The Big Trip: Feeling hungry? Supper is the one with antlers

In Quebec, one Cree family is learning to capitalise on its cultural heritage. Minty Clinch reports

'Of course we're racists, too," said Gordon Moar, confronting the Canadian Indian question as we sat round the table in his forest camp. Gordon is Cree, the grandson of a man who travelled south from the James Bay, Ontario, to Quebec in 1920. He and his two sons made friends with the local Cree, who invited them to stay. Not for the night or the winter, but in perpetuity. Their gift was a trapping ground, 20km by 22km, in what is now the Ashuapmushuan wildlife reserve.

We are in the middle of the Moar trap now, eating braised goose, mash and peas, served by Gordon's wife, Catherine. "They shook hands with my grandfather and that was it," said Gordon. "No money changed hands. For Indians, land is loan, a source of our daily needs, not a reward for our deeds." A century ago, those needs were fuelled by fur-trapping, the staple of the Canadian wilderness since the Hudson's Bay Company started offering one gun in exchange for 12 beaver pelts in 1670. But in a world repelled by natural fur, many Indians have been forced to settle in government-sponsored housing and live off welfare.

But not Gordon Moar. "We've been negotiating for the same land ownership rights as other Canadians, but every time we're poised for success, the government changes and we're left with a parking space. We don't pay taxes, which makes it difficult to participate. Many Indians say we shouldn't pay because we've been pushed around so much, but I believe you have to join to win."

So he joined. If the land couldn't yield a living out of traditional pursuits, it would be harnessed to new ones, primarily logging and tourism. He set up deals with the logging companies to fill the quotas their government permits entitled them to, while minimising the damage to the forest. And he established Mikuan Adventures to sell the Cree culture, which is how I came to be lying in a sleeping bag listening to the rain drumming on the roof of my prospector tent, a walk-in structure, with logs at the base to keep out animals and canvas higher up. The air was warm and fragrant, the result of logs burning merrily in the stove and balsam pine branches spread thickly over the earth floor.

In the morning, I followed Gordon into the forest. In the Montagnais language, Ashuapmushuan means "place where you find moose". When it's time to replenish the larder, Gordon knows how to call the animals to him and also how to shoot them. Muzzle, bone marrow and intestine sausages are particular delicacies, kept for special occasions when First Nations' chiefs come to visit the camp.

The Moars and their guests eat bear, and beaver as well as moose and goose, but the forest delivers much more. We were hardly out of the camp before Gordon grubbed some moss, revealing tiny strands of "golden thread": chew it - a discouragingly bitter experience - and it repels mosquitoes, though I backed it up with the strongest Deep Woods product the supermarket had to offer. Round the next bend, he indicated some seemingly innocent leaves that are brewed into hallucinogenic "Labrador tea": it relieves childbirth pain, among other miseries. "We ask the Creator for abundance and in return we respect his gifts," Gordon said. "Nothing goes to waste."

The days with the Moars were the highlight of my tour of Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean, three hours by car north of Quebec City. Unlike their forebears, who spent the whole year in the forest, the Moars have a lakeside house on the Mashteuiatsh reserve at Pointe Bleu.

Families are catered for in these parts, with such Disneyesque attractions as Val Jalbert, an early 20th-century pulp mill and model workers' village built round a waterfall and partially restored for tourist overnights, and Site Nouvelle France, a set for the period film Black Robe that was later converted into 17th-century Quebec City. In both, visitors are greeted by frolicsome actors in ancestor-wear performing yesteryear routines.

The Centre for Conservation of Boreal Biodiversity is a posh name for a posh zoo. Until the mid-1990s, it was an ordinary zoo, with giraffes and elephants and lions, but they have now been repatriated and replaced with native species. Some are displayed on an island site, divided into compounds and aviaries, with pride of place going to polar bear sisters, ingeniously housed so that you can see them above and below the water. Equally large but less deadly animals roam free in a 355 hectare (877 acre) park. Visitors trundle along the 7km trail in an iron wagon, spotting moose, bear, lynx and bison in cunningly contrived forest, mountain and prairie habitats at distances that make photography easy.

The Saguenay river flows from Lac Saint-Jean to the dramatic fjord that connects it to the St Lawrence river. I stopped at Cap Jaseux to try the D'Arbre en Arbre adventure zone, a test of balance and nerve involving various forms of high-rise swinging and swaying between the trees. Children aged eight and over who measure at least 4ft start on the easiest course, while older, taller people can take their pick of four challenges graded from "découverte" to "sans limite", designed to strike the required degree of terror into every heart.

The road beside it ends at Tadoussac, a small port dominated by a sparkling scarlet hotel overlooking a bay full of whales. Tourists flock to see them, craning over the rails of the boats to be first to spot the elusive humps hundreds of metres away. "Yes, yes, there, over there," they cry, in the manner of whale-watchers everywhere. "Oh, no, maybe not..." Never mind. The sun sparkling on the St Lawrence, as broad as a sea at this point, makes for a lovely morning on the water. Whales could only be a bonus.

Comments