Connecting with the earth and the past in Lac La Biche Region


Splitting cracks echo in the poplar woods around us, as John Ritchie and Winston and Christina Desjarlais break long sticks down to uniform size to begin the structural supports of a lean-to shelter. Using the sticks they form tripod supports, one on each end, to prop up the cross beam.

Building a basic survival shelter is a simple skill, but the knowledge of how to build one has declined in recent years - like so many outdoor skills. Ritchie’s mission is to restore connections with, and confidence being in, our natural environment.

Watch Connecting with the earth and the past in Beaver Lake on YouTube.

A former economic development expert in Edmonton, he felt a growing disconnect in the urban lifestyle. “Living in the city, some kids don’t even have the privilege of cutting grass,” Ritchie says. “That was my first job as a kid.”

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Of Metis descent, Ritchie has spent over a decade learning bushcraft and reconnecting with his cultural roots. At Hideaway Adventure Grounds, he channels that traditional knowledge to share with his guests.

Lac La Biche
Photo: Jeremy Derksen
Indigenous dancers at Beaver Lake.

“That’s why I like to have grass, open spaces, so people can get dirty, get their fingernails dirty again, get some of that positive energy back from Mother Earth,” he says. “Let the land heal us - if we give it a chance, it will.”

It was realizing the power of that connection and that heritage that led Ritchie to establish Hideaway Adventure Grounds on his ancestral lands at the Kikino Metis Settlement, just 20 minutes down the road from Beaver Lake.

Lac La Biche
Photo: Jeremy Derksen
Ritchie and Desjarlais complete their lean-to shelter.

He offers workshops, school programs and rustic camping experiences, with activities like making shelters, learning bushcraft or leatherworking. Just spending a few quiet hours here together, sun filtering through the tall poplars, is enough to feel that healing power.

Lac La Biche
Photo: Jeremy Derksen
Lunch with a lake view at Lac La Biche Golf Course.

By contrast, our lunch at the Lac La Biche Golf Course, with its modern comforts, lush rolling greens and lake views seems like a different world. But it is part of a journey, one that embraces the ancient and the modern, indigenous and settler.

At the intersection of those cultures is the Lac La Biche Mission. Founded in 1853, it is one of the oldest European missionary settlements - or settlements, period - in Alberta, and a designated Parks Canada national historic site.

Some say ghosts still wander here, among the old monastery buildings, the boarding school and grounds. It’s also one of the first places Winston brought Christina when she first moved here.

Canadian flag by Red River Cart at the Lac La Biche Mission
Photo: Jeremy Derksen
On the grounds of the Lac La Biche Mission.

That afternoon, we attend a pow wow at Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Winston’s home band. Wind carries the sound of distant drumming and high, ringing voices as we pass through the shadows of the covered stands and the sky opens up. Sun graces the meadows, and swirls of colour fly in all directions around the field as drums swell and surge and urge the dancers on.

As we watch, we’re met by Wally Sinclair, a local elder. I ask him why he feels it is important to share in the pow wow experience, both as indigenous and non-indigenous people. “We have a lot in common, when it comes to wellness, healing, working with our children, our youth, we have a lot to share with each other,” Sinclair says. “It brings a real connection. Your past is important.”

The dances and customs we witness at Beaver Lake are thousands of years in the making, the dust they raise up has been shuffled by these feet for centuries. Ghosts or not, the past in Lac La Biche is very much alive. Drumbeats and voices carried on the wind, dirt under the fingertips, meals shared with friends, it’s all a dance in the footsteps of our ancestors.


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