My earliest memory is of my father, my uncle and myself canoeing across Lac La Ronge while I ate sunflower seeds between the gunwales and sent the shells spinning into the eddies of my father’s paddle strokes.
Some places make me feel at home; some places make me feel like a stranger. There is one place where I feel like both. Imagine that: it’s an uncomfortable feeling. Imagine: being on the fringe of belonging to a place, where some people are in, others are out, and you’re somewhere in the hazy bits in between. La Ronge, Saskatchewan is that place for me. Like an unrequited love between two people, I have a love for the place, and while the place doesn’t not love me, (it’s a place after all), I can’t help but feel that if the north were a person, it would merely tolerate me. Six hours north of where I call home, is a place that is indelibly part of me but which I cannot call my own. My extended family lives here, but coming from the south, I sometimes feel I need to remake myself to fit this place; to make myself worthy of its unreciprocated love.
The town of La Ronge is a northern community in the boreal forest and Canadian Shield of the province of Saskatchewan, on the shore of Lac La Ronge. Taking its name from the French verb “ronger” (“to chew” – most likely from the prolific beaver chewings of that abundant northern resident), the name fits a place established by chewing itself into existence from the harsh landscape into a hardscrabble settlement of fur trading parentage and voyageur idylls. Canadian history books would have you believe that the fur trade is dead – killed off by the anti-fur movement and the ignorance of southerners. In the north, the fur trade continues and the people of La Ronge and the surrounding area, although they may be outside of the fur trade directly, are indirectly affected by it.
Maybe it’s the simpler notion of living with the land that makes me love the north. Likely it’s also this essential fur trade that makes me feel on the fringe of actual belonging as I wonder if I’d measure up to the rougher realities of life in the north. Every winter, we make a journey to La Ronge, to celebrate the New Year with our family. Every year I make a mental list of the things I love about the place. La Ronge is permeated with the smell of wood smoke. That’s what winter smells like to me. La Ronge rings with the calls of ravens, a bird which has always held my interest as a tricky, adaptable creature, and beautiful too. Northerners call them scavengers. Yesterday I saw a raven the size of a small dog breaking into a tub of becel in the Co-op parking lot. On a previous trip I saw one flying down La Ronge Avenue with a pizza box grasped in its beak. True story.
I love the stillness of the night. I love that you can count on snow. I love the sound the trees make as they rub against one another. I love the shades of greys that delineate islands from the frozen lake, rocks, trees and horizon. I love that the perfect circle my coffee cup made in the snow on the deck banister is investigated but untouched by the squirrel that left its tracks around it, as though it knows that the circle, like me, is unnatural in this place. When I stand alone in the north, I feel how I suppose Canadian explorers felt when they traded through and eventually settled this place. I see the landscape as a character in the writings of the Canadian north, just as authors of Canadian literature have for years – willing to tolerate your presence, and also completely able to obliterate you. In the words of the Hudson’s Bay Company “Pro Pelle Cutem”, the north demands sacrifice – a skin for a skin, and probably your own. John Donne once wrote that “[n]o man is an iland, intire of it selfe…”, but I’d ask you to consider this anew in the north.
My grandfather was the pioneer writer, editor and publisher of the La Ronge newspaper, aptly named, The Northerner. Part of my appreciation of the north lays here I suppose. A man of words, of art and intellect, my grandfather lived through The Northerner as other men lived through the war. It defined his purpose in the north. Through his diligence, The Northerner was brought forth, lived and remains, although today, sadly, it is a pitiable rag unreflective of what the north means to the northern people. If my life in the south ever falls irreparably apart, I will come north, repair myself and repair The Northerner. North of myself, is the self I could be – the sacrificial lamb of my southern skin for a tougher northern one.
Two days hence I will begin the journey south, to my home on the plains and await the next New Year when I find myself north of myself once again.
All photos by MacKenzie Kulcsár