I shovelled the driveway on a recent afternoon just to get some exercise. It was one of those bright, sunny January days with a temperature at a bone-chilling minus-30 degrees Celcius. The dry, cold air made it difficult to work. The harder I worked, the more air I had to breathe in. The more I breathed in, the more my nose had to work to heat up the cold air I was drawing into my body.
By the end of an hour, I was out of breath, my nose was runny and I was getting very cold in my light clothing. On entering my house, I realized that I had broken one of the basic rules of living in the cold. My parents and Elders always warned us never to work too hard in frigid weather. They encouraged us to complete whatever task was at hand out in the cold but they also reminded us to take it easy and not to push ourselves to the limit.
I had forgotten this rule and I was reminded of it as I peeled off my wet jacket and clothes. I had worked up a great sweat even in my light clothes at -30 and all because I was just shovelling too ferociously. Working up a sweat just outside your warm house is not a huge problem. However, doing so when you are out on the land with no warm shelter nearby can be deadly.
Most Cree kids learn a lot about surviving in the cold from Elders and from trappers and hunters who have had to endure extreme temperatures for most of their lives. Our people have adapted to this freeze over centuries. An experienced traditional person living on the land is capable of venturing into the wilderness for days in minus-30 and minus-40 degree weather with merely the supplies he is capable of carrying on his back. I have known many trappers and hunters from Attawapiskat who are comfortable in their abilities to survive in the cold. They carry with them years of knowledge of the land, the weather, locations of shelter, locations of food, available water and any danger zones. They also have a network of relations and friends on the land that they know will help them if the need arises.
In recent years, something called extreme sports or challenges have become very popular. Many people have joined this trend and in groups or as individuals they are pushing their limits as far as possible. Businesses and tours are being built around this trend.
On the James Bay coast a few years back, a young extreme traveller passed by the community in the dead of winter as part of a cross-country trek with a dog team to pull his supplies. When he arrived in Attawapiskat, he was half way on his trek to reach the east coast of Canada. He planned on being there by spring. The traveller was exhausted and his dogs were weak.
This young man stayed at our family hotel. My dad Marius admired his courage and stamina, but dad also understood what hardships he and his dogs had to face. While this extreme traveller stayed in Attawapiskat, dad tended to his dogs by feeding them a special brew of stewed meat. This was a concoction that dad fed his dog team when he was young. By the time they were ready to leave, this young man’s dogs were rested and ready to face the cold again. I believe he survived his quest though I am not sure if he made it to the east coast.
This past month, Martin Murray of Kapuskasing, was another extreme athlete / traveller who set himself the adventure of skiing across James Bay with his dog. His quest was met with unfortunate luck as he travelled on the bay during a brief warm spell that brought a terrible storm, rain, sleet and high winds. After a gruelling ordeal he managed to survive the wet and freezing environment but he had to abandon his trip. He made a wise decision because those types of wet conditions in the far north, when temperatures can change overnight, are deadly.
I admire in some ways those people who are dedicating themselves to the challenge or extreme conditions, but there are limits. Life in the freezing, far and remote north is all about survival. Our people have lived in this cold environment for generations; it is a way of life that we were born into. Elders would never understand the need to head out onto the land just as a matter of challenge or pride. Our people go out there as part of a way of life to hunt, trap and fish as a means of survival.