Winter Solstice is a season of medicine for the body and spirit
By Gavin John
The bite of the wind on your cheeks, the crisp feeling of inhaling winter air, and the peaceful sounds of soft snow falling from the sky. Winter is a season of senses, and for the Indigenous peoples of Alberta, it is a season of hidden gifts and unique experiences for the heart and spirit.
Grab your scarf and a warm set of mittens, winter is a season to experience firsthand. People for thousands of years have lived in harmony with the land and its seasons, so should we. The eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains are the traditional home of the Cree, Blackfoot, Dene, Stoney Nakoda, Tsuut’ina, and Metis people, and with each of the vibrant cultures come traditions and a deep history with the seasons. There are many lessons, beauty, and wisdom to discover outdoors in the depth of winter.
Brenda Holder, owner and operator of Mahikan Trails, knows the season intimately and the importance of the season is deeply personal for her.
“There’s so many different pieces to winter for me, the food, the medicine, the spiritual aspects, and a deep emotional connection to my grandmother and through her to the land.”
She inherits a deep connection with her land as a Cree guide of the Kwarakwante people of the region around Jasper, Alberta. Throughout the year she guides visitors through the rolling hills and expansive forests, identifying the many gifts that the land provides. Nestled in a peaceful and secluded forest and rolling hills, Mahikan Trails is a year round getaway where people of all ages and backgrounds can come for day trips with overnight cabin stays in the works.
Rest and Rebirth
Winter is a season of subtlety. A contrast to the explosion of life and colour in the summer, winter is the calm and restfulness that is just as important. The land is a bounty of gifts and wisdom that takes patience and respect to know where to look.
“To understand that winter lays asleep on the land and offers sleep to the land, it is regenerative,” said Brenda as she reflected on the necessity of the season. Taking time to regenerate is not just something that is essential in our own lives; restfulness and reflection are just as important to the land.
“The land is still asleep, but it’s going to wake up soon. There’s still that stillness, there’s still that calm. Everything needs to rest, but if you’re real calm and really quiet the land speaks to you, the trees speak to you.”Brenda Holder, founder of Mahikan Trails
Quilts of snow tuck in the land for rest, and while there is a surface appearance of a land that is withholding its life until spring, that is far from the truth. Winter is alive with medicines and lessons that have been passed down for generations.
“My grandmother talked about this all the time. This is a way to create the medicine while it sleeps.” These medicines come in many forms, and some only available in the depths of winter.
Copes of birch, poplar, and spruce trees, while dormant, are not without their medicines to give to those in tune with all of their senses. Winter is not just the feeling of cold on your nose or the wind on your skin, but the subtle smells and noises that can be missed in the bouquet of summer and spring.
“Every year but 1st week of February I think of my grandmother, especially if I am in a birch of poplar Forest. It brings her back to me in a poignant way. Even in the dead of winter there are pockets of warmth, these trees start to release their scent and it always reminds me of the time picking poplar buds with her”.
Medicine for the Body and Spirit
It’s not only spiritual regeneration that the forests in winter can provide, but physical healing as well. While not easy, Brenda said, the land provides medicines that coincide with our own ailments of the season.
“It’s amazing to see the forest provide the medicines that we need when we need it.” Brenda said. “It’s in conjunction with our needs, plants actually know there’s a cold and flu season. Sore throats and coughs and colds, right now that’s prevalent.” The medicines that these plants provide a timely cure for seasonal malaise.
One of the medicines is in the spruce tree and the many gifts that it provides. There is Old Man’s Beard, and that is specific for strep throat and skin conditions. The winter weather can be quite hard on our skin and drying. Many of these medicines can be put together with tallow and make a salve for the skin to prevent dryness and wound healing. In a tea, the pine needles provide relief for diarrhea, and the sap is a potent cure of sore throats.
Even the ground around a spruce tree in the winter provides relief. Anyone who has walked through a spruce grove can recall the soft pillow-like ground that surrounds the trees. Even in the winter, this provides respite for plants that can help with digestive ailments, like the strawberry plant and its root.
Living with the Land
The snow itself is a gift for many Indigenous peoples for many practical purposes. Brenda shared how tracks are easier to spot, and to know what animals live in the area. It also helps with knowing where certain large animals like moose or elk bed for the season. While hunting in the winter is no easier than in the summer, the winter gives insights that are invaluable to those who live off the land year-round.
“There was a dual nature of winter, seeing it as such hardship and seeing it as such a beautiful wonderland that created so many gifts for us. “
While temperatures can drop below -30 degrees, that is no reason to stay inside. For thousands of years the Indigenous people who call this land home have had a deep connection to the land, whether through recreation, medicine, or sustenance, winter is made to be experienced.
“Our DNA is so deep into the land, but it’s also part of the wind, the snow, the sky. We’re intertwined with everything.”Brenda Holder, founder of Mahikan Trails
So, take a moment to walk through a forest or meadow this winter. Listen and watch for the abundance of gifts that around you that the land provides. Alberta is home to some of the worlds most stunning winter landscapes and experiences for those willing to take the step out into the snow. A winter wonderland waiting to be explored.
About the writer
Gavin John is a Métis documentary photojournalist based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has focused on understanding complex large scale traumatic experiences and getting to know the people who face those experiences. Since 2012, John has worked on pieces for international publications on these topics. He graduated from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology with a Diploma in Journalism in 2013, and from the University of Calgary with a Bachelor of International Relations in 2020
Find more about Gavin John at www.gavinbryanjohn.com