The Magpie : A river that makes you stronger

Outdoor education with Indigenous youth

“The waves are huge, and the rafts looked so tiny in the photos and video I saw beforehand,” Lydia Mestokosho-Paradis, a 26-year-old Innu artist, says. “I never thought I could do it.”

She was right about the waves. The Magpie is one of National Geographic’s top-10 multi-day rafting rivers. It’s continuous stretches of Class III and IV (out of a scale of VI, with V and VI being reserved for professionals), are big and imposing and command respect. But she was wrong about whether or not she could do it.

Healing journey for young Innu women

Mestokosho-Paradis was part of a group of young Innu women who were brought together by Innu communities along Quebec’s Côte-Nord. The Innu roots in the Nitassinan (the Innu word for their home territory) stretch back to the beginning of time, but Mestokosho-Paradis, like many modern young Innu, doesn’t spend much time on the land.

The organizers hoped that the journey down the river would help the Innu youth connect with their ancestral land. By pushing the youth out of their comfort zones, they’d gain confidence and learn leadership skills.

It didn’t take long on the river for Mestokosho-Paradis and the other women, to feel connected to the land. They realized that despite, or maybe because of, their fears, the river could help them grow.

“I learned to be confident on the river with the help of the guides who gave us tips and helped us push ourselves,” she said. “And I feel peace when I’m on the river. It reminds me of when I went on the land with grandparents. It’s so nice to be away from work, the internet and the troubles of everyday life. It’s healing. It lets me take a step back and reflect.”

Expansion to other Innu communities

Since the first expedition in 2011, 11 groups of Innu youth have tackled the river. Originally the trip was for the members of the Ekuanitshit (Mingan) band exclusively. However, due to its success it quickly grew to include the 3 communities who work in the Mamit Innuat (Ekuanitshit, Unamen Shipu and Pakua Shipu). And in 2016, the community of Natashkuan also offered a chance for their youth to discover one of the beautiful rivers of the Nitassinan.

Mestokosho-Paradis has joined 4 trips. She loves the lessons she learns about life on the river and says she thinks that’s why the trips are a success.

The river as healer, teacher

“Hard things happen in life that you have to get through. The river teaches you it’s OK to ask for help to get through the tough spots,” she says. “With help the problems aren’t as big and you can come out stronger. Watching the guides stop at the top of a rapid and analyze the situation to find the safest and smartest way through is a great example of what we should do when faced with a problem.”

The controlled stress of the river and the need for teamwork means that bonds are forged quickly and shyness doesn’t last long. The result is new friends and even a kind of ad hoc group therapy among participants.

“I have seen a lot of women with drinking problems find the strength to take control of their addiction after the trip,” Mestokosho-Paradis says. “I think part of it is they get a taste of nature and physical activity and realize it feels better than alcohol. They gain control over their emotions, reduce their drinking and many have been able to find housing. The river and the challenges help show us how strong we are. Our ancestors could do it with less technology than us. We have their strength too.”

Mestokosho-Paradis says the river has also connected them with the stories their elders told them when they were growing up. “We’re proud that we’re once again navigating the river today,” she says. “It’s a way of telling the world that we haven’t forgotten our roots. That it’s our history. That we’ve been using the river for millennia. Descending it now is simply keeping our traditions alive.”

Protecting traditions and the river

Crucial to the survival of those traditions is that the river stays in its pristine state. Mestokosho-Paradis is worried about hydro development on the Magpie, so is her aunt Rita Mestokosho,  who is a poet and on the local band council.

“The river is a place of journeys and history,” Mestokosho says. “It’s a place to relax and rest. For the youth today it is an important symbol of their freedom and their roots.”

An intact river is also a place of healing. Mestokosho adds, “Everyone gets bruised in life and this type of voyage is a necessary part of the healing. It pays homage to our past and our territory and helps us realize there are bigger things than us and our worries. That knowledge and overcoming the hard moments help us grow and appreciate the good times.”

A perfect example of that growth is Mestokosho-Paradis’ desire to keep pushing herself. “I’m interested in learning how the guides do what they do. I think it would be another way to push myself out of my comfort zone. Something I wouldn’t have considered had I not joined the Magpie adventure.”

Find out how to take your own journey down the Magpie River.