Winter months in remote communities, like Attawapiskat, are hard on people in terms of severe weather, but they are also a time of freedom. Temperatures of minus-40 and minus-50 Celsius are common in powerful blizzards that often hit the community. This can be a dreary time of year for many who become more or less shut in, but the majority of people welcome the freezing temperatures and snow. For most people up around the James Bay coast it is a time of excitement and enjoyment as the snow and ice bring with them freedom that cannot be experienced at any other time of the year.
Winter is a time when people can move away more easily from their communities. The snow becomes a road for many vehicles and the construction of the winter road provides temporary land vehicle access to other communities. Those with larger vehicles like trucks or cars are able to drive away to other communities on the winter road and people with snowmobiles have the opportunity to ride to their hearts’ delight on the frozen snow or at least as long as the gas holds out. This is also a time when families take the time to head out from their homes by snowmobile to experience the peace and serenity of the winter wonderland.
As a child I remember many winter excursions with my parents and my brothers and sisters. I can recall one such trip when it was decided that the whole family would venture out to where my father, Marius, had been cutting timber for firewood. This particular Sunday afternoon we hitched up our homemade sleds to three snowmobiles and headed out on the land. The entire family moved over the snow on snowmobiles or in sleds with lots of provisions for the day of camping.
It took about an hour to reach the spot where my dad had been cutting. The ride there was bumpy and cold, but it was a bright sun-filled day and we were all happy to be on the land. We rode along narrow, hard-packed snowmobile trails where it was difficult to stay on track whenever we met another snowmobile coming towards us. As a rule of the trail it was a courtesy to leave the track and let larger groups of snowmobilers go by. As we rode along I imagined days gone by when there was no such thing as a motor and my people were out here on snowshoes or with dog teams. I was quite comfortable with the fact that we were buzzing along with little effort. The ride got much more bumpy as we mewed inland and into the woods. At points when we followed the river or crossed over a frozen lake it was like being on a magic carpet.
As we got closer to dad’s cutting area the trail became much more rugged with more challenging twists and turns on the way to the towering pine forest. Once we arrived the cutting site all of us were in awe at the sight of these majestic pines that reached for the sky.
Now the work began for my mom and dad and my older brothers and sisters as we younger kids played along the snowmobile trail and frolicked in the deep powder snow. We gathered pine boughs that had been discarded as a result of the cutting for use as fuel for a giant fire. We also placed many boughs spread out around the fire like a huge soft bed. As dad tended the fire we gathered clean snow to melt for tea. Mom mixed bannock and we roasted it on a stick over the open fire. What a great scene. I remember all of us sitting satisfied on a soft cushion of pine boughs with the smell of pine in the air and the smoke of the fire, sipping our tea and eating our bannock.
We felt safe and at home under these forest giants. We were protected from the wind and our voices echoed all around us. These are the days that come to me when I think of Attawapiskat and my childhood. These were the days that had the most meaning to me, when we were removed from the chaos and stress of living in the community and out experiencing the serenity of being on the land.