On a beautiful summer morning we are in our family freighter canoes skimming along over the water of the Attawapiskat River. We are heading out to spend the weekend on Akamiski Island. We are travelling with two boats. Most of my family, including myself, rides in Dad’s 22 foot canoe which is leading the way. My brother Lawrence is piloting a second 22 foot canoe with the rest of our group. Both boats are loaded with passengers, two canvas prospector tents, extra gas, sleeping bags, cushions, food and drinking water for our short holiday.
There is some anxiety in our group as organizing this trip has taken a lot of effort and coordination. Everything was started early this morning but responsibilities to regular jobs and assembling all our materials were difficult tasks that took up our time. Just assembling our large family unit of two daughters and seven sons together for a trip was hard enough on my parents.
We are late in heading out as we have missed the mid day high tide to help us in our travels. The tides come in and out on a regular basis but at different times everyday.
Travelling with the tides is an important skill when heading out on to the salt water of James Bay. The water along the shorelines is shallow. This means that when the tides recede, landing a canoe can leave a traveller and their supplies several hundred feet away from shore in middle of muddy clay.
As we clear the mouth of the river and head into the cold grey waters of the bay, it is clear to dad that we will be arriving during the low tide. The marker poles at the opening of the river are not submerged and are standing in the middle of a rise of shiny wet clay. We continue on and plan on making the best of our trip to the island.
The one hour trip is rough due to heavy seas. We all shelter ourselves and our supplies in a large tarp to keep from getting wet. As we approach the island we head south to the southern shore which is mostly comprised of gravel and pebble beaches. When we find our destination near a small creek that enters the island, the tide is at its lowest point and we are 500 feet away from the pebble shore.
The boats are landed on slick grey clay. Dad and the older boys have hip waders on and as they step on to the smooth and shiny clay surface their feet sink foot or two into the muck. As the rest of us sit in the boat they work hard at trying to push the boats closer to shore but with little success. Finally, Lawrence takes a long line of rope and secures both canoes to a boulder on the surface of the clay.
Dad and three of my older brothers begin the strenuous task of unloading our boats. They start by deciding to carry the rest of us from the boats to shore. One by one we each piggyback with my brothers. I partner with my brother Lawrence Just a short distance from shore he lets me down and I am able to walk the rest of the way in my own short rubber boots to join my two younger brothers, Paul and Joseph, on the pebble beach. Once we are on the beach there is a sense of freedom from the confines of the boat and the sticky clay. While my older brothers make several trips to bring our most needed supplies, my younger brothers and I run along the beach in play.
When the tide is out only our supply of fresh water, one tent and some food are brought to shore. Dad starts a fire and we all sit down to cook hot dogs over the flames. Mom prepares some tea for all of us in a large metal pot that is hung over the fire. The anxiety we felt is slowly forgotten and the only worries that concern us now are the two boats. We rest on the shore or walk along the pebble beach waiting for the tide to rise. Over a few hours we watch as the water slowly raises the boats from the clay. Dad and Lawrence venture out into the muck once in a while to bring the boats closer and readjust the anchor line as the water rises. By sundown the boats have been pulled up to pebble beach and we all pitch in to carry our remaining supplies to shore so that we can properly establish our camp. The empty canoes are brought up on the beach and secured to some trees nearby.
As we bed down for the night, we are not far from shore and we are comforted by the rhythmic sound of the waves breaking on the pebble beach. The James Bay reminds us of the ups and downs in life..the tides roll in and the tides roll out. It is a matter of figuring out that this is normal and also how to handle this reality and maybe even use it to one’s advantage.