A Northern Ontario Christmas Story by Ronn Hartviksen

Encampment by Ronn Hartviksen
Encampment by Ronn Hartviksen
Encampment by Ronn Hartviksen
Encampment by Ronn Hartviksen (1979)

THUNDER BAY – LIVING – A trapper, called Blair, made it to his cabin on Christmas Eve deep within a distant First Nations timberline. He scraped clumps of ice from his boots as he drew either foot across the texture of his quartz doorstop. Inside, he gave a rope a tug. It served as an interior handle.

Blair pulled the door flush with its frame sealing the warmth within his lodge against the chill of December.

He lifted pelts from a back pack. Set them beneath his favourite cabin view, his thermal window to the west. What British first settlers called ‘a sundowner window.’

While bending he peeled a toque from his long hair. Rubbed a cloth across his goatee to wipe away ice pellets and crusted snow. He paused watching a mellow, buttery sun slip beneath a timberline glazed in ice like a honey dipped doughnut.

Beautiful birds glided across a sky of colours as assorted as Neapolitan ice cream. These were pileated woodpeckers , or ‘’pahpasay, ” as Blair called them imitating their natural tap-tap with their beak drilling, searching for food in tree bark. The birds would tuck in wings, then, drift through air like giant black darts settling in branches of ancient trees.

How his ancestors loved those vibrant red feathers in their dancing head dresses in summer. Inside his kitchen, he unbuttoned a Davidson plaid parka where the aroma of spruce boughs matting the floor mingled in the air with cedar, sweetgrass and wild ginger from the medicinal root basket suspended above where he cooked. Anxious for a cup of tea, he went through the motions of kindling his woodstove and was soon glad in recognizing brilliant nectarine and lemon flames flickering up from the morning’s embers. He mused, to himself, about a magic time when mankind first harnessed fire.

Thus beginning the timeless craft of one flint chip against another in sparking new warmth into aboriginal ingenuity. He recalled his grandfather Lazarus the legendary storyteller formerly speaking of the wonderful warrior known as Joshua Childs-Forever whose deeds were so many. So many heroic adventures. So many in fact the Great Creator Spirit witnessing this legendary brave perish in his last battle turned the warrior’s blood to flint chips so his nation would always have enough “friction-making matches” wherever they traveled. Forever and ever not only an ignition technique but besides a metaphor for Joshua’s name.

Blair scooped a few cups of snowy water from the galvanized pail nestled at the base of the stove. In no time the water pot was receiving Blair’s gentle tossing of a tea bag from where he was stationed right next to the radio. Blair had acquired a passion listening to their arctic radio station. Not long ago he’d met the radio manager at the village Band Hall when an autumn pouring of rain had the two pausing waiting for a break to hike on. The young manager was very keen on what listeners would like to hear.

By luck a song Blair had submitted came on. The melody, he’d memorized, came in English: for…he sends his love a sign from above, on the wings of a dove

The voice made him think of a young woman whom Blair saw at the Outpost Learning Centre.

A thriving educational station Blair would get to by snowshoeing after leaving the lower quarters of the big river. The girl’s mother loved songs by Waylon Jennings. So much so she gave her daughter the invented name of Waylona and had her christened with the uniqueness of that invented name.

Blair poured tea as he made supper. And just this summer he received a dreamcatcher hand woven by Waylona. Designed over what his people called “long time.” The webbing woven on a deer horn. Inter-connecting with birch spun flexible as a sapling. The creation used deer sinew, caribou, and rabbit hides amalgamated into a stunning work of art.

Blair had been awed by the kindness Waylona showed in presenting this treasure to him on an evening when the elders were storytelling round a fire. For the spiritual act of storytelling Blair came to know was from every land. From every denomination. A human thread of talking and telling from all nations on earth.

Their messages sounding clear as a native drum with profound insights. In borrowing books from the Educational Library he cherished a favourite story by Rudyard Kipling, the Nobel Prize Winner, and his narrative of How The Whale Got Its Throat. Blair was immersed in thought about the books he appreciated completing over this Last season. Carl Ray’s The Sacred Legend Of My People, They Came Here First by D’Arcy… when a hymn came on the aboriginal station: ‘Twas in wintertime mighty GitchiManitou Sent angel choirs He recognized the Huron Carol once taught to him by his inner clan. Within a lodge of broken bark The tender Babe was found A Holy Child Is born…Brings You Peace and Joy. Your King is born… Excelsis !

Blair dimmed his kerosene lamp. Gazed through the frosted glass of his sundowner. A full moon was glowing peacefully. Everything around held such promise. An absolute new and refreshing start to tomorrow he wanted to imagine. In his cot Blair pulled the sleeping blanket over his frame. Fell fast asleep. Confident this snowy landscape would bring the best of all worlds in the musical metaphor of the Huron carol. With a fresh purpose to come. Inside the clear light dawning on Christmas day.

While the pileated birds, his closest neighbours, would be spectacular again flying freely across the tundra of Wintertime.

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