Landmarks in the Land of Little Sticks

By Paul Gifford

Editor’s note: Another version of this essay is found in Paddling Pathways, forthcoming in Spring 2022. By YNWP, Regina, SK.


Nueltin Lake, Manitoba is big by any standards. It is 23,000 square kilometres. From the air, Lake Ontario looks like a big body of water, whereas Nueltin looks more like a bowl of islands than a body of water. As we approached it from the air, I wondered how we would ever find our way out of it.

This was July 22, 2005, and we had until August 15th to get to Hudson Bay. The first leg of our journey was an obscure historic route between Nueltin and Najanilini Lakes—50 km, as the crow flies, but a lot further on the ground. It took us two weeks. Whereas, the last 50 km of the trip—blasting down the middle of the lower Seal River, we managed in one day.

But it’s the first 50 km I remember — not just because it was difficult, but also because it forced us to linger longer on the land we were travelling through, and then to think about where we were, and who had been there before us, and how the place had come to be.

This was really our reason for choosing this route. Four of the six of us were teachers. Two of us taught an integrated high school Canadian history, geography, and literature course together. So, we were very interested in the natural and human history of where we were going, and in how people imagined this place.

While the caribou walk along the eskers and then swim across the creeks and rivers, we would do the inverse — paddling along the rivers and portaging over the eskers.

While the caribou walk along the eskers and then swim across the creeks and rivers, we would do the inverse — paddling along the rivers and portaging over the eskers. The first two eskers we would portage over, but a creek cut through the third one. It’s called Rock Creek, because it is so strewn with boulders that canoes can barely fit in it. It also meanders through a massive peat bog that is too soggy to stand on. And the creek is too deep to stand in (it could be bottomless for all we know, as we never touched the ground beneath it). So, we pinballed among the boulders, the bow person getting out and pulling the boat past, the stern person shuffling to the bow, then the former bow person becoming the stern person. On that day we travelled 1 km. And the 50 km between Nueltin and Nejanilini took us two weeks. And it meanders through a soggy, sink-to-your-knees peat bog—”the Mother of all peat bogs”, we called it.

In retrospect, it would have been better to travel it in the winter on snowshoes, which is how people used to do it. It is as much land as it is water, and often it is some amalgam between.

Our trip was the definition of slow-going. “OK, at this rate, we will be at Hudson Bay by Christmas,” someone said, which is when it occurred to me why few people travel this route in the summer, then and now. Winter is definitely the time to do it. And snowshoes are definitely the vehicles with which to travel.

Ragnar Jonsson, Nueltin Lake 1983

The Edgeland Library

On the trip I was reading A Brief History of Fire by the wonderfully named Stephen Pyre. He later wrote a 600-page called Awful Splendor: A Fire History of Canada, and if this isn’t the last word on the history of fire in Canada, I really don’t care to read the last word. But it does put things in perspective. In addition to bringing A Brief History of Fire on the trip, I also brought Ice: The Nature, History and Uses of this Astonishing Substance by Marianna Gosnell. Additionally, I carried a pre-release copy of Wood: Craft, Culture, History by the appropriately named Harvey Green. Plus another dozen books or so. And a stack of back issues of Beaver Magazine. And a file folder full of photocopies of microfiche from the National Archives of Canada. 

I packed it all in a wooden wannigan and called it “The Library of Little Sticks.” In the middle of the first portage over a gargantuan esker, the library got other names: “That Goddamn Box” and “Gifford’s F-ing Books.” But after a few days, in our long, subarctic evenings inside the group bug tent, people dipped into the library and it became a part of us all. 

The Chipewyan (Denesuline) people have lived along Hudson Bay for millenia. They lived by moving between the two biomes—north onto the barrenlands in the summer, south into the woodlands in the winter. Here they could hunt the Qamanirjuaq Caribou herd, which moved between Hudson Bay and Great Slave Lake like a massive, meandering river, a living one. We would pass within 20 km of a 2,000-year-old caribous hunt camp beside an asker we portaged across. More than forty archaeological sites that predate 1492 have been located in the Land of Little Sticks. More will be found. 

The natural history and the human history here are written on the land, but you have to know what you are looking for to see it. And in our historically and ecologically illiterate modern condition, that meant taking a lot of reading material on this trip. Reading words so we could then read the land. 

In retrospect, I would call it The Edgeland Library — in recognition of where we were and how little we knew of it. Living briefly as we did on the edge of one world, staring into another. 

In retrospect, I would call it The Edgeland Library — in recognition of where we were and how little we knew of it. Living briefly as we did on the edge of one world, staring into another. 

People began to read the books. It was an end-of-the-day ritual to pitch a big bug tent, so that we could gather in the evenings to cook, eat, mend ripped clothing, and tend to sore feet and hands. Without the big tent, the blackflies — which came pouring out of the tundra the minute the wind dropped — would have forced us to retreat into our three different sleeping tents. And the library would have stayed closed. Whereas, once the bug tent was set up, I placed the wannigan right in the middle of it, opened its lid and began setting things out that I thought might interest people. 

“The Library of Little Sticks is open,” I’d announce. And so, we read about where we were while we were there, which, if you know anything about experiential education, is how you remember history and geography. It is how the brain makes landmarks that anchor stories to it — the stories of people in places doing things, or having things happen to them. 

We  found a wood stove by our camp. More precisely, it was an oil drum that had been turned into a wood stove. No stove pipe. So, whoever made this, they were where we were partly because there was wood for fire. They were also here because of the Twin Falls and the creek and the fish. And this wasn’t far — by land, on snowshoes — from a caribou crossing, a nearby esker. Twin Falls was also a kind of hub of waterways, which, especially frozen, would take you in any direction you wanted to go. If you knew how to live off the land (or with it), then this was a good place to live. 

We decided it wouldn’t be right to camp there, beautiful as it was. And so, we swam in the creek and had lunch by the falls, and we took only one thing from the site — an eight-by-eleven inch piece of green canoe canvas, which one of us sewed into a cover for his journal which he wrote in at night. And he wrote about this place, because that night we had figured out who had lived here.

We came across his name quite a few times in our reading: Ragnar Jonsson. Born in Sweden in 1900, he moved to Canada in his late teens and lived in Northern Manitoba, making ends meet. Then, in 1938 (a year before the war), he moved out onto the land by himself. Right here. Not just here, though: Ragnar Jonsson had a dozen camps like this one, and he moved around The Land of Little Sticks, trapping by dogsled in the winter, but only enough to trade for the provisions he needed to live out there. And he could hunt and forage as well as anyone, so he didn’t need much. In the summer he paddled on the rivers and he sailed on the big lakes. There is an island named after him in Nueltin. One of his sled dogs was named after the lake. 

When we got back from the trip, I picked up a copy of Bob Henderson’s 2005 book, Every Trail Has a Story, and in it, in chapter four, which is set in The Land of Little Sticks, Bob writes about Ragnar Jonsson, whom he had the honour to meet in 1983. It would be Ragnar’s last summer out on the land. We would have loved to have met him, especially out here at his Twin Falls camp. We might have had tea with him and got him talking about his life, the land, where he’d been, and whom he’d known. That would have been memorable. Ragnar Jonnson had probably travelled on the ground more than anyone who travels all over the world today, but gets there by airplane. And can you imagine the map in Ragnar’s head?

Typical lunch spread

Two Stories from the Edgeland Library

If you look at a map of the Canadian treeline, you’ll see that it basically runs along the border between Manitoba and Nunavut — right through the middle of Nueltin Lake — where it begins to dip south as it moves east toward Hudson Bay. The forest leaned away from The Bay as we moved closer to it. And we leaned away with it, hugging the treeline, but staying close enough to the barrenlands to get a sense of it. It is an edgeland. 

We followed the treeline, in part because that’s where the water is and in part because we wanted to stay close to the trees while getting a glimpse of what the world would be like without them — the barrenlands to the north of us. The edge of the forest was our handrail, in orienteering terms. We needed the trees to provide wood for our physical comfort — for our tent poles and pickets, and for fuel for our fires — but also for psychological comfort. We’d all grown up canoeing in the forests of central and northern Ontario. 

The “Little Sticks” phenomenon is paradoxical in the context of how large the land looms. The trees are Lilliputian — rarely taller than four feet, mostly less than three — and thus they cast little shadow. In fact, the trees were in our shadows, and that made us feel like giants. Meanwhile we could see the curvature of the earth in all directions. And gigantic eskers looming east and west of us. And the constant presence of the wind coming off the barrenlands, the size of which we knew. Thus, we felt at once too big and too small for this place, like how the Little Prince must have felt poking out of his planet into the vastness of outer space. 

Samuel Hearne had been advised by his Chipewyan guide, Matonabbee, to travel to the Land of Little Sticks in the winter. Hearne had made two failed attempts in the summer, and had only to tell the story because Matonabbee miraculously found him alone, on the verge of death, and rescued him. After which Hearne never travelled anywhere without him. Not only did Matonabbee advise Hearne to go on this next trip in the winter, he also warned him to stay inside the treeline, and never stray too far from the forest.

This was no Northwest Passage. It was a rocky suburb of Hell.

On this third attempt, Hearne with Matonabbe and his family entourage got to where they wanted to go and lived to tell the tale which is recorded in a book we had in the Library of Little Sticks. Journey from Prince Wales in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean was published in 1795, more than two decades after the epic trip, which itself took a year and a half (two winters) — from December 7, 1770 to June 30, 1771. Famously, Hearne didn’t find either of the things he was looking for — a mother lode of copper at the mouth of “The Far-Away Metal River,” (The Coppermine River), or a navigable western outlet for the Northwest Passage. When he got to Coronation Gulf, where the Coppermine reaches the Arctic Ocean, and stood atop a ridge overlooking it, he wrote about what he saw: “This was no Northwest Passage. It was a rocky suburb of Hell.” He and Matonabbee turned around and went back to Hudson Bay. 

But here’s the thing about exploration: while explorers often fail to find what they were looking for in the first place, they find a lot of other things along the way. And this was especially true of Hearne’s journey. His book was the first written account in English of this part of the world. His detailed observations of the plants and animals of the tundra were used by Carl; Linnaeus and Charles Darwin, and so Hearne influenced the system of classification of species and the theory of evolution and natural selection.

And Hearne was generations ahead of his HBC and Royal Navy peers in his willingness to learn about indigenous culture and their use of well-honed technologies and deeply informed understanding of the land. He learned Chipewyan, knowing the language was itself a key to the door of what he wanted to understand. Matonabbee was to Hearne what Tenzing Norgay was to Hillary. Hearne’s legacy was not that he got to where he wanted to go (there was no peak on this mountain), but that he learned about where he travelled. 

White Rock was our own little Northwest Passage. Slowly, we made our way across this interface between land and water, and along the edge between the trees and the tundra, and into the conflict zone between two cultures, which still lay in front of us, and would be the most difficult part of the journey, not physically but morally. We would learn what happend at Duck Lake Post. 

Nueltin Lake

After we found our way out of the White Rock Creek quagmire, which again was a wonderful, if arduous, experience, we got windbound on Croll Lake. We awoke in the morning to the sound of the wind and saw the size of the waves on the lake and realized we were going nowhere that day. Which, to be honest, I quite enjoyed. Maybe we couldn’t canoe, but in a wind like that the blackflies can’t fly. So we lay out in the wind and sun and read. The library opened. We read about an upcoming landmark — Duck Lake Post. Night Spirits is a well-written, worthwhile read, but it’s a hard read. It’s a tragedy. I read it that day. As if the wind made us stay in one place so we would know where it was; where we were about to go. That night was cold but the northern lights came out. We had all seen them many times from the south. You look north and watch them dance on the horizon. But these were right overhead, in the middle of the sky. We were in a different environment and needed to understand how that was influencing our experiences.

The next day we paddled out of the south end of Nejanilini Lake into the Wolverine River. It is a lovely body of water. Known for its fishing — specifically, arctic greying — it is a canoeist’s dream. Neither big nor small, neither fast nor slow, the Wolverine has a steady, singing current (you can hear it); clean, clear water and stunning shorelines.

After lunch, we loaded up and paddled across Duck Lake into Little Duck Lake and just where the water picked up speed to re-enter the river, we saw the abandoned HBC post we were expecting to see. Closed as recently as 1954, we knew we would find ruins. 

On the east bank of the river, appropriately the Hudson Bay side, the classic rectangular, wooden- peaked roof, peeled paint (white with green trim) of the HBC. I had long romanticized this era in Canadian history. Like the subsequent logging era, there are enough wilderness heroics and crazy tales to make it good entertainment. But it is not something to be proud of. I used to proudly wear a woolen HBC hockey sweater. Instead of a number or name on the back, it says Est 1670, the incorporation date of the company. I don’t wear it anymore. I don’t wear it because of what we found that day.

I used to proudly wear a woolen HBC hockey sweater…I don’t wear it anymore. I don’t wear it because of what we found that day.

On the other side of the river, the west bank, were the traces of a Sayisi Dene camp. Had I not just read Night Spirits, I would have happily wandered through this archive in ignorance. But I had just read the book and the place brought me to tears. Imagine what it felt like to be a descendent of the people who lived here. The history of the HBC and, equally appalling, The Government of Canada’s response to what the HBC did, is shameful. The first part of Truth and Reconciliation is truth. The truth is sometimes hard.

In short, the market for silver fox pelts, upon which the HBC’s Duck Lake had become entirely dependent, crashed. Silver fox was no longer in fashion. So, in 1954, the HBC closed the post, there being no more money to be made from it. And the Dene were left on the other side of the river having lost their economic base. So, the Department of Indian Affairs flew a plane into Duck Lake and the government official told the Dene they could be taken to Churchill, on the barren shores of Hudson Bay, near Fort Prince of Wales. This was not traditional Dene land. And Churchill was home to many Cree and Metis people, who were traditional enemies of the Dene. The Dene lived on the outskirts of town in a slum. By the government relocating the Dene in 1973, more than half of them had died in Churchill. For the full story, read Night Spirits by Ila Bussidor and Ustun Bilgen-Reinart, 2006.

Taken together, the landmarks comprise a larger map, and a story, and a way of remembering where we were and who was there before us. 

Note: On August 16, 2016, Carolyn Bennet, the Minister of Indigenous and Native Affairs, offered an apology to the Sayisi Dene people for their forced relocation from Little Duck Lake to Churchill, MB in 1956. $33.6 million has been offered in compensation.


Place Cells

In 2014, the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology was awarded to three neuroscientists who had discovered the navigation system inside the human brain. The scientists found five different kinds of navigational neurons — brain cells devoted to wayfinding. First, they found place cells. A place cell is a brain cell, an individual neuron, which fires off an electromagnetic signal when your brain recognizes a landmark. The flickering of the place cell is the moment of recognition. A little lantern is lit in the darkness of the forest. When one place cell fires, it ignites another place cell, and another, and so on — the forest lit with dozens of lanterns. Wherein, you know where you are. Because we learn one landmark in relation to another. This is the ecology of navigation. It is also the ecology of learning and remembering. All of this takes place in the same part of the brain — the hippocampus.

Simultaneous to the igniting of place cells in the hippocampus, grid cells fire up in the entorhinal cortex. Unlike place cells, which fire one at a time, grid cells fire up all at once, as a network. Imagine 100 of them, itching and marking an intersection on the grid. If place cells are the map pins, grid cells comprise the map itself. This puts the place cells in their places.

Head-direction cells (HD cells) spin the grid to keep it oriented to the land as you change direction. Thus, orienting the map. It’s a combination of a compass and an organ that knows how to use it. The map in your head adjusts continuously as you move. Including when you speed up and slow down — from walk to run, run to walk. This is when your speed cells ignite. Speed cells essentially adjust the scale of the map to accommodate your changing pace. So, like on your smartphone, speed cells zoom in when you slow down and zoom out when you speed up. As long as you don’t speed up too much. There is an evolutionary limit to how fast you can go before your entire navigation system stops working — freezes, in our screen-bound way of thinking. Which is why we can only make a mental map when we are walking or canoeing — somewhere between barely moving to about 6 km an hour. And not on a straight path, or a path cut by someone else, or behind someone who is navigating for you. So, the antithesis of a mental map maker is someone in a car driving on the 401 with the windows up and the music blaring. Somewhere between the car and the actual navigator is the jogger wearing headphones plugged into their iPhone, which they occasionally look at to see where they are (or, more likely, how much longer you have to keep running).

So, the antithesis of a mental map maker is someone in a car driving on the 401 with the windows up and the music blaring.

Lest they run off the edge of their map which is where, if you are paying attention, your border cells kick in. When the navigator is approaching the limit of their known world, as in a ship during the Age of Exploration, or when the hunter is about to cross into someone else’s land, it sets off a series of play cells that specialize in marking the edge of your map. These are called border cells. Without them, many navigators would have never lived to tell their tale.

Taken together, border cells, speed cells, head-directions cell, grid cells and place cells comprise a mind-bogglingly complex navigation system. And this may be why people don’t seem to have paid much attention to its discovery. But even if we think we don’t need our brains to navigate anymore, what will it be like not to ever know where we actually are? What is it to be nowhere in particular, or to come from somewhere with no landmarks, that looks like it could be anywhere. And, finally, in the context of this generation of young people, is it possible for a child to develop a coherent sense of self when they have no cohesive sense of place? We know not, but we are about to find out.


Neuroscientists are still figuring out how it all works, but basically there are neurons that allow us to see where we are on the land as if we are a bird in the sky. The bird’s-eye view, but of ourselves. It’s a kind of out-of-body experience, or maybe a moving back and forth between the first-person narration of our story, and some third-person narration of it, the way a novelist shifts the point of view chapter by chapter. Also, we incorporate the different perspectives in the company we keep while we move through a place.

We are, each of us, our own storytellers. To our memories we select some beads and discard others. Our brains will encode some landmarks as play cells and not others. Probably the most important thing is to go there, to encounter the ground truth of what the land actually is with you in it. Where the aurora sits, how the flies rise as the wind falls, and what has happened to the land’s people.

I do not think I have a clear and continuous map in my head of that canoe trip 15 years ago. I like to think of it that way, but it is not how I remember it. Looking back — looking at all my paper maps (there are a lot of them: 1:250,000, 1:50,000 various historical maps) — there are blank spaces in my recollection. I know I was there but I don’t remember being so.

The Library of Little Sticks

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