Cree Village Eco Lodge: Sustainable Development in the Sub-Arctic

Cree Village Eco Lodge

Cree Village Eco Lodge is a state-of-the-art ecotourism destination in the sub-Arctic, and the first such Indigenous-owned facility in the northern hemisphere.

By Katherine McIntyre

A freighter canoe cuts through the Moose River’s swiftly flowing water, past dense forests of tamarack and spruce, to Moose Factory Island. It lands at an old wooden dock, where a winding path leads to the Cree Village Eco Lodge, one of Canada’s most environmentally-friendly inns. Owned and managed by The MoCreebec Council of the Cree Nation, it also gives visitors a rare taste of Cree culture.

Inspiration for the inn came from a recommendation of the steering committee of the Council, spearheaded by their chief, Randy Kapashesit. They all agreed that to attract tourists to their island they needed better accommodation. Project manager Rick McLeod of New Liskeard, Ontario, a specialist in developing and finding funds for northern projects, suggested they service the ecotourist. With this in mind, the concept evolved of a unique tourist destination with an ecologically-friendly lodge, reflecting the history and values of the Cree.

Architect Clive Levitt of Toronto, another specialist in northern projects, met with the committee to establish a basic plan that would combine the Cree values with a building that worked both architecturally and economically in the sub-Arctic.

They agreed the building would:

  • Incorporate various “green” features;
  • Make a negligible impact on the natural surroundings;
  • Use materials that have minimal environmental impact, have low maintenance finishes and no off-gassing, and require low embodied energy;
  • Use low maintenance appliances and mechanical systems;
  • Be a gathering place for the community.

The resulting design includes the focal point of the lodge, a soaring Shabatwon or Great Hall, the reception area, 20 guest rooms on two floors with stair access, and a full kitchen. Randy Kapashesit notes, “We made sure that the architect interpreted our ideas.”

But building at the edge of the Arctic presented its own problems. Because of weather restrictions, timing and scheduling of material deliveries had to be precise. Construction supplies and equipment were delivered first by truck or rail to Cochrane, in northern Ontario, then by rail to Moosonnee, and finally to Moose Factory Island. In the fall, they went by river barge, and by truck over the ice in winter. It was essential that all materials conformed to the size and weight limitations of the trains and barges. Construction started in early September and lasted throughout the winter, one of the warmest on record. The Cree Village Eco Lodge opened in the summer of 2000.

The towering Shabatwon, a 21st century version of the Cree gathering place, overlooks the ever-changing waters of the Moose River. In the old days, the Cree came to a Shabatwon to share stories and to celebrate the hunt. Traditionally, it consisted of two teepees linked by a lean-to, with the whole covered in deerskin or moss. Now the cathedral-like interior is cedar, framed by giant 48-foot poles of lodge-pole pine, mounted in place by an intricate hinge system. The view of the Moose River from the south window resembles a landscape painting from The Group of Seven.

The 20 comfortable guest rooms at Cree Village open to a carpeted corridor,  extending from the reception area to a bay window, overlooking the water. The bedrooms facing southwest are stepped back; each has a corner window that provides natural ventilation. A large picture window maximizes winter’s passive solar heat and a deep overhang shades these rooms from the summer sun. If, on the rare occasion the rooms require extra cooling, ceiling fans do the job. Smaller windows on the northeast side protect the building from the Arctic winds.

The lodge features cedar walls or walls painted with low emission paints in soft blending colors. The sturdy hickory furniture, trimmed with bark detail, blends with chairs, upholstered in a durable fabric of patterned dark green spruce trees. All the window blinds are of natural slatted birch. Low-level fluorescent light bulbs shine from whimsical lampshades of recycled steel. The building has two entrances; one faces the water on the south side and the other overlooks the road on the north. The hall joining these two entrances is covered in tiles that resemble natural stone, some with the marks of animal footprints.Cree Village Eco Lodge interior

For a building where the temperature falls below –40 degrees F in the winter, windows are triple glazed. Propane supplies a water-based radiation heating system, which in the north is considered a more effective means of heat than forced air. A wood-burning masonry heater, based on a European model and built from local stone complete with embedded fossils, radiates additional heat in the Shabatwon. Greg Williams, the manager of the lodge, says, “Even with R30 insulation we could use more heat in the main part of the building in the middle of winter. We may add radiant heating in the hardwood floor in the Shabatwon sometime in the future.” A few planned environmental features were reduced because of budget restrictions. For instance, instead of fitting each bathroom with a composting toilet, demonstration models have been installed in four of the bathrooms for now.

Environmentally friendly products used throughout the Cree Village lodge include wool carpeting in the corridors and bedrooms, and organic mattresses, pure wool blankets, and cotton sheets on the beds. Dispensers supply organic soaps and shampoos in the bathrooms. The staff spread hemp tablecloths on the tables in the Shabatwon for dinner in the evening. According to Greg Williams, they keep to ecological principles in running the lodge as well, for instance, using biodegradable cleaning supplies that have been tested for toxicity.

Even the menu is structured to reflect the Cree way of life. A chef prepares traditional food in the traditional ways. They serve bison, pickerel, trout, venison, smoked salmon, fiddleheads, blueberries, and cranberries in season. Cree women take turns cooking bannock – in summer over a wood fire in a cooking tent adjacent to the lodge. Kapashesit adds, “Chips, hamburgers, and high fat foods are discouraged. It causes a bit of conflict in the local community, but we want our menu to reflect our original values.”

The building has weathered to a pale gray, on the north side, and retained its natural cedar appearance under the overhanging roof. Future plans include planting native plants and local flowers on the waterside entrance and expanding the vegetable garden on the south side of the building.

Visitors from around the globe come to Cree Village Eco Lodge to hike, paddle, kayak, and fish in the summer and snowshoe, cross-country ski, snowmobile, or follow the trap lines in the winter. As a bonus, they find, in the vast Canadian north, the best of the traditional Cree culture wrapped up in what the designers feel is one of the most ecologically-friendly buildings in the world.

This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.

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