"Are you on your moontime?" asks Martina. We have just arrived at the Bloodvein First Nation Indian Reserve, having completed our four-day paddle down the Bloodvein River. Moontime means menstrual period, which is a pretty personal introductory question, if you ask me. Then again, this is no ordinary introduction. (By the way, if it's your moontime, you can't participate in the sweat lodge ceremony.)
Martina is Louis Young's sister. Louis is an elder within Canada's First Nation's peoples and he'll be leading a community sweat lodge experience, which is all about purification and healing. It's a great honour to be invited.
The sweat lodge itself is comprised of thick lengths of canvas that have been shaped around a dome. "Somebody may be suffering spiritually, emotionally or physically," explains Martina. "If someone's having a hard time, you may feel pain in your body. But it goes away."
The women who will be participating in the sweat have changed into bathing suits modestly wrapped in sarongs. We are brought into a bedroom for our smudging, whereby Martina takes an eagle feather and fans us with curls of smoke from a small wooden bowl filled with burning sage leaves. She says a little prayer and we're good to go.
There are four cycles within the sweat, which will last about an hour, each cycle carrying a different spiritual theme, each one intensifying in heat.
Once inside the pitch-black dome it's hotter than every sauna and steam room I've ever been in, combined. It's at once debilitating and comforting; the air is fragrant with cedar smoke, the rocks in the central fire pit glowing red and cracking apart when we pour ladles of water onto them. There is chanting and drumming, singing and moaning.
I know we're meant to look inwards here, but after a couple of cycles, I want out. It's either the salt from my sweat or the smoke from the fire or the sad stories people are generously sharing, but my eyes are stinging like crazy. So when the door flap opens at the end of the second cycle, several of us slink out. We're handed icy Cokes by the helpers and are told to go down to the river to cool off.
We come across a gaggle of kids from the reserve splashing about in the afternoon sun. Some are doing the dog paddle fully clothed while others wear pretty two-piece bathing suits and polish up on their shallow dives.
Pieces of driftwood become makeshift floatation noodles, and smooth glacial rocks, de facto diving boards. Laughter fills the riverbank while drumming and chanting fuels the darkness of the nearby sweat lodge. I like it better here. I like jumping into the river and playing with the kids. I like drinking my Coke and feeling the sun on my face. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It is my summer vacation, after all.
-By Amy Rosen