It is the end of another long and exciting year of high school in the south and myself and my teenage cousins and friends are flying north. It is 1989 and I have just completed my first year of secondary school in Timmins. Forty of us are crammed inside an aging Hawker Sidley heading for the James Bay coast. We are a noisy crowd of rambunctious teenagers heading home for the summer. Our group of 20 students from Attawapiskat and myself have joined familiar faces on this flight north with other students we know who are coming from North Bay.
We sit with our friends on the thin, cushioned orange cloth-covered seats. Everyone is dressed in fresh new clothes. Our parents made sure to send us money for the end of the year so that we would arrive looking our best. We also shopped for the family. The muffled sounds of brand new cassette Walkmans play the latest bands and their music as we fly high over land of pine trees and lakes and rivers. We feel privileged and on the cutting edge in our new clothes in the latest styles with our new music ready to introduce to others back in Attawapiskat.
If any of us had a problem with flying in the past those days are behind us now as we feel like veterans of rocky flights. Most of us are able to keep from throwing up. After a year of flying back and forth over several holidays from our northern home to southern schools on these aging airplanes, we have learned to overcome our problem with motion sickness.
The 500-kilometre flight north to Attawapisat from Timmins is a tortuous series of landings and takeoffs in Cochrane, Moosonee, Fort Albany, a short five-minute flight to Kashechewan and then to Attawapiskat. Our enthusiasm at the start of the flight dies down by the time we make our second series of landings and take offs in Moosonee.
Students leave us as we stop at each James Bay coastal community. We say our goodbyes to friends from Kash, Fort Albany and Moosonee with promises to meet gain in the next school year.
Our final group of students from Attawapiskat sits quietly, anticipating our arrival home. The landscape has changed from an endless thick forest peppered with rock and lakes to our familiar world of mushkeg and tundra. When we look down at our traditional lands, it is an endless expanse of swamp and water. From this high in the air it is hard to tell where the water ends and the forest begins. The landscape isa watercolour painting of green pine forests, lighter coloured tundra grasses, bull rushes and marsh weeds set in sprawling dark red coloured lakes and creeks that are separated by great bands of tea coloured rivers leading to the grayish James Bay coast.
As we view the world below, we begin preparing for our return to another life.
Our lives are a world of contrasts. When we fly south we look forward to the freedom to move on highways, enjoy new technologies and immerse ourselves in pop culture set in a world of relative order and stability. It also means living with a foreign culture, a foreign language and separation from family.
The flight north is a stark contrast as we consider the prospect of isolation, swamp, traditional life and our old ways of the past that are set in a world of organized confusion. However, it also means we get to be home, speak our language and live with our families again.
As we fly over the mushkeg, we point out familiar rivers leading to Attawapiskat and the landmass of Akamiski Island. Our emotions are mixed. Then we sight our community nestled in the mushkeg alongside the mighty Attawapiskat River. We float down as though shedding our lives in the south with the graceful fall from the pale blue sky. For a minute I almost forget I am in a clunking mass of metal.
After a noisy and rough landing on a gravel runway, the airplane taxies to the terminal where a crowd has gathered to meet us. The sun puts the spotlight on us and it seems that half the town has come out to greet the returning students.
When the airplane engines finally fall silent we begin to stir and line up for our entrance back to our Rez. We feel like rock stars as we step down the high exit stairs and into the crowd that is cheering and calling out our names.
As soon as our feet hit the gravel it is a flurry of hugs, kisses, hand shaking, greetings and laughter. Parents are happy, relatives are joyful and everyone is in good spirits. It is a fleeting moment in our lives. For a short period we are enthused to see each other and to be home. We forget our hardships, our isolation and our troubles. We forget our year away from home, the anxiety of thinking of the future and the reality of returning to a difficult life in a remote northern community. Right now we are the bright-eyed promises of the future and we feel like winners.