River of Forgiveness Documentary Rekindles Tradition

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February 27, 2020

Water lapped on the shores of the Nahanni River, wind whistled through the trees and birds called overhead. Those were the only sounds heard as a small group of Dene people heaved the mooseskin canoe up by the gunwales and carried it out from the forest.

Sore muscles and blistered hands forgotten, the group shuffled like a slow-moving centipede to the river’s edge. Fashioned from moose hides, backstrap sinew and spruce trees, the boat was very much a part of the land.

It was a profound moment for the small group - the Dene boat builders, guides, and film crew. While that moment marked the start of a month-long voyage, it was a journey that began taking shape two decades earlier. 

 

Tradition Rekindled

Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian had envisioned the creation of the mooseskin boat nearly 20 years before the project came about. 

 In 2005, Norwegian had his opportunity to set the plan in motion. Filmmaker Geoff Bowie was travelling in the Northwest Territories (NWT) filming Ghosts of Futures Past: Tom Berger in the North for The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. The film schedule brought him to the Dehcho Annual Assembly where Norwegian approached him with the idea for a documentary about the building and paddling of a traditional mooseskin canoe.

The seed was planted and it wasn’t long before Bowie began applying for grants and funding to bring the idea to life.

“The funding from ITI helped enormously,” Bowie said. “Projects like this are very expensive to fund and we had to raise a significant amount of money. The Department’s Support for Entrepreneurs and Economic Development funding contributed to the actual building of the boat, while the Film Rebate Program funding assisted in covering the expenses of filming in the Dehcho Region.”

The culturally rich film also created opportunities for locals. Several skilled workers were hired from the territory’s growing film industry, including Jay Bulckaert, Pablo Saravanja, Terry Woolf, Jonathan Antoine and Caroline Cox. Tourism companies Black Feather, Nahanni River Adventures and Nahanni Wild Adventures were also brought on as guides and cooks during the paddle.

 

Reliving History: the Building of the Mooseskin Canoe

The River of Forgiveness team flew into Bunny Bar, a five day paddle above Virginia Falls, and set up a base camp for the building of the canoe.

The 36-foot canoe was five hides in length, and the builders, five Shuhtaot’ine or Mountain Dene from Tulita, had to be as flexible as the sinew they used. When they became concerned about whether the hides provided were properly prepared for boat building, they set out on a hunt and brought back two moose.

The moment of truth came as the boat was launched in the crisp, swift-moving waters of the Nahanni River. After testing the canoe with the weight of the paddlers, between five and six people ended up in the boat, paddling for an average of five hours per day.

“For me it was a learning experience,” said Bowie, who is based in Toronto. “I went into the project with some understanding of the significance of the mooseskin boat, but the experience opened my eyes to what it truly signifies to the north and the Dene. It was a privilege to see how excited and moved they were.”

Bears, Blisters and Boat-Slinging

Nerves ran high during the first day of paddling as rain pelted the paddlers. Zodiac boats with the film crew circled the canoe during the journey to get the necessary shots. Within five days they reached Virginia Falls – which thunder down from twice the height of Niagara Falls - and slung the boat over by helicopter  

“Slinging the boat over the rapids was definitely a highlight for me. The canyons below the falls were incredible and it was so quiet. We saw Dall sheep, a moose swimming to shore and a grizzly bear cub bobbing down the river,” said Bowie.

The helicopter set the moose skin boat down at Marengo Creek where it was secured on shore, while the group spent two days making the trek on foot. Their arrival at Marengo and the discovery of large irreparable holes in the bottom of the boat, marked the moment when the character of the journey changed.

“Often unforeseen challenges arise on a river adventure, perhaps especially when you’re travelling in moose skin boat that hasn’t been seen on the Nahanni in 100 years,” explained Bowie.

It was a long and challenging trip that would test the grit, resourcefulness, and spirit of the group. 

A Hero’s Welcome

“The final day of our trip was pretty dreary and I didn’t think anyone would be on the shore in Fort Simpson when we arrived,” explained Bowie. To his surprise, as soon as they came within sight they heard cheering and drumming erupt from the shoreline. As they pulled onto shore, the significance of the voyage settled in, pent up emotions swelled, and there were tears all around.

The community members circled round the sacred boat.

With pride, they lifted the boat as one and carried it along the road to the cultural grounds of the Papal Site.

 

Between June and July 2018, a group of Northwest Territories Dene, licensed guides, and a handful of filmmakers set out to build a hand-crafted mooseskin boat and to paddle it down the Nahanni River, something that had not been done in 100 years. The film recently screened at the first Liidlii Kue Film Festival in Fort Simpson February 21-22, 2020.