Sask. family makes remote fishing camp home during COVID-19 pandemic

Every morning since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Saskatchewan, Darlene McKenzie has made herself a breakfast of oatmeal and bannock on a wood stove, with timber hauled from the nearby Churchill River. 

She spends the day checking traps for beaver and fishing by Nistowiak Falls, about 15 kilometres east of the closest community accessible by road — at just over 100 people — Stanley Mission. 

McKenzie says it's "beautiful out here. It's calm, peaceful. Nothing to worry about. It's good for our mental health." 

McKenzie first travelled out to Nistowiak Falls on March 17, 2020. She, her 69-year-old mother and her teenage son all have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the risks of COVID-19.

Submitted: Darlene McKenzie

So, when McKenzie first heard the news of cases being detected in northern Saskatchewan, she felt she had to take them out to Jim's Camp, which is owned by the family, to self-isolate. 

They took everything to the site by snowmobile. Essentials, like beds and kitchen items, were already out there.

In the spring, when the ice breaks, the camp is a "30-minute boat ride, depending how fast your boat goes," from Stanley Mission. 

There are eight cabins at the fishing camp, with one cabin dedicated to trapping. It has been in the family for about 30 years.

Submitted: Darlene McKenzie

There is no electricity or running water (that means you're using an outhouse), and everyone has to earn their keep.

That involves people hauling their own water from the river to wash up and clean dishes, and using the wood stove for cooking. 

"You have to do it. Nobody's going to do it for you," McKenzie laughs.

Submitted: Darlene McKenzie

As you might expect, cellphone service is spotty.

"Before we never had cell service, [customers] they'd be surprised," said McKenzie. "Then they'd say, something like, 'OK, well, the reason why I came in was to isolate, so now I'm not going to bother checking my Facebook or whatever.'" 

Submitted: Darlene McKenzie

McKenzie normally works as a diabetic support worker at the health centre in Stanley Mission, but she has taken time off since the pandemic hit.

She is also enrolled in her second year at the Northland College doing the mental health and wellness program.

McKenzie had to complete a research paper all on her phone during her time at the fishing camp, trying to find a signal in – 30 C weather.

"I was out in the ice video chatting with my class. It was kind of cool. They were laughing at me," she chuckled.

McKenzie ended up going back to Stanley Mission for two weeks to complete her assignments. 

Submitted: Darlene McKenzie

McKenzie said that she keeps up to date on the novel coronavirus when she can get some sort of cell service. Her nephews come to visit by boat from Stanley Mission and let them know of developments as well. 

"A positive side is I get to experience this life," she said. "It is an experience I never wouldn't have had." 

It's not all work and no play. At night, they read and visit, and play cards by candle light or oil lamp. One of McKenzie's mother's favourite things is puzzles.

You would think the environment wouldn't  be ideal for a teenager, but McKenzie's 13-year-old son loves it. 

"My son was getting bored staying at home. This was perfect for him to be here," she said. "He enjoyed doing outdoor stuff like fishing and trapping, beaver trapping — all that."

Submitted: Darlene McKenzie

As the province eases its restrictions, McKenzie will soon have to leave her son and mother alone at the camp and go back to work in Stanley Mission. 

When McKenzie asked her mother if she wanted to return as well, she had no interest.

"She misses all her grandchildren, but they are coming around now that the ice is gone they'll be coming more with the boat."

Submitted: Darlene McKenzie

The only fear McKenzie has about leaving her mother alone at the camp with her son are the bears. 

McKenzie says she feels a protective presence when she is at the camp, since the land was blessed by an elder after her dad passed away years ago.

"I feel protected here. I can't explain it."

McKenzie is grateful for the time away from everything. With no distractions, the family works together, laughs together, and has gotten to know each other on a deeper level. 

"The wisdom and knowledge that she's sharing with me is something that I will cherish forever," McKenzie said of her mother.

During this pandemic, they have spoken Cree with one another, and  when asked how her experience has been up at Nistowiak Falls so far, McKenzie shared one of those words: 

"Sawithimikisowin. It means 'blessed.'"