In January, Rossland REAL Food’s sustainable conversation series featured Les Anderson’s fascinating tales of his childhood as the son of a game warden in the remote north of Saskatchewan.
Last week we described how, with no power and a supply plane only twice each year, Anderson’s family was utterly dependent on their garden, but what do you do if the garden fails?
“You start storing up meat,” he said. “And the people who knew how to store meat were the natives, so that’s who we turned to.”
The family’s only neighbours were a village of nomadic natives in hide huts a half mile down the creek. “Until I was maybe nine years old, I could speak better Cree than English,” Anderson said.
The natives showed them how to make pemican, a mixture of fat, berries, nuts, and grass roots which is high in protein.
“We ate lots of it,” he said. “That would carry through the winter.”
“They’d put in anything they caught: badger, porcupine, moose, buffalo, deer, anything that had meat.”
His mother would give out ice cream made from powdered milk. “They thought that was just great. They treated us like royalty.”
Anderson and his siblings wore moccasins the natives made, waterproofed with bear grease. “It’s the best waterproofing tallow there is,” he said.
The natives “could take incredibly cold temperatures” with grass instead of socks and clothing made of two layers of hides sewn together with the fur sides facing in towards each other.
“They could cook a skunk, and there was no smell,” he said, recalling how after pine nuts were harvested, the cones were used to flavour the broth.
“My dad was going to try it for us one day, so he caught a skunk, skinned it, cleaned it.” Anderson laughed, “Even when he brought it into the house we could smell it! He took one of Mum’s good pots to cook it. It wasn’t like the Indians did it, ‘cause that house was just nothing but skunk!”
The natives also showed Anderson’s family how to cook fish.
“Fish falls apart in an open fire, but they’d clean the fish and wrap it with clay.” Six or seven fish like this would be put into the fire hole. “They’d cool it off and break it open: You’d have a full fillet of fish with no skin at all!”
“We were living like people lived 200 years ago,” he said. “We didn’t see our first lightbulb until I was 11 years old, in 1951.”
He laughed, “We had no idea what a flush toilet was. I can remember the first time we saw it at the school that we went to. There was no way anybody was going to get me to put my butt over top of that thing: Get sucked down that hole! We didn’t know.”
Part of the family’s daily existence was living with wild animals.
“We had no fear of wild animals,” he said, because they understood the animals. “You don’t approach a male moose in the rutting season. A cow you don’t approach if she has a calf. And coyotes, they’re only dangerous if you have a small child with you.”
“The natives up there had never been touched by a bear. We had lots of bears around our place, and we were never touched by a bear. We grew up with them.”
Anderson illustrated peaceful coexistence with a story about a young bear who used to regularly hang out at his horseshoe pit, but who has since “vanished” without a trace.
“We have a big cherry tree in our yard. About two years ago, I was up in the tree on one side, on a big branch. I was sitting there kind of half asleep and the tree started to shake. Here was this young bear crawling up the tree!”
“It spotted me and it went to the other side of the tree, he continued. “The wife, [Violet,] took a picture of me on one side of the tree eating cherries, and the bear on the other side eating cherries!”
Stay tuned for the final installment of this series in next week’s paper.