Life in a northern town

Some women are attracted to men who drive hot cars, but did you know that this phenomenon spans centuries and cultural boundaries? A hundred years ago, a Cree warrior in Northern Alberta could attract the most sought after female in his village by driving a decked out dogsled.

The two most prominent buildings in Fort Chipewyan are the church and the former residential school.

The two most prominent buildings in Fort Chipewyan are the church and the former residential school.

Some women are attracted to men who drive hot cars, but did you know that this phenomenon spans centuries and cultural boundaries? A hundred years ago, a Cree warrior in Northern Alberta could attract the most sought after female in his village by driving a decked out dogsled.

“In my granddad’s day, a man was measured by how his sled looked and how well he took care of his dogs,” said Robert Grandjambe, of Fort Chipewyan (Fort Chip). “If he came into town with a fully outfitted team and a nice looking sled, he could ask for the hand of the most desirable young woman in the village and her parents would be happy about it. They’d know if he took good care of his sled team, he’d take care of their daughter.”

There was a time when every man in Fort Chip had a sled dog team — an essential mode of winter transportation for hunters and trappers, but things have changed over the past 50 years. Even though dogs still outnumber people in the tiny hamlet, there is only one sled dog team left in the entire community. When snowmobiles were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, most people switched to machines, because it was less work to care for a snowmobile than it is to care for a sled dog team.

Grandjambe has the last sled dog team in the community. He runs a sled dog operation for tourists and guests who want to travel the old-fashioned way. He dresses his dogs and himself in traditional Cree attire, which means that the dogs have specially decorated harnesses that are hand sewn by his wife. “We need to keep the old ways alive,” he explained. “It’s a sign of respect for the elders.”

It was a cold, blustery February afternoon when we met at Grandjambe’s home for an afternoon of dogsledding and ice fishing. While he hooked up the sled and got the dogs into their harnesses, we wandered into a back pen to play with six Husky-cross puppies in the yard.

The puppies were very chubby and robust and the older dogs in the yard were also incredibly healthy. Grandjambe believes it is because he makes his own dog food using freshly-caught and cooked fish as the main protein ingredient. The fish-based diet keeps their coats shiny and the dogs healthy and happy.

When the sled team was ready, some of our group hopped inside the dog sled and the rest followed behind on snowmobiles. After riding around for a little while, we headed out to Lake Athabasca to check on Grandjambe’s fishing nets. As a First Nations Cree, he is allowed to legally net fish on Lake Athabasca. Most of the fish he catches in his nets is used to feed his sled team, so it seemed appropriate that the dogs were present.

Ice fishing with a net is a tricky proposition. Putting a fishing net under the ice is a lot of work but once the net is in place, a fisherman can leave it there all winter — if he is careful. The net is strung between two holes in the ice and each time it is harvested, a cord is left under the ice so the net can be pulled back again.

On the day we went out with Grandjambe, we helped him pull the nets and discovered that his nets held more than a dozen average-sized northern pike and one rather large lake trout. He said that the only way to starve in Fort Chip is by being lazy.

There’s plenty of fish in the lake and wildlife in the surrounding area to sustain a family using the traditional native means of fishing and hunting.

“You may not have a television or electricity if you choose to live off the land,” he said. “But you’ll always have enough to eat.”

After resetting the nets, we hopped back in the dogsled and took the long way back to Grandjambe’s home. As the dogs pulled us (and their supper) effortlessly along the frozen ground, I couldn’t help thinking that I had been privileged to experience a bit of Alberta’s history by spending the day in Fort Chipewyan, one of the oldest European settlements in the province.

If you go:

• Fort Chipewyan was established as a trading post by the North West Co. in 1788. The fort was named after the Chipewyan First Nation people who live there. The community today has a population of 1,007 Cree, Dene (Chipewyan First Nation) and Metis people.

• Fort Chipewyan is 284 km from Fort McMurray on the western tip of Lake Athabasca, adjacent to Wood Buffalo National Park in the eastern corner of Northern Alberta. During the winter months, it is accessible via a winter ice road but during the summer it can only be accessed via air. In the summer, you can fly there with Air Mikisew or McMurray Aviation. In the winter, you can rent a truck in Fort McMurray and drive the winter road to get there.

• To find out more about the history of Fort Chip, be sure to stop at the Bicentennial Museum in town. Local historian Oliver Glandfield provides a fascinating historical tour through the museum with compelling stories about the heritage and the people of the community. Be sure to get him to tell you about the mystery of the Pacific Ridley Turtle shell that somehow made its way into Lake Athabasca.

• You can arrange a sled tour or a summer boating and fishing tour with Robert Grandjambe by calling him at 780-697-3830. Grandjambe creates his adventures based on interest; everything from winter dog sledding to summer boat tours.

• For more information on Fort Chip and other Northern Alberta communities, visit the Travel Alberta website at www.travelalberta.com. Fort McMurray Tourism may also be able to assist with making arrangements to visit Fort Chip and other northerly communities. You can contact them at 1-800-565-3947 or visit their website at www.fortmcmurraytourism.com

• If you are looking to stay overnight in Fort Chipewyan, there are two comfortable bed and breakfast-style accommodations available: Northern Lights Bed and Breakfast, phone: 780-697-3053 or online at http://www.albertaaboriginaltourism.com/experiences.

cfm?ItemID=175&q=northern%20lights; Wah Pun Bed and Breakfast, phone 780-697-3030 or online at http://www.albertaaboriginaltourism.com/experiences.cfm?ItemID=177&q=wah

During the summer months, Grandjambe also has a fishing cabin available for rent.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.