Fresh Trout after the Prestergatta

 

Day two of our pilgrimage through Iceland: We’re sitting, eight Canadians and ten Icelanders, at one long table. Our host, Hulda Gudmundsdottír, who has put us in her renovated barn (barn being a word that hardly describes the luxury of the place) comes around as we finish our meal of lake trout, potato salad and greens. Did you like the fish? She asked. I went out and caught it with my son in nets, three days ago.

The fish is only one of the wonders of this place. Elínborg Sturludottr led us along the prestergatta today, the priests’ path from the small church where we had our matins (morning devotions) to the even tinier church where we had our vespers (evening devotions). Our other priest guide, Floki Kristinsson tells us that the morning church was built on the site where Rudolf, the English monk who had accompanied St Olaf up to his death in 1030, came that same year to Iceland and started the first monastery. The Icelanders are a fun group, their humour in contrast to the starkness of this land. For the first time today, we came across what we Canadians call real trees. The Icelanders told us: what do you do if you’re lost in a forest in Iceland? Stand up. At which they laughed uproariously. We climbed up and out of the fjord this morning, 1000 feet, and came down the valley to this beautiful lake setting. In passing we were offered an unexpected afternoon coffee and some sort of sweet flatbread, by an Icelander who is interested in our pilgrimage. This place, including the people, is truly a place of wonders.

An extra treat on this blogpost: fellow pilgrim, Ata Camilla Gylfsdottir, reads a short Icelandic folktale titled: The church builder at Reyn. Click on this link for her lovely diction and accent!

July 20 afternoon coffee

July 20 afternoon coffee traditional Icelandic cottage

A Musical Moment

Kathryn Scott, Madonna Hamel and Matthew Anderson try to remember the words and harmonies to Java Jive. We were camping overnight at Chimney Coulee, near Eastend SK, and half-way through our group’s 350 km trek along the North West Mounted Police Patrol trail. This is a moment from a summer 2015 pilgrimage organized by Hugh Henry and Matthew Anderson. The video was shot by James Page, photographer, from Val Marie SK. on the NWMP Patrol Trail pilgrimage July 30, 2015

Jellied Salads and Howling Coyotes

jellied salad McCord

I’m writing this from a tent behind the museum in McCord SK, listening to the howling of what sounds like a hundred coyotes. They’re making quite a joyous racket to the south and east of town. Our tents are pitched just behind the old railroad station which is the museum….I had a sponge bath in what must once have been the platform for departing passengers, since this is day three with no running water or electricity close for us. Wondered if someone on that platform could travel in time, what they would think of what they saw, and of this town.

McCord may not have a cafe or more than one main street, but it has palpable community spirit. They took us in and gave us a wonderful potluck supper, and then came out in numbers (50 people) for our presentation on the North West Mounted Police Patrol trail walk. Thelma Poirier, a poet from neighboring Glentworth, talked about how lovely it was to think of this as pilgrimage. Many others loved the slides Hugh showed from the 50s and 60s, people from this area, even one sitting in the audience.

After another day of walking (today only having to cross 4 barbed wire fences and not over 20 like yesterday), we actually got here early today. There was much less walking through waist high hay fields or over bog. Today much of our path was on a lovely dirt road and we had lunch in the lee of an old farmyard’s trees, while the grasshoppers blew around in biblical proportions.

People here, when I ask them on camera, are far too polite to say that they think we’re crazy to be walking. They even brought out the best: jellied salads, potato salad, sweet and sour meatballs, and Saskatoon pie for dessert! And sent us home with our lunch for tomorrow….

Making Medicine Pouches

I love my aunt. She’s always been like a second mother to me. Especially these last years, when my own mother failed, my aunt, as so often, was forced to be the safe harbour in which our family finds shelter.

My aunt is surprising. She stays up late and at 88 years old, still likes to travel. If there are potatoes to dig, she just might go dig them. She’s tough – and still, in the ways that count, old fashioned.

But not old fashioned in many other ways. We did something together tonight that I never thought we would do. We made and tied medicine pouches, with elk leather and sweetgrass from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The pouches are destined to be used as gifts here in Saskatchewan.

A big part of pilgrimage is learning how to receive the kindness of others. We haven’t even really begun our local Camino – this North West Mounted Police Patrol Trail pilgrimage – and so far there have already been meals, a donated vehicle, and beds to keep us sheltered until we put up our tents.

But part of pilgrimage is also recognizing what gifts we strangers bring with us to these lands we cross, and bringing physical evidence of such gifts with us. That is why I have the sweetgrass and the red string from the Mohawk, for some of the First Nations and Metis people we will meet here. I read recently that even though the Mohawk almost never came this far west, there was a group of them that overwintered, in the 19th century, in the Cypress Hills, where so many other First Nations gathered in the final, collapsing days of the bison hunting economy.

I wonder what those Mohawk saw, and thought. My aunt and I cut the leather and together wrapped up the sweetgrass. It felt like something blessed to be doing this with her, my aunt with whom so often I’ve gone to church and sung hymns as well. Someone with whom I hold this land, this prairie, in common. I held the pouch up to her nose: that smells so good, I said. Doesn’t it. That smell of leather.

She smiled. Or maybe what smells so good, she answered, is the sweetgrass.

Isabelle and the pouches

Five clues that you’re already a pilgrim (even if you haven’t yet walked a trail)

 

Take this simple test. You know you’re a pilgrim when….

 

1. you find yourself washing our your shirt or underwear by hand even when you’re at home.

 

2. you think it would be cool to live a very full life out of a very small bag

 

3. it seems completely normal to you to carry blister bandages and pack water every time you step out the door

 

4. you’ve come to believe that for the most part, strangers are just friends you haven’t yet met

 

5. in your mind you dream of new landscapes to walk, and when you walk, you dream of new landscapes for your mind

at rest at St Cuthbert's cave

The birthing of a pilgrimage

Allen ponderingThis hostel is accredited, begins the promotional blurb for Meso Gård , and recommended by the National Pilgrim Centre. It has met the same requirements, and holds the same standard, as the pilgrim accommodation along Camino de Santiago. But a Spanish pilgrim who comes to Norway will find themselves, not in a bunk room in barren and dusty Castrojeriz, but in a typical sod-roofed, log-cabin style Norwegian hostel in the Rennesbund district along the St-Olaf’s Way, where a river rushes by, birds are singing, mountain flowers bloom around you and everything is green. Meso is a world away from a Spanish albergue. And the differences aren’t just in the lack of Rioja and dust (the first to better deal with the second).

Those who planned the St-Olav Weg have tried to make it familiar. The elements are as standardized as the boarding procedure at airports. There is a passport, obtained from an official pilgrim centre and sized appropriately for tucking into a backpack, local business stamps validating one’s walk along the trail, trail markers along paths and roads and paint slashes on rocks to guide the way, ‘pilgrim meals’ offered at some local restaurants, and several revitalized ancient routes (traceable on a smart-phone app) toward a cathedral city celebrating a medieval saint.

Yet the similarities between the two pilgrimage routes are overshadowed by differences as high as Norway’s mountains. The mountains, in fact, may be the most obvious initial difference, at least from the Camino Frances part of the Spanish trail. It’s been less than two weeks since I walked with five other Canadians from Dovre, in the Dovrefjell district of Norway, 250 or so kilometres to Trondheim. As far as I know, we were the first group of Canadians ever to walk this way as pilgrims. Unlike my experiences on the crowded Camino Frances, there were very few others we met. Those we did echoed our experience of a satisfying but extremely tough walk through conditions more like the high Rockies than the Meseta. In part because of an unusually late, cold and wet spring, we forded swollen mountain streams, jumped from hillock to hillock through kilometres of bog, and in sections of the trail found ourselves going days without seeing other human beings, much less a store to purchase supplies. We fell down, we froze, we saw incredible beauty, one of our group broke her ankle among the endless tree roots. It may be ancient, but it was not an urban walk. Café con leche? Forget it, unless you have a thermos, some farm experience and can catch one of the abundant sheep or goats.

Because it is still early in the redevelopment of the St-Olaf Way, one of the most fascinating parts of the walk, for me, was how we met those still trying to put their mark on how the trail will develop. I felt like we were there at the beginnings of something important. We met chapel builders who want to make sure there will be a spiritual component to the walk, officials who seek the ‘new spirituality’, walkers interested primarily in ecology and environment, and others who are developing their businesses in hopes of increasing numbers of high-tech backpackers showing up at their doorsteps.

All of which raises some interesting questions. What gives a particular pilgrimage its unique character? Is there such a thing as a more or less authentic pilgrimage? It seems to me that the inevitable conflict of values in this birthing of a European pilgrimage route is useful, because it helps bring about something that, however it borrows from the past, is new. As my friend Allen Jorgenson noted, the role of land, and of landscape, is more important than some of us have realized. Maybe we should be talking about pilgrimscapes, and how the outer journey influences the shape of the inner one.

Whatever the medieval St-Olaf route once was, there is now a struggle for its modern identity. It is definitely not the Camino. What it will be remains to be seen.
Alpine shelter