In May of 2006, members of Save Our Seine and Winnipeg’s Indigenous community held a ceremonial feast to commemorate the completion of the spirit tree Woody-Mhitik. In August of 2021, the beloved icon and symbol of the work Save Our Seine has been doing to protect the Bois-des-Esprits forest, succumbed to the elements of weathered time.
Marcel Ritchot and his wife Henriette Desorcy have taken it upon themselves to ensure Woody-Mhitik’s legacy lives on.
If you've walked through Bois-des-Esprits in the past, you may have come upon the 3-meter-tall spirit tree. In 2004, two members of Les Gens de Bois Woodcarving Club, Walter Mirosh and Robert Leclair, decided to help with Save Our Seine's campaign to protect the Bois-des-Esprits by contributing wood carvings for fundraising raffles. This led to the idea of creating a landmark in Bois-des-Esprits in the form of a real wood spirit.
A 150-year-old, 75-foot-tall elm tree suffering from Dutch elm disease, which was slated for removal by the City of Winnipeg, was selected for the project. Winnipeg’s Urban Forestry granted permission to save the lower 10 feet of the tree. Work began to cut, trim and debark the tree to avoid spread of the disease, and carving began the following April.
Throughout history, the Bois-des-Esprits forest has been oft-rumoured to behold a presence of protection among the creatures it inhabits: the frogs, ducks, geese and many species of birds do not just reside in the forest, they watch over those who wander in and throughout. And so, it was somewhat not surprising when something special happened while the men were carving the eyes of the wood spirit.
When it came time to open the first eye of the wood spirit and Robert struck his gouge with his mallet, the forest went silent as if to hold its collective breath. Once the outline of the eye was completed, the forest once again became alive. Both carvers were in awe. The following day, they returned to open the wood spirit's other eye and it happened again. The spirit of the tree had been released!
In 2005, a second wood spirit facing the oxbow to the south and on the opposite side of the first was released. A third spirit was also given life – a red fox protected within the beard of the first spirit. Many honorary carvers were given a chance to contribute and carve with a chisel and mallet. The 2006 ceremonial feast also acted as a naming ceremony, with the first spirit, facing north, named Woody and the second spirit, facing the oxbow to the south, given the Ojibwe name Mhitik.
When Woody-Mhitik’s time in the forest ended in the summer of 2021, Marcel Ritchot contacted Robert Leclair to discuss the idea of restoring one of the faces. Robert gave Marcel his blessing and so it was decided Marcel would retrieve and restore part of the southern-oriented Mhitik spirit.
And so, work began on an eight-foot tall, one-hundred-pound salvaged section of Woody-Mhitik. In his workshop, Marcel used cement, wood screws and an elaborate clamping system to mount Woody-Mhitik in place. Excess wood was painstakingly removed a bit at a time. Also, as a precaution against any boring insects, a special insecticide and polyurethane were applied. The sculpture was cracked in a number of places, and so a framework of carved crosspieces was constructed to shape the concave of the back. Pine panels were joined together and attached to the back and a support base was constructed to support the restored face. In true Les Bois-Brulés style, the front was torched to a beautiful finish. Lastly, after a seven-week labour of love, Marcel repainted the eyes to restore the life in his look.
Le Musée Saint-Boniface was gracious in providing a new home for the reborn Woody-Mhitik. While he is no longer part of the Bois-des-Esprits forest, his spirit will always keep a gentle watch on the spirits of all the people who have made the Seine River shores their home throughout time.