He also advised the walkers on how quickly to travel so they wouldn’t sweat or get too cold. He helped them set up camp, showed them the best types of wood to throw in the fire – and something else. “Isaac was the one keeping us together,” David said. “He was the glue to all of us. He kept us sane.”
On Feb. 5, the day the White Wizard turned 47, the other walkers woke at 4 a.m. to surprise him by singing Happy Birthday to You. They celebrated by relaxing that day, David said, playing cards and listening to the radio.
Throughout the journey, the “icon of the land” updated his Facebook page, reporting lows as well as highs, often referring to himself in the third person. “Having trouble sleeping,” he wrote on March 14, “can’t close his eyes, pray for him.”
“He had this little MP3 player,” David said, and would listen to metal, rock, country and church music long into the night. He loved the moose burgers delivered to the group by an army of volunteers, and called his family members to update them on the journey’s progress.
Still, years of substance abuse had taken a toll, forcing him into a two-week break in February. He headed home to rest and, by the time he returned to lead the walkers into the nation’s capital, their numbers had ballooned to more than 200, with thousands more awaiting their March 25 arrival on Parliament Hill.
He seemed happy but overwhelmed, friends say, likely experiencing culture shock. David said Mr. Kawapit “became himself again” on the journey. But the day after the triumphant entry to Ottawa, he left and “went back home, to where he belonged.”
Back in James Bay, he seemed tired, cousin Rachel Kawapit said, but he kept talking about how many good people he had met along the way.
“He was very much touched by the attention he got,” Mr. Mukash said. “I saw him many times going through Facebook and having tears in his eyes.”
At the end of the great adventure, though, after the cameras and onlookers had gone, Mr. Kawapit, like his fellow walkers, had difficulty settling back into the life he’d left behind, and fell prey to old bad habits.
“All of us got hit hard after the journey ended,” David said. “We all went into a state of depression.”
They had become a family during the long walk, David said, with Mr. Kawapit as their father figure. “If someone felt sad about home, he told us, ‘We’re doing this for home.’ ”
Which may help explain why Mr. Kawapit has become a “hero” to local kids, Mr. George said. Following his example, they are beginning to unplug from modern luxuries in favour of Cree traditions, seeking a balance between their past and this country’s present.
“One of my grandchildren actually said, ‘Hey guys, let’s go for a walk – I’m going to be the white wizard,’ ” Mr. George said. “And his friends asked him why, and he said: ‘Because I’m the person who knows all about the land. And I want to be the person who guides these kids.’ ”
Even as his abuse worsened, friends and family say, Mr. Kawapit remained peaceful, humble, caring and helpful, always wearing a smile.
For David Kawapit, it is perhaps fitting that the original White Wizard lost his battle only after making his mark.
“He did what he was sent to do in this world.”