Tasting fire in Lac La Biche

Lac La Biche
Photographer
Jeremy Derksen

Tasting fire in Lac La Biche

Bushcraft workshops ignite natural wonder, belonging

Jeremy Derksen for ZenSeekers’ #TakeItToTheLake expedition

LAC LA BICHE, AB - Ever eaten a fire ant? That’s the question Dragan Uzelac has posed to Maranda Cardinal and her friend Taissya Reutov. The two women pause, unsure if Uzelac is joking. He’s not.

Uzelac has found a colony of the little red arthropods swarming over a cache of firewood near the shores of Shaw Lake, near Lac La Biche. Both women decline. But in the interests of investigative journalism, I figure it’s my duty.

Uzelac hands me a piece of tinder to use as an ant popsicle stick, and then offers one word of advice: “All I can tell you is, bite them before they bite you.”

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Like biting into a ripe, full grape, the ant pops in my mouth, and flavours of lemon and cayenne hit my tongue. It’s far tastier and less crunchy than I expected. That’s just the first in a day full of bushcraft surprises delivered in Uzelac’s humble, reverent and ironic style.

Humility, fear and an ensuring sense of wonder, it would seem, are the origins of Uzelac’s bush education, which eventually led him to become the owner and operator of Niko Wilderness Education. “When I was 20, 21 … I got separated from a hunting party,” he recalls. “There I was, middle of nowhere, lost, all the onsets of panic hit. Eventually, I got back safely but that’s when I decided I was going to learn everything I could about nature. How did the trappers do it? How did the indigenous people do it? From there I just went down the rabbit hole.”

Lac La Biche
Photographer
Jeremy Derksen

Paddling Shaw Lake on a dreamy summer day.

Uzelac’s passion for nature exploration is infectious. Cardinal and Reutov eagerly soak up his instruction. Paddling down Shaw Lake, zig-zagging, they work to master the J-stroke and alternate side paddling. When it comes to portaging, things go more smoothly. Under Uzelac’s guidance, they smoothly flip the canoe over onto their shoulders on the first try.

Next, we head off into the bush to collect the makings of bush tea. Along the way, we find witch’s butter, a neon orange fungus that wiggles like Jell-o when Cardinal pokes it. Once enough firewood and supplies have been collected, the next step is fire-making.

Lac La Biche
Photographer
Jeremy Derksen

Dragan Uzelac teaches us the art of making a fire. 

With a quickly crafted bow, a spindle and a piece of wood, Uzelac plays a bush symphony and soon kindles an ember. Cradling it in the inner bark shavings of a poplar, he nurses the ember into a flame. Bunchberry, chaga, rosehip and mint soon simmer in a pot over the fire.

The light softens as we sip tea together. Slowly, laughter calms to reverence, reflecting on all the lake and the forest has offered us this day.

We’re all reluctant to go, but nature’s distillery is slow and learning bushcraft is thirsty work. La Bones Pub and Restaurant in Lac La Biche, a local go-to, is the perfect setting for telling tall tales (owner and master chef Brian Laboucane has been known to share one or two of his own from time to time, over the 10 years he’s run the place). 

Lac La Biche
Photographer
Jeremy Derksen

Pizza, steak and a sharing bowl of crab legs at La Bones is an excellent way to end the day in Lac La Biche

La Bones is known for great pizza and steak, but Laboucane has a special love for preparing seafood. We’re greeted with a communal bowl of crab legs set out on the bar, and the mussels that he whips up would put to shame many more pretentious restaurants.

Quiet, modest mastery seems to connect our day in Lac La Biche; pomp and celebrity seem saved for the city. Here, whether bush or bar, it seems egos get checked at the trailhead. Life here is a little different, a little closer to nature and the real world beyond the screen. And that’s just the way Uzelac likes it.

“The more time I spend in nature, the more I find myself changing for the better as a person,” he says. “It soothes the soul… and I just love sharing that experience with everyone I can."

When You Go

Lac La Biche County will help you plan a #TakeItToTheLake adventure you won’t forget

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