A big brown eye cautiously regards me. I’m stroking his neck, but Colos is a rescue horse who has been mistreated, so he’s not sure about this human. After a few minutes, we make friends, but mounting this gentle giant offers a different challenge; I can’t reach the stirrup without a hand up. He stands patiently as I climb into the saddle in an undignified scramble.
We’re at Kanatha-Aki, in Val des Lacs, a beautiful part of Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. The words are Algonquin for “guardian of the boundless earth” and boundless is a good description of my experience. The peace of the setting – trees, water, mountains – surrounds and envelops us. As our little group arrives, two dozen sled dogs, slumbering by their wooden houses, lift their heads and follow us with their large blue eyes.
Inside a rustic cabin, animal pelts are hung on the walls, and native artifacts are everywhere. We tentatively shake hands with our host, Stéphane Denis.
Denis is a survivor of the native residential schools. This place is his answer to the pain of his past, bringing healing for himself, and for those who come here. “In order to be at peace, we have to forgive,” he says. “Only send out good energy.”
Our little group shares a cheese fondue – delicious, sustaining, and appropriate as this place is all about sharing.
Sophie Williams, who offers Amerindian massage here, tells us of Stéphane’s history. His healing strength seems to permeate this place. She describes groups who come here as individuals and leave as a team. She talks about the transformation of families who hardly ever hug one another, and leave as a unit. “Animals and nature purify our body and our spirit,” she explains.
Indeed, the horses are not the only rescued beasts here in more ways than one.
In the mountains above, a small herd of wood bison is so tame that when Léana, Stephane’s daughter calls loudly, they come lumbering out of the mist on the hilltop, to say hello. These are ancient beasts, Léana explains. “They survived the Ice Age and were crucial to the survival of early humans.”
While there are preservation efforts being made in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, this is the first and only wood bison reserve in Quebec, protecting a species currently threatened with extinction.
Colos and I have come together to visit the bison. When I dismount, he starts cropping the young grass. For him, this must be as delicious as my cheese fondue.
In winter, we might go dog sledding, or don snowshoes to explore the woodland. But this is spring. The new shoots are up, the trees are budding and spring flowers dot the landscape. I could have zoomed across the landscape on zip lines, a favourite activity for visitors to Kanatha-Aki. But I’m content with my more sedate method of locomotion. Two sled dogs accompany our horses, scampering ahead.
Our slow descent to the cabin provides breathtaking views of the pastoral landscape and deep breaths of fresh, clean air. As we approach the cabin, loud barks welcome us back. The other sled dogs have spotted our two canine guides and are saying hello. The horses are eager to return to the barn and break into a jog-trot.
He’s glad to be home but I say goodbye reluctantly to my equine buddy.
Before we leave, one more experience awaits. Stéphane takes me aside for a smudging ceremony. I stand still, my arms extended to the side, while the sweet scent of sage smoke is wafted around me. He uses a feather to anoint my head, my eyes, my mouth, my heart…all the while he is speaking quiet words. He speaks of healing, of letting anger go, of goodness, and as the words wash over me, I feel an upswell of emotion. It’s a remarkable, therapeutic sensation.
When we say goodbye, we forsake the cool handshake with which we began our meeting. Stéphane envelops me in a giant bearhug which goes on…and on. “It should be heart to heart,” he explains, “for 21 seconds.”
I remember Sophie earlier telling us about business colleagues developing meaningful relationships here, and about families learning to hug. It seems to me, we all need to visit Kanatha-aki. After all, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all learned to hug, heart to heart, for 21 seconds?