I am fourteen years old and my dad Marius and my younger brothers Paul and Joseph and I are heading out onto the river for some ice fishing. It is not a long ride on dad’s powerful long track Bombardier Cheyenne snowmobile. We are heading to a location close by at the main channel of the Attawapiskat River in front of the community. He is towing us in a toboggan with some fishing gear, an ice auger and an ice pick on a long pole. We are only going out for a few hours to set some lines on the ice to leave them over night.
This is a teaching trip and my brothers and I are learning about a traditional method of baiting for fish under the ice. It is a special day for all of us as this is one of the few days that dad has actually set aside to spend time with us. Most days he is busy taking care of a family business and trying to earn enough income to support our large family.
It is a mild day compared to the extreme cold weather we have faced for the past few days. The overcast sky is grey and it reflects a subdued light over the ice and snow. My brothers and I are dressed in our warmest winter clothes. We are wearing snowpants, light parkas, mom’s moose hide mitts and our hooded parkas. The weather is mild enough for us to expose our heads from our parkas as we drive across the ice and snow.
A few kilometres down the river from the community dad stops at what he estimates to be the deepest part of the river. He parks the snowmachine and directs us to bring out the auger to start work right away. My brother Paul clears a spot on the ice with a shovel and dad starts twisting the auger into the hard ice. We take turns turning the auger and drill away at the two foot thick river ice.
Dad works quickly at trying to get through the ice. He is getting older but he still has an enormous strength that he has developed over years of living on the land. As we drill into the ice, he tells us stories of what he had to go through to find food when he was younger. He describes bitterly cold days when all he had was an ice pick to make his fishing hole.
You have to remember that back in the 1960s and 70s the Cree on the James Bay coast did not have many of the tools and equipment available in southern communities. Many people still lived off the land. An ice pick was a prized possession as it was used to cut through the ice and provide access to fish. In cold weather, ice gloves or mitts can make holding the pick slippery. Many people lost ice picks in the water by losing grip of their pole and thrusting it into the water. When my people depended mostly on hunting and fishing to feed their families, the loss of an ice pick was serious and more so if one was far from the community and on a quest for fish.
Dad tells a story of fetching for water one day while trapping on the land by himself. He had cut a hole with an ice pick near his camp. He drew his water from this hole. One day while stopping at the hole for his water he had to use his axe to chip away at a layer of ice that had formed. He lost his grip and the axe slipped into the lake. Thankfully, he had an additional axe with him. He pointed out that life was so severe in those days that if he had not had an extra axe it would have made it very difficult to keep warm. Without an axe it was a huge chore to find wood for the fire.
On our day of fishing we cut several holes over a period of about an hour. Dad set large sized hooks with strong bait lines into the water. The lines are tethered to a long stick which is laid flat on top of the ice to keep it in place. We then cover over the holes with snow and mark the locations with small pine trees.
We take a break and I wander off a few yards away from the group. The snow crunches under my feet as I stand on the ice covered mighty Attawapiskat River. I look back and see my dad and brothers preparing to head home. I am happy we are here today. Except for the snowmobile this day could be happening at any period over the last 100 years. I think of my grandfathers and I imagine them out here with their children long ago and it makes me feel good.