On-the-Land and Learning — A Northern Journey with Northern Water Futures and Waterlution

By: Olivia Allen, Project Lead for Youth Programs (2019)

After a week of vacation, camping, and exploring parts of the west coast, I headed directly to the Northwest Territories (NWT) to participate in an on-the-land camp for youth in the small community of Ka’a’gee Tu (aka Kakisa, its western name). I was greeted at the airport by Waterlution Youth Advisory Board member (and my dear friend) Steph Woodworth. She was joined by four other young environmental professionals – Neomi, Tara, Ari, and Alexis. whom I’d never met  – most of them had never met each other either, with the excitement of the camp, our mutual love for water and the land, we instantly became friends, grounded in our purpose to share our knowledge and to learn from the Dene youth and the community.

Team Picture

The on-the-land camp was being put on by the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation in partnership with Wilfrid Laurier University and Northern Water Futures (NWF), a multi-institutional project examining the impacts of climate change on the land and waters in the NWT. Funding for the camp came from the NWT On-the-Land Collaborative and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) PromoScience program.

Waterlution and NWF have been building a partnership over the past few years through Steph’s PhD work. Steph is doing her research on how on-the-land camps allow northern youth to reconnect with their culture and traditional knowledge while learning about western science approaches and how these approaches are combining to monitor changes to ecosystems along the way. Waterlution seeks evolve our relationship with water through community engagement, youth leadership and collaborative-innovation. Through my participation in this camp we’ve begun to make our social and science water partnership a reality. Besides myself, all the camp leaders are working with Northern Water Futures while completing their PhDs or Masters’ programs – I was representing Waterlution and supporting Steph with youth leadership and engagement activities at the camp.

All aboard!

After grabbing our bags at the airport, we hopped into the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation van Steph was driving (she had been in Kakisa a few days longer than us!) and met the camp cooks Martha and Elsie at the grocery store. We bought four overflowing cartloads of food, packed the van beyond full and ventured to Kakisa, a five-hour drive from Yellowknife. The road was full of giant dips from thawing permafrost. We saw four bison (this was the first time I’ve ever seen one!) and a fox trotting down the road with a smaller creature in its mouth (so cute !!)

We crossed the gigantic Dehcho River (aka the Mackenzie, its western name) and we were nearly there. It was almost midnight by the time we got to Kakisa. When we weren’t living in tents, we stayed at The Ka’a’gee Tu Research Centre in Kakisa, a place where visiting researchers can stay and work. As we unloaded the van and were settling into the house we saw the northern lights dancing in the sky. I had never been north nor had I seen the lights before. It was a magical welcoming to this special community. I felt so at peace and had yet another moment of gratitude for the experience of this trip, the land and the waters.

The next day was full of logistics –  organizing the food, finalizing the schedule, prepping materials and charging all electronics and research equipment. I wanted to get out on the land and water. One of the older youth Tarek who would be joining us on the trip, came over to hang out for a few hours. He joked that our schedule for the science on the land programming sounded too much like schoolwork.

The Laurier Ka’a’gee Tu Research Student HouseCentre in Kakisa, a place where visiting researchers can stay and work (when we weren’t living in tents, we stayed here!)

On Monday morning we met the rest of the youth who’d be camping with us – Nyah and Dawson and we all packed our gear into the canoes. Some community members gathered with us by the shore of Kakisa Lake where Elder Margaret gave us her support and good wishes in Dene Zhatie (her language) and then in English. She told us how she and her father travelled in this lake by canoe when she was a child. We each offered some Tobacco to the water before departing.

On the first day, we were to paddle eight kilometers to our first campsite. We stopped along the way for Ari and Tara to do some water sampling. They sampled each day and everyone else got a chance to help and learn their sampling techniques. When we arrived at the campsite at First River we were greeted by the smell of burgers and we gobbled up our lunch. At the site we met up with the cooks and two other community members – Jeremy and Darcy, who would be helping us out and keeping us safe from bears. They travelled by speedboat to the camp and got a head start on lunch. To our surprise, they also brought out a youth who was too young to canoe with us, Peyton.

After lunch we all headed into the forest to visit the burn scar of the 2014 Kakisa wildfire. We did a plant scavenger hunt and Nyah, a youth on my team, easy identified all the plants. Next, we did plot sampling to measure the extent of the fire. By looking at the organic soil level and the spruce trees adventitious roots that form where the tree was damaged we were able to tell what depth of organic soil had burned away. Alexis is studying forest succession after a fire.

Alexis measuring the distance from the adventitious roots to the soil

Peyton and I spent most of the afternoon in the forest teasing each other and laughing. He told me many fibs followed by “Ha! Just kiddin”! He took about 40 pictures zoomed in on my face instead of taking photos of the land, water and activities like he was supposed to.

On day two of the journey, we woke up to a delicious breakfast, packed up camp and loaded up the canoes to paddle 20 kilometers to our next campsite. When we were about eight kilometers in, the lake water levels were extremely low and the speed boat transporting our cooks couldn’t make it ashore. To top that off, the wind got super crazy and blew white cap waves crashing into our canoes. Darcy, who was armed for the bear watch and driving the speed boat, came to our rescue and towed us (4 canoes) back to the original campsite. We set up camp again and had soup with bannock (made on the fire!) for lunch.

Homebase aka camp
Dawson and Tarek determining water quality based on the type and number of invertebrates in the water. After a few hours of sorting the water bugs, we determined that Kakisa lake was in good health!

That evening Chief Chicot came out to join us for dinner and to camp with us for a few days. In the evening he told us a lot about the areas of the lake where the community practices gathering, trapping and hunting. I asked the Chief about moose hide canoes and he said the moose hide was replaced with canvas soon after contact with the Europeans. He told me that there were some canvass canoes abandoned around the lake. He told us about some beautiful places around the lake and spoke about how the residential school system impacted their community, sharing stories of children being taken from their community and sent to residential schools. I could tell it was challenging for him to speak about, but he knew it was important that the youth and young people are aware of the truth and the impacts of our shared history.

In the morning we decided to paddle upriver from camp to visit a beaver dam, enjoy the calm waters and allow Ari and Tara to do some water sampling near the dam. It was a 20 kilometer trip and including sampling time, so it took us seven hours. Needless to say we didn’t do much else that day. Along the way Dawson and Tarek had their eyes open for moose. I learned about tracking and hunting from Tarek and Dawson throughout the trip.

Looking for fresh moose tracks!

Chief returned to Kakisa to pick up Margaret, the Elder who had sent us off on our journey. She joins us for ribs for dinner and told many stories of traveling the lake and connecting rivers as young girl with her father. She also shared about many indicators and signs from the earth and the animals that indicate when storms are coming or when the fish would be in certain areas. I must keep these teachings to myself as they are not mine to share.

A beautiful evening at the mouth of big river, where we camped just off Kakisa Lake.

On the second last night of our stay, there was a thunder and lightning storm with insanely high winds. I had never camped in such chaotic weather. Our tents were blowing all night and bark was blowing off the trees. When we woke up we knew there would be no canoeing as the waves were crazy with many whitecaps!! The storm was still in full force, so we huddled in our tents for most of the morning. This got me thinking of some of the challenges Margaret and her family could have faced when travelling the lake, and how signs from animals and nature would have been critical in ensuring their safety and preparedness.

As the storm cleared, we picked cranberries and Steph and I starting helping the youth plan an event to celebrate the water, land and the canoe journey with the community once we returned to Kakisa. Nyah, Dawnson and Tarek decided to host a canoe race, a water chugging contest (hahaha) and a water flight. We were all looking forward to hosting this event for the community, especially for the younger youth. We finished off the afternoon with more forestry analysis in a non-burned area of the forest to compare and contrast the plant population and organic soil levels with that of the burned area. I learned that organic soil burns away in fires and that lichen takes 50 years to return after a fire!

Next Tara got the youth using GPS trackers to do a scavenger hunt in the forest – they really enjoyed this! Afterwards, she led a water management game whereas as group we had to carry a cup of water by all holding a different string representing different water users as we went through an obstacle course. Acting as different water users if someone pulls too much the whole water system could collapse!

I’d brought some inner bark of red cedar that I had harvested in Squamish BC where I live and dried it for the past year. I harvested it with my friend Matthew whose family has always worked with cedar bark. I showed the youth and the other camp leaders how to make roses out of the barks. This was a teaching I received from Matthew and his father Henry. With their permission, within an hour we had a many rose made, but they were not a professional looking as Matthew and Henry make them.

In the morning, we padded back to Kakisa. After a relaxing afternoon with the youth, Margaret and some other community members, we gathered the younger youth in the community for the Water, Land and Canoe Celebration before hosting a community dinner. Steph and Ari won the canoe race (by cheating!!!!). Ari won the chugging contest, so naturally he was a prime target in the water fight! After all of this fun, we hosted a dinner in the community hall where we got to meet a few more community members and say thank you to everyone, as we were to head to Yellowknife the next morning. We were all sad that our time on the land together had come to an end. Dawson had to head out but Tarek, Nyah and the younger youth hung out at our house all evening, helping Tara and Ari sort bug samples and watch an old movie.

Steph, Nyah and Neomi paddling back to Kakisa

Before leaving in the morning, we went to Margaret’s house as we just could not get enough of her – she taught us so much and her presence was so calming. Margaret is a wise and knowledgeable woman. She taught us many things about the land and shared photos of her children and grandchildren. As we were leaving her, she made Steph and I cry with the beautiful words about finding and using your special gifts in life. We had to leave and couldn’t find the Chief to say goodbye, we also missed our opportunity to say goodbye to Dawson before he headed back home to his neighbouring community. We stopped at the waterfalls on the way out of the community to see one last piece of beauty in the area.

When we stopped at the one gas station between Kakisa and Yellowknife, we ran into Dawson (YAY!) so we were able to say goodbye to him and give him hugs. Unbelievably, later that night in Yellowknife we ran into the Chief and we got to say goodbye to him after all! 

On my last night in the north, I saw the northern lights again, and I knew I would return again to the NWT and to the community of Kakisa. The on-the-land camp experience taught me so much about the north, about myself, and about deepening our connections with the land and with each other.

If I can offer a bit of life advice to readers, that I’ve found eye-opening over the last few years working with youth in environmental and cultural education:

  1. While you are teaching, remember you are also learning. We all have a gift and we all have unique knowledge to share, they are different ways of teaching and everyone has their own teaching style, many are more informal than others. I know that I learned more from the youth than I taught them, and I love that!.
  2. Be curious, and open – learn about different ways of viewing the world, and different ways of life with an open heart and open mind. Remember that the “western” way of life is not the only way. (not to mention it is negatively impacting our climate, lands and waters!)
  3. Get outside! Spend time on the land and on the water in any way you can. It is good for your mind and your soul! Connect with our earth, our home.

A full group shot on the land before we left to camp!

From left to right: Alexis, Nyah, Martha, Dawson, Darcy, Elsie, Tara, Jeremy, Neomi, Steph, Tarek, Ari, Chief and Me!

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