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People & Culture

Coppermine 2012: Expecting the best; preparing for the worst: A chef's guide

  • Jun 07, 2012
  • 532 words
  • 3 minutes
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It sounds incredible, but it’s true: some canoeists enjoy pulling 50-kilogram-plus boxes attached to their heads for several kilometres at a time.

This breed of canoeists prefers wannigans, wooden chests with leather straps made famous by French-Canadian fur traders, to dry bags (the term is borrowed from Ojibwa waanikaan, meaning “storage pit”). These boxes aren’t exactly the most durable or practical pieces of equipment; wannigans are prone to leaking if they’re submerged in water for long periods of time, and of course the wood itself can rot or splinter as it ages.

Turns out, being suckers for punishment — and tradition — my fellow expedition members and I are going to be packing not just one, but six wannigans made by canoe tripper Pete Gwyn for our 845-kilometre trip. Five will carry our cooking provisions, and one will be our travelling kitchen, with all the items necessary to dine in luxury. That includes a reflector oven for baking bannock and bread.

Yes, that’s right: we’re going to have freshly baked bread while we’re out in the bush.

If you still think we’re all nuts, I don’t blame you. Wannigans certainly take getting used to; I have spent the large majority of my summers since I was 12 paddling pristine lakes and fun technical rivers in northeastern Ontario. I didn’t always appreciate wannigans the way I do now. As a young man I would have to force my chin down so the leather strap attaching the box to my head wouldn’t slip off. I would find any reason I could think of to put down the box to rest and often tried to carry the lightest box of the group.

In fact, one classic mark of a rookie wannigan carrier is the “wannigan bite” you get on your back from the edge of the box carving into your flesh. Once the bite is established, it becomes part of your canoe tripping physique. After a long portage with a heavy load, you struggle to lift your neck, as it has been in a compressed position for so long.

After years of built-up muscle, I am no longer surprised by the weight of a wannigan. Now my chin stays down because I know the pain that will come if I twist my neck; I know that the energy spent picking the wannigan back up will exhaust me twice as much and I know that a pound I can carry is a pound that someone else who may be hurting doesn’t have to endure. Even so, the experience hardly seems worth it, until I remember why it is I want to carry these large boxes.

Wannigans can be handy after all. They have hard wooden sides to protect from the sharp edges of pots, pans and cookery. The lid acts as a convenient cutting board or playing surface for backgammon. It can also be a comfy alternative to sitting on the ground.

Most of all, though, it’s the thought of a big warm meal after travelling the land for a day, courtesy of the contents of my wannigan, that keeps me going.


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