Sites in 1970, it's importance has been acknowledged for generations by natives and non–natives alike.

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