A little-known chapter of Quetico Provincial Park’s history is being slowly uncovered and shared, as the semi-wild ponies that First Nations people depended on for winter transportation are restored and returned to the area.
When the lakes and rivers froze up, people used Lac La Croix ponies to haul sleds, move lumber and run trap lines.
“They ran free like the deer,” says Darcy [Whitecrow of the Seine River First Nation]. “Every now and then, when [people] needed them, they just went out and got them.”
It was a fair trade. The Anishinaabe fed and sheltered the horses through the winter, when forage was scarce and predators were hungry. The rest of the year, the horses looked after themselves.
The Anishinaabe and scientists think it is possible the ponies predated European arrival — conflicting with previous beliefs that horses disappeared from North America 10,000 years ago and only returned when Spanish explorers brought them back.
The ponies have special adaptations like a flap over their nose that helps keep the cold out and small furry ears to discourage black flies. There are stories about the ponies from before European arrival, and genetic and archaeological evidence, backing it up.
After nearly disappearing by the 1970s, the ponies have been carefully bred over the past few decades. There are now 150 of the animals, mostly living on a ranch east of Quetico.
The ponies will come back to Quetico over Labor Day weekend, when visitors can meet them and learn more about their history and restoration at the Dawson Lake Campground.