Wild Shore of an Inland Sea

Hattie Cove Campground, which is nestled in Pukaskwa National Park, was a long anticipated stop on our journey around Lake Superior. So much so that we walked nine miles off route to get there. Our time spent there quickly became one of our most rehabilitative breaks from the road. We made sure to hike the trails and eat lots of food and enjoy the quiet of being far from the highway. We also got to sit down with Nicole Dupuis, Pukaskwa’s Interpretation Coordinator. She shared a detailed and fascinating side of Pukaskwa that we would have otherwise not seen. In the following edited transcript, Nicole puts Pukaskwa and its natural denizens in a historical context that helps us understand how better to love and protect wild places.  

What do you do at Pukaskwa National Park? How did you end up here?

I grew up in northern Ontario all my life. I went to school at Lakehead University which is in Thunder Bay. When I started to look more into indigenous learning stuff, I kind of strayed my degree and ended up with two degrees - a natural science degree and an indigenous learning degree. When I finished school back in 2012 people asked me at the time, ‘What are you going to do with these things that you have?’ and I was like ‘I don’t know!’ I actually have an uncle that works in the Lake Superior Marine Conservation Area and he was telling me about a job that was coming up in Pukaskwa for interpretation and I applied. That was in May 2013 so we’re going on my fourth summer.

When I came here they were doing a lot of revamping. The Visitor Center used to be full of lots of stuff from 1985. They got rid of a lot of stuff and it was like coming into a blank slate. At the time it seemed very overwhelming. You know, first big huge career job, I can do whatever I want and the pressure is on. So then it was just basically trying to figure out what the message is of Pukaskwa.

What would you say is the message of Pukaskwa?

The theme here is ‘Wild Shore of an Inland Sea.’ Did you guys do the Southern Headland Trail hike? That hike, to me, symbolizes what a wild shore of an inland sea is. It’s rugged and it's cold and then it's like a big huge air conditioner and you're walking on Canadian Shield, the oldest rock in the world and seeing so many geological features of when that rock was formed. You can see where old river beds were. You have these plants that just know how to adapt to very severe environments. They get into the little cracks in the rock and then have basal leaves that lay on the bottom that are hairy so when there's a fog that comes in its condensed water on to them so they're able to suck as much water up as possible. That's something that's very unique to Lake Superior - to have those types of plants and on the shoreline.

"Pukaskwa is an 1,800 square kilometer chunk of land, there is still industrial things all around… Even though you have these parks that are supposed to preserve and protect, there’s nothing we can do about it."

Our old symbol used to be a caribou. There used to be a family of caribou that lived here. That was before there was moose, before deer. The ungulate in this area would’ve been caribou. For the longest time Pukaskwa was well known for having this unique caribou that hasn’t been here since moose have encroached. We consider it the ghost of Pukaskwa. That itself I think is a good conservation message for a couple reasons. The most direct you could say is competition. With the moose coming in, they bring more predators with them. There’s another reason caribou dwindled. Even though Pukaskwa is an 1,800 square kilometer chunk of land, there is still industrial things all around. You got forestry companies,  you got a highway, a hydro line. Mainly the forestry segregates the land. When you're talking about a species that's supposed to migrate all around, no matter what protection efforts you have, this isn’t a sustainable place for caribou to be anymore. There’s still a population, a healthy population on the Slate Islands.

Even though you have these parks that are supposed to preserve and protect, there’s nothing we can do about it. These are the type of messages in my job as an interpreter that I hope you get. For national parks our mandate is to ‘preserve and protect for all time the natural and cultural heritage of Canada and foster understanding and appreciation for its visitors and to maintain that ecological and commemorative integrity for present and future generations.’ What is important is to be able to tell the stories of the past and of the present and to keep these stories and to keep this area not just for us to enjoy, but for our kids to enjoy and our kids’ kids’ kids.

The biggest part in our job more so than ever is that connection, making that meaningful connection with place. The cool thing about Pukaskwa is that there are not many people here. It’s a really quiet park. That's actually something that I find all across Northwestern Ontario, it’s forest! Forest forest forest! It’s rock and forest and river. There's not much development. It's a very wild area. It’s funny because my job is to get those messages out. But I found Pukaskwa does its job by itself just by being what it is. You can really experience that solitude here because you don’t hear trains, you don’t hear transports. You don’t hear anything here except for the birds and the waves.

"The biggest part in our job more so than ever is that connection, making that meaningful connection with place."

You mentioned that part of your job is interpreting cultural heritage. How do you purvey that in your job?

Pukaskwa itself is not necessarily considered an established national park. That’s because it’s actually under a land claim right now. This area here from Thunder Bay Fort William area to just the other side of Michipicoten is called Robinson’s Superior Treaty Group. In Canada, this treaty was signed prior to all these numbered treaties. It’s different here than in America where land was signed to share with hunting and fishing rights and that kind of stuff. Now the interesting thing about Robinson’s Superior [Treaty Group]  was that it was actually prior to confederation. It was actually signed by, must’ve been the Queen! When Robinson’s Superior Group was signed over, they went to talk to each [native] band individually. They would not have been called bands at the time, more like community groups. They went to each one of the chiefs and talked about forming a treaty and had all the chiefs sign. The chief of this area, near Pic River, didn’t sign that treaty. By not signing that treaty they didn’t really cede over the land. That’s an interesting point in this area. Basically Pukaskwa is very much Anishinaabe territory. This is their land, there’s a lot of cultural heritage here. When we talk about cultural heritage, when we say that, we’re talking about the Anishinaabe people.

"Basically Pukaskwa is very much Anishinaabe territory." 

They’re doing a reconstruction of an Anishinaabe camp over there right now. What we’re building are wigwams and a cookhouse. So those would be historical houses or traditional dwellings that would be lived in in this area. The Anishinaabe people were traditionally semi-nomadic people. They would have a summer home and a winter home. And in this area the summer home would be more around the mouth of the Pic River. They would have winter homes all along they would all have their their hunting territories in the park and deeper in the interior. They would have their permanent wigwam there and their permanent wigwam at the mouth of the river.

The birch tree was considered the tree of life because it gave a lot of means of survival. Birch bark is really awesome because unlike the the bark of other trees that fall off after time, it doesn’t rot. Even though most people think of birch bark tinder is good to start fires with because it’s paper thin but the inside is very fire resistant. So when you’re making a birch bark structure you’re having the inside bark on the inside and you don’t have to worry as much of burning. A birch bark structure can stay up for up to 8-10 years with a little maintenance along the way. Birch bark doesn’t soak through either so that it could be used as a waterproof vessel. And that was really important for survival because being a semi-nomadic people travelling along the waterways was the fastest way of transportation to get from point A to point B. And this area as well is a big fishing area. They have a lot of caribou and they also ate a lot of fish. That’s the traditional sense of the Anishinaabe people.

Another message we’re trying to get across too is this contemporary one. Just like animals and other things evolve over time so does culture. Looking at the traditional sense and the evolution of the Anishinaabe culture is kind of another theme that we’re going into too.

"Another message we’re trying to get across too is this contemporary one. Just like animals and other things evolve over time so does culture."

Josh, the Cultural Interpreter here, does a woodland art program. You were in the visitor center and saw that big huge mural? It actually tells the whole story of Pic River, of when European contact first happened. But that type of art structure is called woodland art. Have you seen any pictographs before? Woodland art is an evolution of culture from that rock painting style, taking those kinds of images. It tells the story of the people here. That’s definitely a good symbolism of the evolution of culture. Or even powwows. That wasn't a traditional thing that was done but now it’s a celebration of culture that happens.

What do you see as the biggest challenges of living on the lake? Either present or future?  

The biggest challenge that lives here is the isolation. This whole area used to be all industrial. The slogan of Marathon is “built on paper laced with gold!” So mining and forestry are big here. Nipigon was a forestry town - it had a plywood mill. Red Rock was a pulp and paper mill. Terrace Bay was a mill as well. This whole area is based on the industrial revolution. It’s basically using the land for resources. All the mills have gone down now except for the Terrace Bay. There has been a very massive change in the economic growth in this area. And being a northerner and never wanting to leave around this area, you ask how does it sustain itself? I honestly think it’s in tourism. Look at how beautiful this area is. The lake is inland, it’s a sweetwater sea.  I had kids on the trail yesterday and they were like ‘This reminds me of Newfoundland’. That’s because it just has water all the way to the horizon but it’s not an ocean. So it has a lot of unique appeal to it. The water here is crystal, crystal clear. It looks tropical but it’s freezing. It could be a driving force but changing the mindset from that boom and bust cycle to this slower growth tourism is key. I would say they’re trying and there’s definitely a lot of appeal and a lot of talk in this area in becoming more tourism based. Even at this park here we’re trying to get out of the 80’s. Its definitely a challenge, because otherwise these towns they have to find jobs and jobs aren’t always here.

"The biggest challenge that lives here is the isolation."

In a park sense, the challenge of being on the lake is that it’s very attractive for tourism - it’s a paddler’s dream! - but it’s very dangerous. That lake definitely requires respect. It could literally kill you. It also is  beautiful as they come. It’s just like fire. You can sit by a fire all night but don’t leave it unattended. You have to show it respect. Don’t jump over because I mean it could burn you, same thing with the water. Those are challenges as well, to know safety.

Another big challenge with the water on a more general level is water, more so than ever, is very, very precious. Being in first world countries we can take for granted how accessible water is for us all the time. You can put on the tap and you have water. If you want a shower no problem. But in other places in the world it’s not like that. Water is a scarce resource and there are other places in the world where it's privatized. You don’t have access to water, you don’t have the right to water. In this area and the Lake Superior Marine Conservation Area it is important to have respect in that sense. We have quality water. We have freshwater. We are lucky to have such a body of water here because it’s not like that anywhere else.

"Being in first world countries we can take for granted how accessible water is for us all the time." 

How do you see yourself getting that message out?

Do you have Lake Superior day? That’s the time to get messaging out. I believe that message should come from there and that should be their main message. As for myself here - one of the hikes that I do is called ‘Gifts of the Earth’. I talk about the traditional and medicinal uses of plants and animals in the area. Part of that message of gifts of the earth is talking about the water and its importance. Part of that is the idea that there is an Anishinaabe prayer, that I sing, as an appreciation and saying thank you to the water. So those are some of the ways that I kind of interject that messaging into my programming on a  grander scale. I still think it’s gonna be the Lake Superior Marine Conservation Area that’s gonna have the larger messaging.

Anything else you’d like to add?

There are these special mounds of a rock. They were first identified and found in Pukaskwa and that’s why they’re called ‘Pukaskwa Pits’. They’re actually all around Lake Superior and many other places.  So the way Lake Superior works is that it used to be way, way higher and as time went it on the water level got lower and lower.  Consequently, on different parts  of the shoreline you have different places where the shore historically was. And the Pukaskwa Pits tend to happen on big cobblestone beaches. They’re a mystery, honestly. It’s unknown how old they are. They could be between two to five thousand years old. There is even questions of the uses of these things. There are some that look like rock cairns, to mark a trail. There are others that are literal pits that could be old fire hearths and old dwellings. There are even ones that looks like a huge fortress. In this area the Anishinaabe people know that these pits can have a spiritual use. A lot of the areas that are documented are spiritual places for naming ceremonies and midewiwin lodge. They’re the type of thing we don’t promote to the public. It’s one of the cultural integrity things that we’re trying to keep intact. Also just because of that spiritual connection to these pits - ancestors put these up so long ago that  we don’t actually talk about them too much. There are well over two hundred of these pits documented in Pukaskwa alone. It’s like this massive mystery.