26 November 2012

Tlicho canoe trip

It was one of those life-defining experiences, a rite of passage I heard my crew boss say. Eleven days by canoe...the trails of their ancestors...approximately 300 km from Behchoko to Wekweeti...through lakes and rivers mostly all upstream…and 48 portages. We were supposed to be traveling with the 11 other canoes that had left two days earlier, but somehow we ended up doing the entire trip alone…six of us in a lone canoe in the middle of nowhere. We had no gun. Our satellite phone had occasional reception at best, and we ran out of bear bangers days before the end. So when the second bear appeared, our crew boss hit a paddle to the stainless steel kettle to keep him at bay. That bear was staring right at us about 100 metres away, directly in our path. It always amazes me to see a bear..to remember we share the same planet.

It never got dark. The sun dipped below the horizon from about 1 to 4am, but it was always light. The sunsets and sunrises were spectacular; we paddled into many of them. The mosquitoes would come out at dusk. They were horrible. A bug jacket and extra deet couldn’t keep them away. Still, next to the majestic beauty of Canada’s north, of untouched land and silent song, they somehow became bearable.

Every year the Tlicho People have an assembly in one of their four communities. Most people will fly into the receiving one, but a hundred or so will paddle in, retracing the steps of their ancestors. I was the First Nation band manager (senior admin officer) in Wekweeti, the smallest and most isolated of those communities for several years a decade ago. Paddling into my old community was a real privilege, retracing the steps that so many of the elders, whom I’ve known well, had done so many times before. In the old days they would follow the caribou up to Wekweeti then return to Behchoko in the Summer to trade furs, gather together, and fish. They used birch bark canoes and later canvas; we had kevlar. We had an elder in our boat who told us many old-time stories throughout the journey, made us their delicious traditional bannock, and cooked the fish that we caught.

Our trip began with a bald eagle flying overhead. It felt like a good omen. I was given some tobacco from my friend to leave as offerings on the land and lakes we would be crossing, and I scattered a little every now and then, accompanied by prayer. Then one day as I was making my way across one of the longer portages with a heavy bag, aching muscles, burning sun and mosquitoes everywhere, I broke down. I hadn’t smoked in years, but I needed a momentary escape. There were no phones, no internet, no showers, and I knew it would be like that for another week. There was a cigarette. And I indulged.

A few days into the journey we had big rainstorms, which made us stay at the same camp for two days. I normally don’t like rainy days when I’m camping but this was a welcomed blessing to allow some soothing of my sore muscles. Around 11pm or so on the second night, the rain stopped and the sky turned red. It was surreal, like biblical. Then, just when it seemed it could never get better, out came the huge rainbow… That was the last time we would have a ‘day off’. We usually travelled 10 to 12 hours per day, sometimes 14 trying to catch up to the others. One day we started in the late afternoon and paddled until 7am; that sunset was incredible. Then it remained light while the sun dipped under the horizon for a few hours, followed by dense morning mist traveling through the sunrise. It was spectacularly gorgeous.

There were singing loons accompanying us on the trails; I hadn’t realized that they have so many different songs. There were also other birds that made such glorious melodies my heart would dance. Sometimes I would learn their call, whistle back and we’d sing to each other for a while, as though engaged in conversation. Sometimes we would pass a nest and a bird would start balking and wouldn’t stop until we were far ahead. Once we arrived at a portage and there lay a nest amidst the grassy swamp. A container of art, countless perfectly placed sticks intertwined together with about 8 or 9 eggs justly arranged in two circular rows. It was as though someone had taken great efforts to make this basket for Easter, and all that was left to do was to paint the eggs. The elder told us they were duck eggs. Then there were the dragonflies. They were as big as humming birds, and there were many.

We saw lots of beaver houses too. They were quite large, made with piles of branches and roots intertwined and cemented together by mud and earth. I found out later through google that the beavers get in and out by two separate underwater tunnels, and they don’t apply any mud at the peak of the lodge in order to allow for ventilation. They hollow out a dry chamber for their living space above the water line, and there is usually another little room for drying off and exiting the water. We never saw beavers around their homes, but on two occasions through the early morning mist we watched a couple swim across the lake.

Sometimes a part of the portage would be too wet and swampy to carry things so our crew leader would make a bridge by cutting down some trees. He was so efficient. Ghost Lake was a very long lake; it would take a whole day of straight paddling to get across. Papa Loko, the spirit of the wind, was at our backs that day. So our leader took the blue tarp, two trees that he shaved, and some rope, and he made us a sail. Throughout the journey he guided us to safety and taught us about the ways of the land and how to survive on it. 

I learnt many things on that trip about endurance and acceptance, and about myself. One thing that sticks in my mind the most, other than my deep gratitude to the land, is something my crew boss said on the last day. It was after we'd been caught for hours in the huge thunderstorm; after we'd missed the motor boat that had come to pull us for the final stretch, which would have saved some six hours of paddling; and after several days of intense work, little rest and little food trying to catch up to the others. It had been two days we were expecting to arrive, and still the community was nowhere in sight. We were all out of steam, exhausted and counting on the motorboat to return. What he said not only filled me with energy to paddle on, but it felt like a revelation about the general human condition, "the problem is that you're waiting to be saved."


15 January 2012

from my hotel window

watching Abraham
sharing with the man next door

he’s always dressed in paint
old jacket and pants
covered in colourful splashes
his dreads held together by a big knit rasta hat

i’m listening to his music
wanting to take photos of him
his giant canvases spread out on the asphalt
he’s working

(my turn too..)

some interesting rap type music
i’d like to ask him sometime what it was
now carmina burana takes me away
for a while

‘haha’ i hear some guy kind of laugh
‘i was secretly wondering that but i didn’t want to ask’
he kind of mumbled the end
or maybe my attention span just ran

next i’m onto the dog barking
the birds squawking
people walking and talking on the boardwalk

then carmina burana commands my attention again
the power in that piece

the birds fly outside my window
i see the waves continue to roll in
the landscape is changing
carmina makes her final crescendo

now some reggae band comes on
out here in the parameters there are no boundaries
out here we are stoned immaculate
o it’s jimmy actually
he screams

when the music’s over
that’s what he sings
the birds flap their wings
turn out the lights.

13 November 2011

NEWS: New Canadian Tour Dates

we're excited to be playing in and around home again
Bob Stagg will be joining us on keys, trumpet and accordion
for the montreal and toronto shows!
hope you can make it out!

31 August 2011

the bus

this was our home for the european tour
aside from a few leaks, a breakdown and a couple of bathroom issues
she was good to us

this is the route the bus took
we drove about 13,000 km with her

this was our funky orange kitchen seen through the window of the bus
along with the band and George, our wonderful sound engineer

here is fred, peter and i
these photos happened on one of the long bus rides
i believe from amsterdam to istres

George picked up the guitar after years away from it
i wish there were sound to this photo
he's really good and soothing

this is Phil our dear bus driver
we thought of changing buses when we drove through london
(we had been experiencing several problems)
but we didn't want to lose Phil

i couldn't sleep in the bunk..got too claustrophobic
so we moved a mattress to the back of the bus

here is the band and crew
as you can tell, i took a liking to these reflective photos

i'm feeling a little nostalgic for our bus now :)

30 August 2011


amsterdam was beautiful and crazy

it reminded me of venice with its canals
so much interesting history
so much beauty

and it also reminded me of new york & bangkok by night
so much going on.
then there was the red light district - unlike anything i'd seen before

locals introduced me to this very interesting and delicious food
it was hot and sold in vending-like machines
i forget what it was called but it was a great late-night snack

thank you so much to everyone who came out to see us
the night wasn't what we'd planned -
we ended up opening for Lyle Lovett instead of playing our show.
we had a really good night
but i apologize to those who were expecting to see more of us.
(we would have loved to play longer as well!)
i very much look forward to the next time nx

19 August 2011


next we made two stops in england
the first was at bush hall in london
very beautiful venue..lovely chandeliers..
i played a new song there called 'follow me'

friends i hadn't seen in almost 15 years came to the concert
we used to call ourselves the voncrap family
(along with a few others who couldn't make it).
we had traveled and sung together for several months years ago
before i learnt to play guitar.
here we are at the hotel bar after the show..

next we went to birmingham..it was a lovely night
note to the audience: sorry there was no seating
& we would have loved to play longer but there was a strict curfew

Sion Thomas who taught me to play guitar in the late '90s was at that show
i hadn't seen him since then (picture of us outside venue below)

17 August 2011


the next stop was ireland
my mother took the bus with us from paris and slept in a bunk
i was worried she would have a hard time in the bunk (as i do)
but she loved it!
here we are crossing on the ferry from wales

i loved being back in ireland!
whenever i see the liffey i remember that song 'summer in dublin'
that was popular the first time i was there

the sugar club was a beautiful intimate venue
i had a couple of difficulties on stage that night
but the audience carried me through it all.
i am so grateful for your warmth and generosity :)

next we went down to cork
oh how i love playing in churches!
i wish we had recorded this show..

my good friend Sandra from tipperary was at the concert.
i finished writing 'unspoken' when i was touring ireland in 2007
and she was the first person i sang it to (sitting in my car in inis).
at that time it was a lyric and melody with no accompaniment.
it was a nice little milestone to play the song at this concert

a special thank you to the wonderful audience in Triskel Christchurch
we had a wonderful time in ireland
go raibh maith agaibh éire!
it's always a pleasure:)

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.