Take a walk on the wild side in the Canadian wilderness of Manitoulin, the world’s largest freshwater island, where the First Nations people share their culture and traditions first-hand
It had been several hours since the sun dipped behind the tall pines to be replaced by the three-quarter moon that was our only source of light. Overhead, the light sweep of the Milky Way was clearly visible and the occasional shooting star cut across the surrounding dark canopy of the North Ontario night sky.
Our guide motioned us to be still and the resulting silence was punctuated by the mournful and haunting howl of a distant timber wolf. The guide cupped his hands to his mouth and emulated the cry. Twenty minutes later the wolf responded, now sounding as close as a next-door neighbour’s dog.
This was a talk on the wild side. Utilising skills passed down through generations our guide had learned to imitate the vocalisations of wolves, moose, bears, birds and other wild animals, originally used to aid the survival of a nation of ‘hunter gatherers’. Now, the unforgettable opportunity to go on a night-time wildlife-calling expedition is part of The Great Spirit Circle Trail on and around Manitoulin, the world’s largest freshwater island.
The indigenous First Nations people, or Anishnaabe, created the trail to enable visitors to experience their culture and traditions first-hand through art galleries and museums to astronomy, craft workshops, pow-wows and visits to ancient hunting and spiritual grounds. To the Anishnaabe tribes, Manitoulin is a sacred place and many Indian chiefs, leaders, warriors and the greatest medicine men and women are buried here.
Access to Manitoulin is via the original railway swing bridge, built in 1913 and for years manually operated. At the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M’Chigeeng, the modern ‘healing lodge’ has a central fireplace to replicate the traditional circular seating arrangement used by the First Nations. Our warm welcome involved a ceremony using the four sacred medicines - tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar.
In the afternoon, local youngsters, dressed in traditional regalia, joined elders in a pow-wow, an exuberant celebration of life and spirituality expressed through prayer, dance and music. Blessed before dancing, the arena is considered a sacred ground, and the introduction to pow-wow etiquette was a helpful explanation of ‘dos and don’ts’. It also illustrated that we were taking part in an historic custom and not just bystanders at a fake theme-park-style attraction. After the opening ceremony women in stunning dresses joined the young dancers. Many hours go into the intricate hand-made beadwork and a full set of regalia, often incorporating feathers and leather that are more than 100 years old, can take many years to complete.
After years of repression, when Indian agents separated children from their families and took them to residential schools to be ‘educated’, it is heartening to see many of the First Nation philosophies and ideals, including respect for the natural environment, have been embraced by mainstream society.
As part of the trail, members of the Ojibwe launched the eco-tourism project Endaa-aang, meaning ‘our place’. We stayed in solar-powered cabins on the island of East Rous, serenaded to sleep by the sound of chirruping crickets and waking to the sight of a film of mist over the deserted channel that separated us from Sucker Creek on the mainland. Those who want to really experience the outdoor life can sleep in a teepee.
Native languages have traditionally always been oral, rather than written, so the spoken word is revered and is the perfect way to hear legends and tales. One night, after the ultimate free-range meal of moose meat and wild rice, our Anishnaabe hosts entertained us with stories and songs around the smouldering embers of the campfire. In the morning we feasted on pancakes and thick, dark homemade maple syrup, a world away from the artificially sweetened product that masquerades under the same name in many supermarkets.
As Canada’s second largest province, Ontario really is the big country. With 250,000 lakes, some of them larger than the English Channel, 100,000 km of rivers and 70 per cent of the landscape covered by forest, the first impression is one of sheer scale. The urban sprawl of Sudbury, the regional gateway airport for Manitoulin, soon gives way to the river town of Espanola, where the huge pulp and paper mill dominates the skyline and its night-time lights have, rather inexplicably, become something of a tourist attraction. A few miles further on, dense forests, broken by glimpses of rivers and lakes, start to dominate the roadside view. A half-hour sightseeing flight enabled us to see the true isolation of Moose Lake - where we heard the wolves – and our Endaa-aang base from another perspective.
Over the years, the First Nations’ ethos has been to ‘listen and observe’, well beyond simply ‘hearing and seeing’. This was aptly illustrated during the moose-calling expedition, when our untrained ears initially failed to hear the language of the wilderness. After our guide imitated a moose cow a second time, we heard the snap of a branch followed by a series of whooshing noises and realised it was the sound of a responding young bull rubbing antlers against a tree to announce his presence.
Later, communicating with jerks of their heads and eyes sweeping left and right, the guides confirmed our pre-expedition talk. Wolves, who prey on moose, never travel alone. The initial human calls had alerted them and a pack of around eight had encircled us and we caught a glimpse of a spellbinding pair of eyes and flash of white ruff before the closest wolf vanished into the dense vegetation.
If you want to answer the call of the wild then Ontario really is a natural choice.
Flights with Air Canada from Heathrow to Sudbury, via Toronto, start from around £493 including taxes.
Two nights in an eco-lodge at Endaa-aang on Manitoulin island costs from £130 per person based on two sharing, and a night in a teepee costs a flat rate of £17.
Midnight hiking and wolf calling is organised in Gordon’s Park, Manitoulin Island and costs are around £8 per adult.