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Walk Among the Trees

A unique perspective on the natural world rooted in tradition

Updated: By James Smedley

It’s a warm, overcast October afternoon as we descend into the valley of Crystal Creek in the Hiawatha Highlands. I’m with my daughter, Islay, and her friend Andres on a guided walk through a small portion of this four-season outdoor recreational area north of Sault Ste. Marie. Joining us are Mario Gionet and Cheyene Nanie from Walk Among The Trees, an Indigenous tourism business specializing in restorative and educational walks through the woods.

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Embracing the benefits of simply walking in the forest is something Mario and Cheyene share with their clients whose lives are often inundated with the trappings of an urban lifestyle including the distractions of screens and technology.

“When I get out among the trees I pay attention to what’s around me, the birds, the insects, wind through the trees. I’m not focused on anything else,” Mario says as we walk along a boardwalk leading to Crystal Falls, a 50-metre cascade of white water coursing through a precipitous slope of bedrock. The rugged topography of this area includes colourful hardwood ridges of birch and maple, vast flats of coniferous, and cedar-shrouded shorelines of ponds and creeks.

It is also the foundation for a network of multipurpose trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking, hiking or just walking.

Cultural Sharing

“The Anishinaabemowin word for waterfall is gakijiwan,” says Mario, explaining that ‘gak’ means ‘right-angled square’ and ‘jiwan’ means ‘it flows’. An integral part of these walks is the sharing of Indigenous culture, ceremony and language, but they do not position themselves as experts. Mario did not grow up learning the ways of his people but the pair is now working to learn more about their roots. Mario is finishing up his third year in the Anishinaabemowin Language program at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig.

“As I’m learning, I’m teaching others,” he said.

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Mario and Cheyene also relay stories that they hear from Elders and serve bannock and wild rice with blueberries at the end of their walks. Wild rice or ‘manoomin’ and blueberries, ‘miinan’, are seen as gifts from the Creator and both hold a spiritual and cultural significance to the Ojibwe.

Cheyene tells us her dad and Mario’s mom both attended the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario. It’s a fact they only discovered after they became a couple. While the negative aspects of residential schools are widely known, they choose to focus on the positive. “What are the odds of Cheyene and I doing this together? It’s helping me and Cheyene heal and our parents heal,” Mario says.

We leave the falls and head down a trail along a widening of Crystal Creek where a small dam forms a lake. It’s a popular swimming area through summer but today the only swimmers are a pair of otters frolicking off the sand beach. “Otter is ‘nigig’ and more than one otter is ‘nigigwag’,” says Mario flexing his newly acquired language skills, “these guys are usually around the creek year round.”

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Amidst towering white pines and the pungent smell of Autumn, the restorative properties of the forest are abundantly clear to us all but the experience is elevated by Mario and Cheyene’s sharing of an Indigenous perspective that often incorporates humour. “If we are happy we laugh, if we are sad we laugh, it is part of our culture,” says Mario, grinning.

About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions - more than 400 written pieces and close to 1,000 images - to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines and newspapers have earned him over 40 National and International awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is Travel Editor at Ontario OUT OF DOORS Magazine. James has fly fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.

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