Author David Treuer has written a book about his childhood home on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

Jean Luc Bertini,

Exploring North Woods and beyond as the Ojibwe did

  • By EMILY BRENNAN New York Times
  • December 22, 2012 - 1:56 PM

In his nonfiction book "Rez Life," David Treuer offers an affecting portrait of his childhood home, Leech Lake Indian Reservation, and his people, the Ojibwe.

Before sitting down to write the book, he visited small reservations across the vast lake-pocked marshlands of Minnesota, North Dakota, Ontario and Manitoba, many of which are inaccessible by road (except ice roads). So he traveled to them by canoe or trekked them by foot -- just as the Ojibwe had once done in search of game, berries and wild rice. "We traveled the way our people traveled for centuries," Treuer said of one canoe journey, "with a few technological advances like space-age Gore-Tex."

Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Treuer on canoeing and trekking across Ojibwe country.


Q What's the best time of year to explore Leech Lake?

A The thing about northern Minnesota, the land is almost impassable in the summer, so much of it is swamp or lakes or rivers. When ice comes -- this is what people say back home -- everybody turns into Jesus because everyone can walk on water. The cabin fever people imagine where you're holed up in your house -- it's the opposite: Winter is finally when you can go anywhere. You can go by snowmobile and do those kinds of winter sports. Or you can explore by going snowshoeing or skiing without a destination or purpose. I do trapping, set snares for rabbits where they might be. They like brushy, logged-over areas. The less majestic, the better.

Q What about exploring other reservations?

A In the winter, you can go by ice road -- if you've seen the show "Ice Road Truckers," you know what I'm talking about -- but better still is by canoe come June or July. Along the Berens River, whose headwaters start at Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, are quite a few First Nations, as they're called in Canada. Very small communities like Poplar Hill, Pikangikum, Little Grand Rapids. We pulled ashore there once after paddling for two weeks. They had one little store, no hotels, no casinos, no public works. They don't get many visitors, especially that old way of pulling up in a canoe, so they were very glad to see us.

Q Any suggestions for canoe areas?

A If you have no experience, you should start in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. The lakes aren't too big, and the rivers aren't too wild, and it's well preserved. Incredibly beautiful, but a bit too crowded for our tastes. If you want to take it up a notch, the Bloodvein River in Ontario is a good 2.0 trip. It's a big river with big rapids, so you'll have to know how to land and portage your canoe before you get swept down into the rapids.

Q Any rivers for the truly adventurous?

A The Thlewiaza River from Nueltin Lake in Nunavut to Hudson Bay. You have to take a floatplane there. There are no trees, it's above the tree line, which ran against every instinct in my being; our tribe is a woodland tribe. Plus it's hard to build fires. The wind is constant. It sleeted and snowed when we were there in July.

Q The Ojibwe were known for their birch bark canoes. What kind do you use?

A Because they make phenomenal canoes and I was pre-kid then, I bought a canoe from Bell Canoe Works years ago. And I still have it.

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