Our Environment, Our History
Hunter Gatherers in Northern Ontario
Curated by Cathy Wilson
Storyteller: Larry Wiwchar
June 19, 2023
Although my ancestors, the native peoples of Western Ukraine, stopped significant hunting long ago; we, as the second generation born in Northern Ontario, have enriched our food supply by continuing the tradition of fishing, hunting, and gathering.
Fish, moose, deer, and fowl have enriched our diets with an organic bounty. Our family began gathering food by moose hunting while my son was not yet one year old. Later he and his young sister used nets to catch huge buckets full of red suckers. We filleted them late into the night and preserved them in glass sealers with ketchup for colour and vinegar to dissolve the bones. Thus, they had imitation salmon on homemade bread for lunches at school. Recently, about the time of my December birthday, we netted herring at a local lake. They were great eating and we saved a few for pike and lake trout bait. I hope to land some whitefish this year for smoking.
I have long gathered berries, even as a child in the 1950’s. This year, the family had a record harvest of almost a hundred litres of berries. They were mostly haskap berries, raspberries, saskatoon berries and then late blueberries.
Our hunting has been very successful over the years, as it has been for many families. To say the process was a learning experience would be an understatement. On one occasion in 1971, we were blessed with a fresh snowfall to track a young bull moose. We began walking through the calf-deep fresh snow and soon came upon yesterday’s tracks of a moose which had been feeding upon the succulent post-harvest poplar saplings. The young bull had bedded down after browsing. That meat was a great blessing to our young family.
I remember a tale told to me by a senior trapper friend up in the Lorraine Valley sugar bush, located along Highway 567 at the headwaters of the Ottawa River and Lake Temiskaming. While enjoying the shore near their cabin, he and his wife noticed an unusual image on the lake that was approaching them. Eventually they saw that it was a wolf on the back of a moose, and that the moose was frantically swimming toward people on the shore. How would a moose have known that proximity to humans would frighten the wolf away? Soon the wolf freed the moose from its jaws.
I recounted this story to my friend Paul McDonald (b. 1935). He then told a story of the moose that came to his firewood-cutting operations south of his home in Latchford. At times as many as seven moose were feeding on the succulent branches from the felled trees. Though Paul worried that the falling mature maple and yellow birch trees might hit them, the moose felt secure in his presence from predators and enjoyed their feast.
I cherish Paul’s many stories and the precious moments that we’ve spent together.
I had bought my first rifle in Latchford, as had Paul. Mine was a 303 British Lee Enfield with a sporting stock. I lost the bolt when using the rifle as a reaching assist on the ice to rescue a desperate fellow hunter immersed in the frigid waters of a beaver pond. Acquired in 1956, from George Shaw the mill Forman, Paul’s rifle was a 300 Savage; unique in that it could be taken apart, separating the stock from the barrel. It went missing from his shack in Latchford, where folks need not lock their homes. It was returned to his wall rack three years later.
That was not the first time his rifle was taken. While living in Wawa, Paul was amazed that other hunters did not stop driving, upon seeing two moose. Paul fired and, thinking that he had missed the cow, dropped the calf, only to hear thereafter the cow’s last breaths. Paul was able to eviscerate both animals before fetching a friend for his assistance and his tag, authorizing the hunting of moose. Besides, two moose were too much meat for one household. They returned to load most of the meat into the friend’s truck, and the remainder on Paul’s Volkswagen Beatle roof.
Once home, Paul realized that he had left his pack and rifle behind. When he returned to the scene, the rifle was gone. Upon sharing the story with the chief ranger with whom he worked at the Department of Lands and Forest, (now MNR), he said that staff would be listening for a lead. A short time later, a man was heard bragging about the rifle at the local hotel. Paul went to the man’s home and offered him some moose meat; consequently, the man returned the rifle to Paul.
Before giving the restored rifle to his granddaughter Kyla, Paul lost the rifle again. This time it sunk to the bottom of the French River late in 1976 along with a huge bull elk he had killed and all his camping gear. The next May, Paul returned to the site with a home-made one hundred foot drag line. He fixed a piece of chain every few feet with the largest triple hooks he could get. His belongings were 85 feet down. Everything including the rifle was retrieved including the elk meat that had spoiled. Since then, his granddaughter Kyla has shot a ten-point buck with the rifle, and an eight-point deer with a bow. Paul is so proud of her hunting talent, a rare trait today.
Many people, fit for the challenge, still self-provision in rural Northern Ontario. Hunting, fishing, berry picking, mushroom gathering, and gardening continue the tradition of self-reliance practiced by our Ukrainian ancestors and are relevant in our new homes in Canada. During a visit to Western Ukraine in 2017 with my two adult children, we enjoyed our distant cousins’ harvest. Together we feasted on wonderfully delicious food, as they expressed their concerns for the future. They laid before us preserved fruit and fish in jars, and root vegetables mixed with fresh cream and cheese. Though it was mid-May, their root-cellar shelves were still one third full, and they had already begun to plant potatoes and grains on their ancient lands.
We are proud of and continue the self-reliant heritage of our ancestors.