by Liz Jansen
Ask any motorcycle rider what it’s like to ride and you’re sure to hear them try and describe that feeling of freedom, independence, and spiritual connection that comes from being out on the road. It’s hard to explain, because it’s something that has to be experienced—like one’s relationship with whomever your God is. Intentionally letting go of the need to control outcomes in itself sets you up for possibilities you couldn’t imagine. Add motorcycle-induced openness and the result is pure mystery, like what happened on my trip to Algoma and Manitoulin Island.
My original reason for heading to Sault Ste. Marie (the Soo), Ontario, when I did was to participate in a 3-day writer’s retreat with renowned Ojibway author Richard Wagamese. At the same time, I was asked to produce touring articles for the travel site Motorcycling in Ontario. Knowing the landscape I’d be traveling through, we agreed that I write about Algoma and Manitoulin. In addition, I could focus my stories on the on indigenous history and culture, a personal interest.
In my brief foray into First Nations or Native-American history, I’ve learned that what’s written in books and documentaries and what indigenous people share can be very different. It was important for me to hear the accounts first hand.
It sounds easy and straightforward, and it can be. But getting through to the people who can provide those stories is not. As a non-Native, it requires understanding who to speak with, how to reach them, and developing a trusting relationship. All take time, and I was on a schedule, which can conflict with letting go of outcome.
In Algoma, the person I needed to speak with was Chief Dean Sayers, Chief of Batchawana First Nation (BFN), but I didn’t know that until the eleventh hour. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I’d tried to set up meetings with others but plans fell through and people were on vacation. While in the Soo, I made two visits to the BFN administration office seeking information, making little headway. Chief Sayers was on vacation and no one else was available. Committed to a story and deadline, I was beginning to think I’d have to work with what I had, even though it wasn’t the detail and voice I sought.
On my last afternoon in the area, optimism tempered dejection as I rode out to Whitefish Island, a BFN territory in the St. Mary’s River and now a culturally significant and tranquil urban oasis. After parking my bike, removing my helmet, jacket, and gloves, I noticed that while I was riding, I’d missed and received a voice message. It was Chief Sayers. He’d love to speak with me.
And so it was that I was invited to his home where he conveyed stories that had been passed down through the generations. His young grandsons played nearby under his watchful care, undoubtedly hearing stories they too would one day pass on.
The next day I departed for Manitoulin Island, looking forward to a 6:00 p.m. meeting with Esther Osche, Manager of Lands for the Whitefish River First Nation, Community Historian, Traditional Storyteller, and Harley rider.
Again, a message that came in while I was riding changed the course of my day. I’d stopped at a rest area right off the Trans-Canada Highway, shaded by forest and bordered by Serpent River, its water cascading over Canadian Shield rocks on the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Having been running full steam all week and running low on reserves, Esther asked to reschedule our interview. The problem was, my next two days were already spoken for. We agreed to follow through with our rendezvous, then plan accordingly. As disappointed as I was, the truth of the matter was I’d ridden all day in the heat and my energy was low as well. If we could work out another time, it was better for me too.
We’d barely introduced ourselves when Esther received a call from her husband. She was supposed to be somewhere else and had forgotten to mark it in her calendar. She invited me to join her at Dreamer’s Rock sacred site. That’s how I got to join a traditional storyteller around the campfire at as she relayed the Legend of Dreamer’s Rock to a group of community children, in the same manner it’s been passed down to her through the grandparents.
For my cultural experience on Manitoulin, I’d been introduced to fellow Moto journalist and Anishinaabe Interpretive Guide Steven Fox-Radulovich. Through his facilitation, I was able to meet with noted Anishinaabe Cultural Historian Alan Corbiere. It was also how I got to sit around the picnic table on a summer evening with riders Duncan Pheasant, Ojibway artist and municipal worker, Godfrey Shawanda, traditional healer, and Robbie Shawana, a councilor at Wikwemikong First Nation, and listen as they described their spiritual connection to movement, the land, and its history.
The chances of orchestrating any of those experiences on my own was somewhere between slim and nil. Letting go and trusting the process is hard, yet when you do, what happens can’t be explained logically, and exceeds expectations.