Nibiischii: land of water and meeting place
Nibiischii: land of water and meeting place
by simon jodoin
On the shores of Lac Waconichi, the morning is slow moving as Mireille Gravel and Gerald Longchap arrive for our meeting on the docks. All the fishers, awake since dawn, have long since ventured out onto the immense 32-kilometre-long lake or to left discover the region's other popular bodies of water, where they hope to catch prized species of fish such as the walleye, northern pike, brook trout and lake trout. Once this “rush hour” has passed, silence and calm envelop the small community of log cottages located some twenty kilometres northeast of Chibougamau, the gateway to the Lacs-Albanel-Mistassini-et-Waconichi Wildlife Reserve.
Gerald gazes quietly at the lake. These days, the Deputy Chief of the Cree Nation of Mistissini has little time for taking boat rides or going fishing, as he is busy managing the community's affairs as well as the region's cultural and economic development. “That was the hunting ground of my great-grandfather,” he says, pointing to the small island in front of us. “As a child, on this lake, I had the chance to see the canoes made of bark and canvas. This is where we tested them, with my grandmother and grandfather.” Today, with the support of his colleagues and community members, he is the guardian of this territory, to ensure its continuity. In 2017, the Québec government entrusted the Cree Nation of Mistissini with full responsibility for managing this wildlife reserve, which until then had been jointly administered with SÉPAQ. That was how the Nibiischii Corporation, of which he is now the president, came into being, in order to ensure the management of this immense “land of water.”
Mireille Gravel's childhood memories are of another place. Hailing from Rimouski and a biologist by training, she arrived in Chibougamau in 2007 to work at FaunENord, a social economy enterprise that contributes to the sustainable development of the Nord-du-Québec region, particularly through the development of non-timber forest products such as forest plants and wild mushrooms. When the reserve's management was transferred to the Cree Nation, she was recruited to lead the major project of preserving the natural environment while providing access to it by developing tourism.
“It's not complicated, everything is here,” she says with a smile. “It's such a magnificent territory, with a culture that is vibrant and alive. It's nothing but pure pleasure. As soon as I arrived here by car and entered the boreal forest, my breath was taken away. When you see this territory that is inhabited, wherever you go, you feel that there is a presence, a respectful presence. You're really in the forest, but you feel surrounded by a culture that is respectful of the wildlife and plant life. You feel that it's here permanently.”
One of the main challenges for Mireille and her colleagues is to attract visitors by showing them that this part of the country offers more than just outfitter activities for expert anglers, but that it's also a large playground, breathtaking in its scope, where everyone can come into contact with forests and bodies of water that stretch for as far as the eye can see. The site of Lac Waconichi is a haven of peace away from the hustle and bustle of the world, and as soon as you set foot there, you feel you have entered an oasis of calm. Connected by wooden sidewalks, the 11 magnificent log cottages built in the 1950s give the area the look of a forest hamlet from another era. Recently, two small floating cottages anchored in Baie Cliff, thoroughly modern in design, completely self-sufficient, fully equipped and environmentally friendly, have been added to accommodate visitors. You get there by boat, in just a few minutes, and experience a completely different kind of getaway. During the day, you can go paddle boarding, kayaking and swimming, literally from the cottage's balcony, which is actually a dock! In the evening, you'll drift off to sleep to the rhythms of nature. The expression “immersion experience” is sometimes used for anything and everything, but here, beyond a doubt, a night on the lake offers a true immersion in the wilderness.
Mireille Gravel aptly sums up the feeling that travellers have as they make their way to this territory that imposes a sort of humility. “Upon arriving here,” she says, “you experience the immensity of the place. Nibiischii means ‘land of water' and that's the reality here. We don't know if there's more water than land. It's magnificent, everything is green and blue. I think that just getting on the road and heading up to the region is already a unique experience in itself, a form of communion with it all, and when you arrive at our sites, whether it's at the Waconichi cottages, Lac Albanel or Baie Penicouane, they're all places where you'll experience peace. A kind of symbiosis is created with the environment.”
Are you ready to take to the road? The invitation has been extended! It's true that the mere fact of travelling up here, just north of the 50th parallel, is an experience in itself, a sort of initiation ritual during which you really don't see the time passing. And in fact there's a myth that must absolutely be debunked: no, it's not far, or at least no farther than anywhere else! As you find yourself entranced by the landscapes along the magnificent Route 167, you reach Chibougamau in just a little over five hours from Québec City and eight hours from Montréal, as if having been effortlessly drawn into the depths of the vast space.
At the end of the road, a reassuring and friendly greeting awaits us. On a road sign a few kilometres from Chibougamau, the welcome message from the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government, written in French, English and Cree, gives us reason to believe that in addition to the adventures that lie ahead, a grand meeting of cultures is taking shape. This is in fact the next mission that Mireille and Gérald hope to accomplish: to complement the opportunities for discovering this vast territory with cultural activities led by members of the Cree Nation. Beading, moccasin making and introductory trapping activities are already offered to visitors eager to make new discoveries.
“It's always been a custom with the Cree to welcome visitors with open arms,” says Gérald in his quiet voice, as if wanting to reveal a well-kept secret. It's a vast territory, and seeing visitors from outside is really like a gift for us, because it makes us want to discover their territory too.” There can be no doubt about it: an official invitation has been extended to us!