Ice fishing for cultural knowledge, self-esteem and … dinner?

The youth club in Membertou First Nation, N.S., is delighted with the response to its program teaching ice fishing as both an outdoor activity and a cultural touchstone.

Membertou Youth Club aims to take kids out of their 'comfort zone'

Zac Devoe and Dante Googoo were toasty warm on a cold day ice fishing on Blacketts Lake. (Clifford Paul)

A new program in Membertou First Nation, N.S., this winter aims to get kids outside, teach them a culturally relevant skill, and maybe send them home with dinner.

The Membertou Youth Centre is organizing ice-fishing expeditions open to all youth in the community.

"One of the things that we like to do is to schedule outdoor activities that would help children to, you know, just get those natural endorphins flowing through their brain," said program co-ordinator Shaylene Johnson. "And what better way to get outside than to go ice fishing?"

Traditional skill

While they sit over holes in the ice, rods in hand, the participants learn how their ancestors would cut holes to spear eels and hunt beaver in order to survive the harsh winters. They also learn water and ice safety.

"It gives them self-confidence that they can learn a skill which will carry them and their families through a very harsh environment," said Johnson's father, Clifford Paul, an adviser for the ice-fishing program and the moose management co-ordinator with the Unama'ki Institute of Natural Resources.

Ice-fishing huts on Blacketts Lake. (Clifford Paul)

Many kids in the community have never tried ice fishing, Johnson said.

"There was a lot of interest, saying they've never been there and they want to try it out," she said. "I think a lot of the traditional knowledge was lost, and some people, they've just got to be pushed out of their comfort zones a bit." 

Cold but fun

The first outing, on Blacketts Lake on Feb. 3, was a test of those comfort zones.

"It was –19 C, but we didn't want to cancel," she said. "People fish in colder weathers. So we decided to go through with it, and the kids had a great time.

"They were nice and warm in their ice huts. We didn't catch anything, but the experience was worth it."

Johnson's eight-year-old son Trennan has reeled in a much more impressive record fishing with his grandfather.

Program adviser Clifford Paul, his daughter Shaylene Johnson, the program's co-ordinator, and her son Trennan Paul, young fisherman. (Holly Conners/CBC)

He figures he's caught "tons of eels, a few striped bass, tons of perch, and probably hundreds of mackerel."

"It's real fun. You just have to make a hole and put a line in," he said. 

"He's brought home trout that we've cooked, and striped bass," said Johnson, "and this helps him to feel like a positive contributor and provider for our family. I also think it helps him to maintain his self-esteem, and to enforce his cultural identity."

Johnson and Paul plan to organize at least two more excursions this winter.

They hope the young fishers will have more luck this Saturday on the Mira River.