Voices of the Athabasca
Cleo Reese

I spoke with Jimmy Cree, a member of the Fort McMurray First Nation, this morning when I picked him up hitchhiking to Fort McMurray and he spoke about the time he spent as a trapper. He remembers many springs when he and other trappers would go beaver trapping along the banks of the Athabasca River. These river beaver would burrow into the banks and make their houses there. "Sometimes we would get 15 beavers in about two days." The beaver furs sold good then, when prices were better and they would smoke the meat for their own consumption or feed the many dogs that were around then. This was about 35 years ago in the early seventies. There are still beaver, but not many, and their habitat is increasingly threatened.

Violet Cheecham Clark is a Cree elder also from Gregoire Lake Reserve has a story about her grandfather Harry Cardinal. Harry Cardinal came from Saddle Lake in 1919 on a team of horses and drove them to the present town of Athabasca. There he built a barge, big enough for his horses and a cow. The journey stopped along the way to Fort McMurray at Pelican Rapids where he and his family homesteaded for three years. Two girls were born there, Mary and Cecile. The rapids were a formidable barrier to get downriver, so the boats and barges were hauled with rope by men on each side of the river and the animals walked along the side. When it was safe to do so, they would get back on the barge and away they would go. As a result of his stay, the Pelican Rapids stop is now part of the Fort McMurray First Nation reserve.

Violet also remembers how as a girl of ten she traveled on the paddlewheelers that plied their trade along the Athabasca to Fort Chipewyan and back. The journey was always easier traveling upstream than coming back as they had to fight the current. It was 1938 and she was going to the Holy Angels Residential School located in Fort Chipewyan. She remembers stopping along the way where the boat would replenish its supply of wood to keep the steam engines going. People would leave the wood along the banks of the river for easy access. She stayed at the residential school for four years, usually going home for the summer holidays.