I leave the brightness of the daylight and enter the shaded area of the walking trail. I have yellow birch, some eastern hemlock some spruce and ash trees to keep me company.
They are well spaced, tall but narrow in diameter telling me this area has been logged in the past. Several flights of wooden stairs, drawn me down deeper in to the shadows. I continued on where the trees thin out, and cross over a dry brook. Service berry bushes greet me but end at the seasonal growth of lanky ferns and entangled vines of raspberry and black berries, that have crept over the path. I step carefully and push them aside, wondering if I have gone off the trail somewhere. Crouching down to peek between the matted fronds, I located the path. I can feel my Capri pants starting to cling to my leg from the moisture on the plants. The mosquitoes are drilling at the base of my skull, their buzzing is relentless. I shake my head and use my hair like a horse-tail to swish the annoying critters away. Note to self bring deet next time.
I can’t hesitate the mosquitoes will eat me alive. I make a quick dash forward and punch through off a bank. Staggering a stride and lunging out onto a sandy patch of the river bed. Looking back into the jungle I emerged from, the path is swallowed up-unidentifiable from the rest of the bank. I use my hand and make an arrow in the sand to make note of where the path is, so I can find it again.
From the map I saw on an interpretive display back at the Metepenagiag center, I believe this is the Little Southwest Miramichi, I am standing beside. To my right or is that to my left? Further down out of sight, would be where it joins with the Northwest Miramichi Rivers. Taking several more looks each way I finally feel oriented. I want to find the Oxbow National Historic Site locations. The problem is, it is on the other side of the river and the swift reddish waters are between me and it, so I will have to forfeit that idea; which is a huge disappointment to a person like me, who likes to get up close and personal.
I place myself back three thousand years walking the river, stepping on stones that the Micmac ancestors may also have stepped on. I listen to the current flowing by, the breeze rustling the leaves, the songs the birds are singing. To me they are literal and beautiful sounds but to an elder with a wise ear, I am sure they revealed signals of the season, like when the salmon or sturgeon are best, when the moose meat is tender, when the raspberries have matured.
This place was a summer camp. I try visualizing the wigwams and drying rack for meat and fish. Looking around with fresh eyes now I can see more; cat tail reed would have been useful for making baskets and the wide openness of the river was probably a spot bears came to feast on salmon, and eagles would hoover over the river looking for a meal. The tall sedge grassed would have made great cover for a stealthy warrior. Perhaps I live in a fantasy world, or too much TV. The display in the Metepenagiag Center shows an idea lifestyle of giving and taking from the bounty the earth provided. A cycle of seasons each with its own blessings to the people.
I don’t need to retrace the path there is a convenient dirt road that leads to the lodge, I re-enter the path and remember this part of the trail looping back to the center.
Today is a special day; the repatriation of artifacts that had been in conservation under direction of the province of New Brunswick. Chief Augustine would have been proud. He used his peoples oral history, passed down from generation to generation, to located this culturally important site. The oldest known continuous habitation in the Maritimes.
There is a traditional feast and I join the long line that started just after the repatriation ceremony. The lady in front of me has a daughter that looks just like her, we agree that a great deal of effort has been put into today’s event. A lady in a bright blue gown also in the lineup joins our conversation. She is in charge of the entertainment. Her traditional attire is beautiful. She says” It was a lot of work, and the planning” put into this long awaited meaningfully day. She needed more staff and wished for more volunteers but her face said what she didn’t; that there was never enough volunteers.
I ask her. ” Is the National Historic sites; The Oxbow site and Augustine mound here, can I see them?” “I have walked the trails and the grounds, I read they are here but I can’t find them and hate to have missed them if there are here to see.
She says, no you can’t visit them. ” tourists are disrespectful and intrusive” The locations are secret and not open to the public. She says the Heritage Center is designed to be a representation of a meeting place and to explain and share their culture and values, passed down from generations of story tellers. I nod, I agree but I am still feeling left out.
However, the plates, forks and napkins are now within reach. I have made it to the feast. I pull a fire roasted corn on the cob from the tray and strip back the chard husk and put it on my plate. A lady with a braid and glasses offers me some sort of ground wild game, I raise my hand up to decline, ” but I would love some of that bannock bread please”
I spoon some corn bean and zucchini salad onto my plate and the lady in front of me asks if I could spoon some up for her.. Next is a table with large hunks of meat with bones protruding. The lady welds a carving knife points the tip at each, and rhymes off “moose, pork and seal” I decline again but thank her for preparing it.
Next is a man at a barbecue grill flipping long fillets of white fish I don’t recognized. ” “what is that you are cooking,? I ask. “Sturgeon” he replies. ” Oh no I can’t, I feel bad they are endangered.” ” They are not endangered in our river, I guarantee you” He responds. I nod, keeping my eye forward to the movement of the line. While I am looking away a small piece of it is slapped on my plate. Several large salmon are laid out as serve yourself. but the theme is eat what you take. The lady in front of me severs a flaky piece and plated it. There is no doubt from this spread here, that the indigenous ancestors made a good living along the shores of the Miramichi.
I move from the line and take a seat to eat my meal in the bleachers. I have recently returned to veganism after years of being Pescatarian, (Fish eater) so I am struggling morally with the piece of sturgeon on my plate. My battle is that If I eat it, I have betrayed my values, but if I throw it out, this sturgeon had died in vane. The whole purpose of this day is to have a authentic experience of the Micmac way of life. I take a bite; it is a grizzly in texture and salty. I know I will never taste that again. The bannock is crumbly and delicate. The corn on the cob- juice. I wish I had taken more of the bean zucchini salad.
Traditional music and dancing starts. A throaty voice and drum join together and dancers take hands and shimmy around in a circular line. I meet a lady also enjoying her meal. She says she just lives a little ways away, she comes to the heritage park often. She is 71 a retired nurse. She lived most of her life in Fredericton, but when her mother died she came here to clean the house out and sell it, that was seven years ago. She tells me when her friends ask her when she will be returning to Fredericton she tells them ” I am studying the Miramichi”
I think we all should study the Miramichi from the Metepenagiag Heritage Park and the MicMac way of life. Happy travels from Maritime Mac.