There is almost always a perception that as a Native person from the James Bay coast, I have seen my share of freezing weather, so therefore I am immune from the cold. People think that because I have been exposed to severe winter weather from the time I was born that I have developed some kind of super-human power that prevents me from getting cold. Most of my friends in the south have that impression.
Well, the simple truth is that I dress for the cold. From a young age, my parents in the north taught me to respect the cold weather. If I was to spend any amount of time in freezing temperatures, I dressed in several layers, with warm boots, a fur-lined hat and mittens. As a child, when I had enough warm clothes on, playing outside on a blustery winter day was not a problem.
One of the surprising things I discovered about many people in the south is that very few people actually wear long underwear in the winter time. As soon as the cold weather arrives, I put mine on to get ready for winter. Sometimes when the weather dips very low, I put on an extra sweater or shirt just for good measure. So when I am standing out in the cold, the extra layers keep me comfortable and warm. The cold resistant Cree hunter-gatherer is actually a northern guy with long underwear, one too many shirts and a double pair of socks.
When I go drive a Northern Ontario highway, I dress for the cold even though I know I will be inside a heated cab for the whole trip. This is from my experience of being out on the winter road on the James Bay coast. When our cars or trucks broke down in the middle of nowhere, there was no option but to wait for help. If your truck or car engine was not running, it meant waiting inside an unheated cab in freezing temperatures. In a freezing wind chill of minus-40, the temperature inside an unheated vehicle can quickly drop to minus-20 and the longer you have to wait the colder it will feel.
Whenever I head out on a short trip onto a frozen highway, I am dressed for the elements. I also try to keep some additional clothing in the back seat such as a pair of heavy winter boots or even a blanket. I have also learned from survival experts to keep a candle and matches inside my glove compartment as a simple flame is enough to keep a small space, such as the cab of a vehicle, warm in an emergency.
Simply put, whenever I plan to go out in the cold for whatever reason, I imagine myself standing out in the snow and not being able to find a source of heat for an hour or more. Then I dress appropriately.
Another danger related to the cold weather is driving on the highways in freezing wind chills of minus-40 or -50 degree weather. On the James Bay coast, this is normal and relatively safe. If you get into an accident, you plow into deep layers of snow or into a small tree.
Highway driving in the south, however, is like driving at high speed on an ice rink. To top it off, we have to be careful to keep our vehicle from slipping on the road while at the same time avoiding opposing traffic only a few feet away. The thing to remember is that people in the other car or truck are also trying to stay alive on that same icy road. To make it more interesting, they could be drunk, stoned, a new driver or just a bad driver who just happens to be arguing with someone on their cellphone and trying to light a cigarette at the same time.
I have often wondered why it is that accidents involving many vehicles with transports are reported as the car or truck crossed the centre line in front of the transport. A friend of mine who has driven these northern highways for years had an answer to this question. He explained that as one drives at 90 or 100 kilometres an hour on a smooth icy surface in the freezing cold he or she may meet up with one of the hundreds of transport trucks coming the opposite way. Most people get a little intimidated and in many cases pull over closer to the shoulder of the road to get by the approaching giant. When the driver reaches the shoulder, sometimes the front tire is pulled over with the change of road surface. When this happens a driver will sometimes overreact and try to steer the vehicle back onto the road and sometimes this results in loss of control and the vehicle swerves and slides down the road and into the other lane.
To avoid this untimely end, you should think twice about heading out on any of our northern roads. If you decide that you have to be out there playing Russian roulette with the hundreds of transport trucks then slow down. I mean really slow down.
With all this said, if you see a Cree guy dressed like he is going to the North Pole and driving a black truck very slowly down an icy northern highway, that just might be me.