There is nothing like spending a hot summer day near the water’s edge. I enjoy as much time as I can swimming but there are many responsibilities that keep me from cooling off in a crystal clean northern lake. Recently I took on the job of fixing an old lake-side dock which was a chore that allowed me to get some work done and be in the water at the same time.
Under a blazing hot sun and a looming storm in the northern sky, I set about my job of fixing up a decade’s worth of neglect. As with anything, the demolition was simple but then I got down to the hard work of figuring out how to raise a dock that had settled into the lake bottom. I waded into the cool water and even though it was hot, I was able to work for hours without breaking too much of a sweat. However, I also met up with a creature that I have always dreaded. It was the Poh-Kwa-Chee-Meh-Oo, the Cree word for the leech or bloodsucker.
As I waded into knee-deep water, I worked as hard as I could for a few minutes, jumped back onto the remainder of dry dock, did a leech check around my feet and my legs and then went back in. About every second leech check I found a wormy Poh-Kwa-Chee-Meh-Oo firmly attached to one of my toes or my calf and gorging itself with my blood. This sight has always been disgusting to me. In reality you don’t really feel a leech when it decides to attach to you and it is not dangerous but still I think it is mainly the thought that this little creature is sucking out precious blood.
I am like most people up the coast as we Cree dread the sight of leeches. When you come from the western edge of James Bay where the landscape is an endless expanse of marsh, mushkeg and swamp, leeches are everywhere and people quickly find ways of avoiding these little life-forms. We were taught to avoid any of the nearby lakes where weed-filled shores abounded with leeches. When we wanted to go swimming, we chose the Attawapiskat River and we stayed in moving water where leeches seldom ventured.
All of my leech phobias came back to me when I decided to rebuild the old dock. I had the time and interest to notice the leech world. Large leeches that measured about six inches in length swam by as I worked but for some reason they didn’t bother with me. The tiny ones were the culprits that attached themselves to me. Mostly they snuck in between my toes.
I worked quickly so that I would not have to spend so much time in the water and weeds. There were moments as I worked that I became frustrated in the midst of a constant bombardment from mosquitoes and my ongoing anxiety over being attacked by the leeches. At times I felt that the flying bloodsuckers had taken over the space I worked in.
After a few hours in this predicament I soon began to prefer the leeches. Mosquitoes truly are bothersome. They come to you with that nasty high-pitched sound that let’s you know a bite is on the way. Then it painfully stabs into your skin and draws your blood. The result is pain, itching and sometimes the appearance of an agitating welt.
Leeches, on the other hand, are quite sophisticated and much more considerate in their need for stealing a little blood. The leech stealthily attaches itself to your skin, then it administers an anesthetic so you don’t feel any bite at all. At the same time the leech releases an anti-clogging serum that allows for the free flow of blood. When the leech gets its fill it simply drops off.
I learned through some research that the best way to remove a leech or bloodsucker is to use your finger nails to pinch its head so that it releases its grip and detaches itself from your skin. Back home, we used cigarettes, lighters, salt or hot embers to remove leeches. These solutions are a little dangerous as they cause the leech to regurgitate or vomit the blood it is sucking back into you. This can lead to infection in the wound.
On the dock I stubbed my toe and it swelled up and was very painful. I soon found myself limping with this little injury. Still, I worked on happily repairing the old dock. At one point I realized that my toe seemed to have mended. When I took the time to check out my little injury I was surprised to find a tiny leech planted right on my injured toe.
I immediately removed it and tossed it back into the water. Then I noticed that the swelling where the leech had been sucking my blood had disappeared and my injury was pretty much remedied. The blood flowed freely from its little bite for a few minutes. My pain subsided. It dawned on me that my little bloodsucking friend had indeed done me a favour.
As a matter of fact, leeches have been used for centuries for all sorts of medical purposes relating to ailments involving blood. I am not saying that the next time I stub my toe I will be running for the nearest lake to find a leech but I do have a certain kind of appreciation for these little bloodsuckers. They are another wonderful example of the good that Mother Earth provides in all creatures great and small. It’s up to us to notice.