The sun is reflecting off clear, rippling lake water in the afternoon. I dip my paddle into the water and pull the canoe forward with every stroke. A loon cries out from across the lake and gulls lazily hover in the breeze blowing over the treetops. I recall lessons from my parents when I was young about how to steer a canoe or boat in the water. As my friend Mike and I move across the lake, I keep my paddle in the water to correct our course from time to time. I was tense at first but now I am relaxed as my body settles into the motion of the canoe riding over the waves.
The quiet and steady paddling power of one’s own body is a rhythmic and meditative activity. As I paddled across Lake Sesekinika in our fibreglass canoe, I thought of what my parents and others from their generation had to go through before the introduction of the outboard motor in the north. I thought of a memory my dad Marius often recalled during the spring goose hunt.
I imagined my dad and my uncle Gabriel Kataquapit as teenagers readying their small canoe on the banks of the community. The spring break-up has completed its course and the river is now free of ice. In the cold, early morning hours of twilight my dad and Gabe are hauling a small pack, their guns and a set of paddles to the canoe. All they have is a well-worn canvas and wood canoe that bears several repairs and patches. The two brothers steal away from the community in silence as they slip into a light mist on the river over mirror-like water. A few other hunters are up and on the river with the harvest of geese on their minds. They are ghostly in the mist as they move along in their canoes, on this day in 1950.
Out on the river and in the early morning quiet, there is only the sound of dad’s and uncle Gabe’s voices and their paddles dipping the water. The canoe moves quickly under the power of two of the best young hunters in Attawapiskat. This little trip to James Bay is nothing compared to major outings on traditional hunting grounds over days of paddling and portaging on rough water in bad weather.
The canoe cuts through the still water on its way east to James Bay. As they paddle in the spreading light they see the geese fresh into flight. The Canada Geese, or Niska, are honking out their haunting cries in the brisk spring air. Snow-geese or Way-way are moving about also and taking to the air from the tundra. The Way-way fill the blue sky with their high pitched “qway-oo” cries. As dad and Gabe approach the tundra flats, the air and the land seems to come alive with the sounds, cries and fluttering of thousands of birds. It takes about an hour for them paddle to their destination near the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on the tundra flats on the edge of James Bay. The cold air keeps them sharp and alert. They stay warm by paddling their canoe. It makes these teenagers happy to know that out here on the land on this day they will be able to harvest many geese to keep their family fed.
Back in my own reality on Lake Sesekinika in my own canoe in the bright afternoon sun, I think of my mom Susan and her memories of growing up on Nawashi River, a waterway that empties into James Bay and is north of Attawapiskat.
I imagine her out on the river with her aunt to check one of the gill nets. Mom is a young woman and she easily steers the canoe along the shore to fish-net. The water is crystal clear and sparkling like diamonds under the mid-day sun. When mom looks into the river it seems that the bottom is just inches away when in fact it is much deeper.
These women are both experienced canoeists and they glide swiftly over the water in their canoe. Several fish dart by under their boat. As mom and auntie near the net they can see that it is twitching wildly. They smile at the sight as they realize that their catch is a good one. Mom stabilizes the boat with her paddle as auntie hauls in the net and out spills the pickerel and trout. They are both happy to have gathered another day’s worth of food for their family back at the traditional camp on the Nawashi.
Back at camp, they unload their boat with the help of the family. Then the work continues as everyone joins in to clean and prepare the fish for a meal. At shore, mom has one last chore to do with one of her sisters. It is time to collect fresh drinking water from the river. They paddle out and in their hurry upset and spill themselves into the frigid river. Their shouts of surprise and fun echo all along the fast-flowing river. It is a brief diversion in the regular struggle to stay alive on their traditional lands in 1962.
Once again I come back to my place in the canoe on my lake trip and it occurs to me that every time I dip my paddle I do so with tradition in my wake.