The first time I saw a flock of geese land on our pond, I was lying under a huge block of snow. I was carrying the snow to our blind when I heard someone say, “Get down.” I knew what I had to do. I got down.
I was lying on my back just behind our blind, which blocked my view of the pond. I was hoping the block of snow on my chest would hide me. I gazed up at the vast blue sky stretching above me. It was very still.
I learned there was always a kind of dreamy stillness at our pond, except when there was a storm. During a storm, the stillness was disturbed by little flakes of snow drifting noiselessly from the sky. It was so quiet, you could hear the snowflakes touch down on the ground.
As I lay there looking at the vast cloudless blue sky, I could hear goose calls coming from Bill and Ernie’s brother, Gary, in the other blinds. Then the calls stopped. It was totally quiet, except for the distant sound of water rushing in a frozen-over stream. I didn’t move. Not even my eyes. I could feel something was about to happen. A little while passed.
Then all of a sudden, goose calls filled the air. It was as if the Chisasibi Goose Call Choir had snuck up behind me. I thought to myself, wow, Bill and Gary are really good. How do they imitate so many geese at the same time?
It was at that moment that I heard them. The helicopters. Strange, I thought. Were the poachers early this year? But no. It was niskich. They really sounded like helicopters. Then I saw them. Unless you’ve experienced it first-hand, you can’t appreciate how exciting it is when a big flock is coming in to land nearby. More than a dozen swooped right overhead straight to our pond. I thought I could reach out and touch them, they were that dose. They were busy talking to each other. They were saying, “I like the look of that pond. I want to check it out.”
Suddenly, there was a yell and the “blashting” got underway. I sat up still holding my snow chunk just in time to see Gary and Bill firing into the flock. Oh oh, the geese thought to themselves; big mistake! They started to flap frantically, trying to get away. Lead was flying all around them. A couple of geese shuddered. They were weaving toward the ground. Two more were flapping around crazily in the pond. They were hit. The rest of the geese were soon specks in the bright blue sky.
It was still again. Only seconds had passed. Gary and Bill each got two. The geese made Bill work very hard that day. One of his geese came down still alive not far from his blind. As soon as Bill came near, it started walking off. He got a good workout chasing it down. Later on, he had to slog off across the swamp to find another goose he shot. It went down half a mile away.
The day went on like that. It would be still for hours. We would sit in the blind monitoring the horizon and looking at the trees with funny little knobs on top. Then someone would notice a flock. We’d get down and not move. Someone would call
to it. Mostly, they would fly past, far to the east or west. Only four or five flocks landed at our pond.
Later on, I found out we were actually pretty lucky that day. Because of the cold and the north winds, few geese came on later days. I heard that some years, there were so many geese in Chisasibi they would be considered a pest. It wasn’t like that this year. We would go home wondering, danji-niskich? When they did come, it would mostly be during lunch. How did they always know when we were having lunch?
So we mostly just sat in our blind, waiting. But it was never boring. In fact, it was awesome. The land around us was majestic and stunning in its beauty. You could stare at it for hours and hours, and it never ceased to hold my attention. Every place you looked, you could make a postcard out of it. After a while, I stopped thinking how beautiful it is. I just got mesmerized. I started noticing little things, the slight changes in the temperature, the clear sky on the horizon which meant a sunny afternoon, the distant sounds of a bird, the water rushing under the ice, a mouse, the silence that blankets the land before a storm. I noticed when it was a south wind or a north wind.
I also saw for the first time some of the skills which Crees have used for generations to survive from the land. This was the most awesome thing that I saw. Choosing the right place to wait for geese and building a pond to attract them are skills as complex as designing the tallest dam. The skills Crees have developed are one of this country’s greatest unacknowledged treasures. Skills like knowing how to build a blind or a dyke with only the tools nature provides, how to sneak upon a goose, even the art of chopping wood. Being able to predict the weather better than Environment Canada, cooking a goose or duck to taste better than the finest restaurant food in Montreal, making a fire when everything is wet, cleaning a shotgun. I learned of families that had crossed the entire Ungava peninsula, 1,000 miles, to the Labrador coast on foot as part of their yearly hunting expedition.
Most of these are skills I know virtually nothing about, except that they exist. I used to spend a lot of time camping when I was small, but in Chisasibi I was amazed by how little I knew. A lot of the time I felt like a child, just hoping I wouldn’t get in the way. I needed to be told even the simplest things like not to eat all the munchies right away because there’s no store in the bush. And, “Get down.”
At least I didn’t fall in the pond. That’s one thing I’m proud of. Another member of our party fell in twice. He just got up and said nonchalantly, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t cold.” He stayed out all day.
That first day out, my mouth was bright red when we came home. It looked like someone had smacked me in the mouth with a fish. My lips burned. I couldn’t believe I had gotten a tan. I was darker than Ernie’s fiancee, Catherine, who just came back from a vacation in Florida. It was the first time I got a tan while snow was still on the ground.
One of the most memorable parts of goose break was our trip back from our pond in the evenings to Chisasibi, which was a ghost town since everyone was in their hunting camps. By the evening, the sun would melt the snow and ice to create vast lakes of slush. These trips gave me an idea of what it would be like on a space shuttle coming in from orbit and landing in a milk shake. Ernie and I were in a sled behind Gary’s skidoo. For 20 minutes, we bounced around, chunks of ice pelting us, slush flying all around. If you were stupid enough to look up, nature would throw a bucket of slush at your face.
One time it was so bad, by the time we got home the hood of my parka was filled with about five pounds of slush. My hair looked like I had just gotten electro-shock. “Look what Gary did to me,” I said when I walked into the kitchen. Everybody was laughing. “Waaah,” everyone said in unison. “I guess you won’t have to have a shower tonight,” commented Ernie’s mother.
One part of the trip was especially hairy. About half-way home there was a stream about 150 yards across where the top layer of ice was almost completely melted. This part was like waterskiing with a 100-pound weight on each foot. Once coming home, our sled almost tipped over right in the middle of this stream. Seconds later, Bill hit a bump at the same spot, went off the trail and expertly recovered.
But the worst came later. One day when I didn’t go out, they didn’t come home at the usual hour. Ernie’s mother knew something was wrong. It was 11:30 when we heard the skidoos. Gary walked in the house, drenched with water. His skidoo had gone through the ice at the stream. He was in up to his chest in freezing water before he could get back onto the ice. Bill, who was in front of him, started to go in too. He jumped off his skidoo just in time. Only the back went in. They spent three hours pulling it out. Gary’s skidoo is still there.
As I write this my head is still filled with memories of the goose break and Chisasibi. The first time I saw the monstrous LG-1 dam after so many years of hearing about the hydro-projects in the news, the feeling you get when you take a shower after a gruelling day in the bush, the taste of goose, bannock and duck cooked the Cree way, the joy when Ernie and Catherine announced they were going to get married in Chisasibi in July. The clearcutting along the James Bay Highway which brought tears to my eyes. The beautiful river La Grande which took my breath away.
For these memories I will always be indebted to Ernie and his parents, Tom and Eliza Webb, whom I will never be able to thank enough for their generosity, warmth and for opening their home to me. I’ll never forget the goose and duck I ate in their house, watching the hockey game with Ernie’s dad after a long day in the bush, and the wonderful smells, sights and feeling of being at peace while lying back on the shtakunj in their teepee. Megwetch.