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The first thing a visitor from southern Canada might notice about Cumberland House is the almost complete absence of commerce. There’s no Tim’s, no car dealership, no dentist’s office, no strip mall and no service garage. The buildings along the main street look abandoned. The second thing you notice is the mud. The soupy clay that covers the unpaved streets here paints every vehicle the same khaki shade and splatters the lower walls of houses in this remote village on the Saskatchewan River, 450 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic. Hydrologic, land cover, elevation and road data provided by Geobase®

Welcome to the true North. Cumberland House, Sask., population 2,200, is mostly typical of a thousand First Nations villages across the North. However, it’s the oldest permanent settlement in Western Canada, British explorer Samuel Hearne having founded the town in 1774. Like Montreal, it’s an island community. And most importantly, it’s at the centre of a unique North American wilderness that’s as vast as it is unknown, as rich as it is threatened.

At 10,000 square kilometres, the marshes surrounding Cumberland House form the largest inland river delta in North America — the Saskatchewan River Delta. One of most biologically diverse places in Canada, the delta is more than 80 per cent wetland, which makes it a veritable water bird factory. Yet you’ll have a hard time finding anyone on the streets of Saskatoon or Regina — affluent cities that draw power and water from the very same river — who has ever heard of it. Even the Canadian government has no official name for this wilderness that’s nearly the size of the Mississippi River Delta.

Sadly, the flow of water that gives life to the marsh is gradually diminishing. Humans divert an ever-increasing share — to the lawns of southern cities, for expanding irrigation and industry. Scientists predict that climate change could reduce levels far more. What flows remain are interrupted by hydro dams that play havoc with downstream ecosystems. The only real stewards of the delta are the impoverished citizens of Cumberland House.

I’ve come north to glimpse this great wilderness and the challenges facing those who inhabit it. I start at the town hall, a windowless, metal-clad building where Mayor Andy McKay is finishing the last full day of his term before the next election. He doesn’t seem hopeful about either his re-election or the future of the delta. “With this marsh we could have ecotourism, maybe a national park,” McKay says. “The rest of Canada could experience it.” But the capital and initiative needed to develop such a grand solution is unimaginable locally. “There isn’t any plan right now. We’d have to have hotels, motels, restaurants and things like that.”

Then there’s Highway 123, one of the main sources of frustration in Cumberland House. The cheap crushed rock used to surface the route shreds tires. The road is so high and the ditches so treacherous that visiting doctors from nearby Nipawin, about a 160-kilometre drive to the southwest, avoid it by flying in. “We’re the oldest settlement in Western Canada,” McKay says, “and we’re still driving on a gravel road.”

First Nations towns such as Cumberland House perennially struggle for most basic amenities that many Canadians take for granted — such as safe roads. Well-meaning southerners commonly float the idea that First Nations people are the rightful stewards of nature in Canada. And perhaps they are. But practical stewardship takes money and power, and there is little of that in Cumberland House.

There are some positive things that are happening,” says Gary Carriere, as we drive toward the river. “There wouldn’t be if I didn’t do a bit of screaming.” If there’s a warrior for the delta in Cumberland House, it’s Carriere, a village councillor and hunting outfitter, who has offered to take me out on the water. He’s a friendly bear of a man, quick to flash a gap-toothed smile, his Swampy Cree accent very strong. But his grin disappears when it comes to the delta.

For 32 summers, he’s provided logistical support to the international cadre of scientists who make the delta their living laboratory. Canadian scientists have been late to the party, says Carriere, adding that the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security only recently allocated research funding to this part of the river because he pressured them. “It doesn’t take science to know the delta is dying,” he says. “But without science, the government won’t listen.”

As we head upstream in Carriere’s aluminum skiff, the river quickly becomes an incomprehensible maze. Poplar and willow colonize the low, muddy channel banks, and tall, dense, manhigh cane grass cloaks the foreshore. It’s a chilly October day, freeze-up less than a month off, and the only other people on the water are local duck hunters. The pop of their shotguns will follow us all day on the marsh.

Like every resident that I’ve met here, Carriere blames SaskPower’s upstream dams for the delta’s problems, particularly the nearby E.B. Campbell Dam. Hydroelectric dams kill downstream wildlife by turning natural flow patterns upside down. A free-running river has its heaviest flows in spring and summer. A dam stores this vital summer water in the reservoir, then dumps it through the turbines in mid-winter when electricity demand is highest. Carriere points to a muskrat nest. “That muskrat doesn’t know that by January he’ll be under ice,” he says, adding it’s the same for most aquatic life, which cannot adapt to heavy flows after freeze-up.

In 2004, after years of complaints from Cumberland House residents, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans ordered SaskPower to establish a minimum water flow of 75 cubic metres per second. That has helped, Carriere notes, but the dam still traps the nutrient-rich sediments upon which the delta ecosystem depends, and he sees no easy solution to that problem.

“We created a monster, and we don’t know what to do with it now,” he says, noting that the combination of lower flows and less sediment means the main channels cut deeper, leaving the side channels high and dry.

Solomon Carriere checks his traps

Carriere mourns the trapping livelihood he says the dam cost him. As snow begins to fall, he shows me how a bent willow was used to trap muskrat — he once took close to 100 a year himself. He mourns the commercial fishery that once filled southbound trucks with goldeneye and sturgeon. And above all, he mourns the vanishing moose population. Once teeming with one or two moose per square kilometre, by 2003 densities were down to about one animal per five square kilometres, or fewer than 2,500 moose total, and anecdotal evidence suggests a further drop since. Fire suppression has expanded forested areas of the delta, accelerating its drying out. Less wetland means less moose forage, and more terrestrial predators — First Nations hunters among them. Carriere, however, scoffs at the notion that local over-hunting has been a problem, as scientists and many locals have suggested.

“They’ve been saying First Nations hunting is killing off the moose,” he says. “This is a small town. When someone kills a moose, everyone knows about it within an hour.” He estimates that Cumberland House villagers take perhaps 30 moose a year.

At one point we switch vessels, climbing aboard Carriere’s airboat to go ripping through the marsh of Cumberland Lake, scaring up fat migrating ducks. It’s an exhilarating, noisy ride. Carriere bought the boat in Florida. He admires Everglades tourism, and would be glad to make the switch from hunting to ecotourism. I try to imagine tourism in the delta’s swamps. In high summer, it would be verdant, jumping with northern pike, but also swarming with mosquitoes and blackflies, with dry camping places in short supply. It wouldn’t be for everyone. And a park would collide with First Nations treaty hunting rights. Carriere says he would relinquish hunting if the delta became a national park, but he admits many would fight such a move.

When it comes to scientific knowledge of the delta, probably no one has more than Norm Smith, a University of Nebraska geologist who has made studying the ecosystem his life’s work. For nearly 30 years, Smith has contracted Carriere for logistical fieldwork support. The two have become good friends and each, in his own way, is passionate about saving the delta, though as a man of science Smith stops short of saying the delta is “dying.” “People who are old enough can remember when water levels were much higher,” Smith says. “They can remember swimming off a rock that’s now in the middle of a field. I can see how that looks like dying to Gary.”

Smith’s own assessment is nonetheless bleak. “The reality is simply less water. There is about 30 per cent less flow in the last hundred years.” Roughly a metre deep over much of its surface, Cumberland Lake freezes virtually to the bottom in winter, so the teeming walleye and whitefish populations have been wiped out. Muskrat, which depend on spring freshets that no longer arrive because of the dam, have also vanished. Tumultuous spring ice drives that used to bulldoze fresh delta channels are also gone, allowing noxious non-aquatic invaders such as Canada thistle to take root.

Like Carriere, Smith sees some form of park protection — provincial or national — as the only hope for the delta. But as for safeguarding its entire 10,000-square-kilometre area, the upstream thirst is too great. “Within 30 years there will probably be more power dams,” he says. “And I can’t imagine people upstream in the Saskatchewan basin demanding less, deciding they’re going to forgo a nice irrigated crop or whatever, just so there can be water in the delta.”

Solomon Carriere rows to The Pas, Manitoba

“WE THINK WE HAVE A GOOD RELATIONSHIP [with Cumberland House],” says Robert Watson, president of SaskPower, the Crown agency that runs the E.B. Campbell Dam. In response to a request for an interview, Watson has called back with no less than three of his vice-presidents on the line, plus a public relations staffer. “I don’t know of any issues we have with them.”

That seems like a blithe assessment of the 50 years of often bitter acrimony between SaskPower and the delta residents since the dam once called Squaw Rapids opened. In 1988-89, SaskPower and the province paid more than $20 million to settle with delta residents who sued over the irreparable damage the dam caused to their livelihoods and the ecosystem. The 2004 minimum water-flow agreement came after years of Cumberland House complaints. Power outages, ironically, are frequent in the village, leading to yet more complaints.

Watson and his deputies are quick to list SaskPower’s good works in the region. It funds research into downstream wildlife impacts, such as fish strandings, donates to Ducks Unlimited and co-founded the Saskatchewan River Sturgeon Management Board.

Asked to specify the dollar value of the electricity produced at the 280-megawatt dam, they say they don’t keep track of such a figure. They take pains to point out that water flow through the dam is regulated not by SaskPower but by another branch of government altogether, the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency. Watson makes one point repeatedly, however: whatever decrease in water flows the future may bring, SaskPower will demand no more power from the river. “If it goes down, then we’ll have to deal with that by producing power somewhere else in the grid. We don’t have intentions to impact the river anymore.”

“Kids are afraid to go out there now,” Renée Carriere says, gesturing at the dark forest on the other side of the windshield as the cold rain turns Highway 123 into a maze of potholes. Somewhere in the gloom ahead, we hope to rendezvous with her husband, Solomon Carriere, for a trip into the wild heart of the delta where they make their unusual home.

The Carrieres (no relation to Gary Carriere) are among the delta’s staunchest defenders. Renée Carriere’s tireless lobbying of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was instrumental in winning the 2004 guaranteed minimum water flows from E.B. Campbell Dam. Like almost every area resident I’ve spoken to, she talks about the need to reconnect kids to the land if the delta is to have defenders in the future. Unlike most, she’s positioned to do something about it. A self-described land-based educator, she teaches at Cumberland House’s public school and makes it her mission to get children deep into nature.

Twice she has led school students on 32-day paddling trips from the river’s glacier source in the Rockies to Cumberland House. The kids, none of whom had ever spent a night outdoors, started out fearful, some overweight. By the time they reached home, their bodies had hardened up, their fears of the wild softened.

She says people have no idea how cut off from nature northern First Nations kids have become in the modern era, when subsistence means shopping at the local Northern Store and hunting and fishing have become mere pastimes. “How can the delta provide a living in the future? We can see it’s not going to be hunting. Hunting is on its last legs.”

It’s nearly dark and the rain has turned to snow by the time we find Solomon, sheltering under a spruce by the riverbank, grinning from beneath his dripping hood. “Even though we live in this isolated place, we get to meet so many people,” he says as we transfer our gear to his skiff. The Carrieres, who are licensed hunting outfitters transitioning to adventure tourism, live at a bend in the river called Big Eddy, 51 kilometres upstream of Cumberland House, about halfway between the village and the dam. We climb aboard the boat and race off into the teeth of the north wind. I can hardly open my eyes to the stinging sleet, yet Solomon somehow follows the river’s ever-shifting deepwater channel in the dusk while avoiding treacherous drift logs set loose by the unpredictable surges from the dam.

When we come ashore at Big Eddy, I see six sleeping cabins, some sheds, three privies and a modest dining lodge, the latter lit up via generator, mainly for my benefit. Despite being the closest delta habitation to E.B. Campbell Dam, Big Eddy has no connection to the grid.

Inside, the Carriere’s 22-year-old daughter, Michela, nods a greeting. She’s taking a year off from studying at the University of Saskatchewan, working as the camp cook. She has a rich beef stew waiting, plus bannock, and apple and cherry pie. “I was out in the real world,” she says. “It was pretty scary being around so many people, so much commotion.” She grew up here with an older brother and sister, who have both moved south. A fourth sibling, Jacqueline, died of cancer just short of her third birthday, and is buried not far from the back door. Michela’s biggest complaint with urban life is its sedentary, indoor quality. “Kids my age, hardly any of them even go outside.”

Michela is interested in the delta’s medicinal plants, and reviving women’s traditional roles in gathering them. She hopes Big Eddy can transition one day into some kind of natural healing centre. There is, she says, a powerful healing to be found just by being in nature.

Solomon is a fan of National Film Board documentaries about traditional ways, especially the 1974 film Cree Hunters of Mistassini, which portrays the trapping life his parents knew. “It’s moving to see that, because I’ve only heard stories about that way of life,” he says. “Those people were all happy. Everyone had a job.”

Nonetheless, he believes that clinging to old ways of relating to the land hold his people back. Unlike Gary Carriere, Solomon blames year-round over-hunting in an era of powerful boats, quads and snowmobiles for the depletion of local game, the moose especially. “It’s the relentless hunting pressure. I haven’t harvested a moose myself in five years because there aren’t any. I eat out of a grocery store.”

Demoralized by their historical losses, he says, his people have a hard time protecting what they still have while embracing change. “It’s a delta. It’s always evolving. You can’t turn back. I’m trying to get as much experience as I can with the delta the way it is now.”

Solomon has begun recording his delta life on video, posting to YouTube under the name kingsolvideo. He wants to make a full documentary someday. The job is not to fight for a delta that was, he says. It’s to fight for the delta that is, for the time that it’s in his care, for the brief span of a human life.

Solomon weeps as he tells me the story of burying his daughter. It was March 15, 1990, and her remains had been brought from Saskatoon by a ski plane. He carried her along the path that he’d lined with spruce boughs to a small grave he’d dug. “It’s a good place here,” Solomon says. “But it’s only our place in the way it was our parents’ place, just as it was Jacqueline’s place, for the time that we are here.”

Ducks fly over the Saskatchewan River Delta. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)

Village councilor and hunting outfitter Gary Carriere has provided logistical support to scientists studying the delta. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)

Cumberland House residents believe that the E.B. Campbell Dam is to blame for many of the Saskatchewan River Delta's current ecological problems. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)

Gary Carriere stands outside his hunting lodge. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)

Solomon Carriere paddles through a marsh near his home. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)

Michela Carriere, pictured with her father Solomon at their home, is taking a year off university to work as the camp cook. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)