This story happens along a place called the east
coast of James Bay. Cree territory; other things too, I suppose. Me and my buddy Ghislain Henri, we were trying to be teachers in a village up there called Waskaganish. Some people used to call that place Rupert’s House. We met a few Ruperts up there; none of ’em ever said it was his house.
Me ‘n Ghislain, we’re no grey owls or nothing, just visitors, but for fun we like to ski from town to town. If we can have a little adventure, we like that too. Just a little one, mind you. I wouldn’t chill you with details, but you should know it’s a fair ways from Waskaganish to Eastmain. A three-day ski if you want to have a good safe time. Seems they forgot to put in a Burger Queen or a strip mall. Some go so far as to say there’s nothing up there at all.
I don’t know about that – I’m not sure I can count the people who helped us along the way. The first day after nine hours of skiing I went through the ice to my waist, like a silly kid. Twelve frozen-pant kilometres later David Blackned welcomed us to Boatswain’s Bay. I guess he still laughs right down to the hair on his toes when he thinks of me crackling into his camp, well after dark. Day two and decoys were out on Bertie Diamond’s island. People were busy getting ready for geese, but there was still time for tea and a send-off in the right direction — with an escort.
Agnes Katapatuk, Jack River — at 82 years old, in the dark, she laid a floor of spruce in the cook tent and we strangers slept like babies.
The cold I got from yesterday’s swim was gone the next morning. Strange how many people you meet, in a land some call empty.
Day three, 45 K to Eastmain, temperature minus-18 or so, wind coming in north about 25 K. We were heading north. Wind in your forehead, wind in your chest — sucks the heat out of you, makes you wonder where your breakfast went. Day three the wind was changing and hungry. In fact that wind was so hungry it ate our map. Spit her out ‘bout three miles west on the bay. ‘Course we went after it, least ’til we saw we’d need water skis if we really wanted to get that map.
Turn around. Wow. Shore seems away off. Bay seems awful big without a map. Oh well. Turn around, James Bay behind us, go left, that’s north, right? Sort of. We crawl up top a pile of ice and snow. Through the ’nocs we spot a rock big as a house against the shore. Between that rock and us, white, no grey snow, no place where spring seeps off the land ‘tween the ice and snow of the bay. In an hour we’re hunkered behind that rock, chewing on a fruit bar, chewing our next move.
Wind come around completely now, blowing warm out of the south. Surprise! A little élan skidoo pops out from behind that rock. It’s Luke Tomatuk. “How’re you doing, boys?” Luke says he’s off to cut wood, if we follow his tracks they’ll take us to his camp. Coming into that camp an hour later we find six, seven, maybe eight cords of wood neatly stacked in snow. Dry wood. Wood that was planned long before Ghislain and I ever dreamed this trip.
In Luke’s cabin there is warmth. His wife Louisa brings chairs. The rest of the cabin is chock-a-block with grandchildren. The in-between generation is back in the village making ready for geese. We set up our little stove, cook our couscous. The kids stare, but shyly; we explain how light and nutritious is this wonder food. “Give it to Michael, he’ll eat anything,” says an older child, and a few are brave enough to try. The look on their faces as they chew and spit — pretty close to what my nieces would look if you gave them a hunk o’ beavertail.
Luke comes in as we eat. “Did you give them some tea?” he booms at his wife. Luke sits and does not appear to watch. I look around and see a plate against the window, some kind of cake with blueberries, I think. Ghislain nods with a hungry twinkle as Luke points with his lips. In Cree he says, “My wife made it this morning. Do you want to try?”
After three days of couscous and freeze-dried cardboard, cake beats the heck out of, well, just about anything. I look at Luke with my mouth full, and trying to practice my Cree, I say, “Tzegoan-oh, uu midjim?” (“What is this food?”)
Luke looks a bit startled, as if I asked how to build a fire. The kids watch in sudden quiet as Luke bends close and says “…baane keig.” With my kindergarten Cree I find this hard to digest, and I say, “Miin-ah iideyo.” (“Say that again?”)
Luke looks at his wife, she looks at the kids, everybody gets that
painful expression like you have to explain something real simple to someone who just won’t understand. Luke fixes me with his eyes, and very carefully drawls out the word “…baane keig.” I look at my partner Ghislain. He’s looking at me like I fell out of the sky as I say, “Quoi?” (“What?”)
Louisa and the kids just lose it. There are Elders, grandchildren, heck even my partner rolling on the ground laughing to bust a gut, laughing so hard you could make soup with their tears. Luke sits quiet; after a moment or two he looks around. There is silence. Luke stands up walks over puts his hand on my arm and says: “Don’t you speak English, boy? It’s a blueberry pancake!”
Some funny things happened after we left Luke’s island and visited in Eastmain, but that’s another story. As for me. I’m still trying to figure out how to speak this English language, and all that other stuff. Seems like I can’t go anywhere without being reminded. Sometimes, I even think I begin to understand, but I’m probably just fooling. Myself, that is.
For Luke and Louisa — and all them grandchildren.