It is 1988 in my home community of Attawapiskat on a bright beautiful winter morning. The sun is high in the sky and warms the cold weather to a more bearable minus 20. Nokoom, my grandmother Louise, has called my mom asking for help to fetch snow for her drinking water. Nokoom is the Cree word for grandmother. She calls on me and my brothers on a regular basis to complete this chore. I volunteer to go and put on my heavy winter clothes for the walk across town to Nokoom’s.
When I arrive, I notice she already has a small snowmobile toboggan attached to her Yamaha Bravo snowmobile. She has not started the snowmobile and has been waiting for me to arrive. When I go inside to let her know I have arrived I find her anxious to leave and she is already bundled in a warm parka, snow pants and winter boots. Nokoom also wears a heavy black scarf over her head which is commonly worn by many of the older women in the community. This is a traditional practice that was popular with Cree women long ago when most people lived on the land. Nokoom is in her late sixties and is still active and wanting to go out on the land where she was born and raised. She guides me to her shed where she keeps an old wooden snow shovel that was carved into shape by my late grandfather Xavier Paulmartin. She also gathers some old Canada Post mail-bags that have been discarded but come in handy for carrying snow. They have been repaired and the bags have several patches covering up old holes.
After this preparation I begin the task of starting a cold snowmachine. I am 12 years old and Nokoom trusts my skills at driving her little Yamaha. However, I am a thin young boy without much strength so I take some time in starting the small-engined Yamaha. She helps in the process by holding the throttle and controlling the choke valve as I pull the start chord as hard as I can. After several false starts, the snowmachine under the control of Nokoom comes to life in a cloud of blue, two-stroke exhaust. Immediately she motions for me to take the throttle and keep it running. After a few minutes she directs me to run the machine and drive around the house to warm up the engine. When we are ready, she climbs aboard the snowmachine behind me and we head into the woods north of the community pulling our toboggan behind us.
I drive slowly and with great care so as not to surprise or upset Nokoom. She is the leader of this journey and taps me on the shoulder or raises her voice over the noise of the engine to guide me here and there on our way to the lake where we will gather our snow. We ride on an old trail which is packed well by snowmobile traffic, past the west end of the airport runway to a small lake a short distance away. Nokoom directs me to the north shore and tells me to stop on the hard packed snow created by the recent traffic of many snowmobiles.
We begin our work of gathering snow. She handles the wooden snow shovel and clears the top layer of snow carefully. I stand beside her holding the mailbag open as she pours pure white crystalline snow into the sack. She takes her time and gathers the snow carefully. Everyone once in a while she stops to clear tiny specks of foreign material from the pure, white snow. She enjoys being out in the open air, on the land and under the bright sun and blue sky. This is a task she has done most of her life and is a familiar chore that she enjoys.
We fill two bags of snow and when we are done, I have the job of lifting the heavy bags. I stumble and stagger under the weight and after much effort, heave the sacks of snow into the sled. We repeat the team effort of starting the snow machine and this time the engine comes to life a little easier. I drive us home slowly and with care, through the narrow forest trail leading into town.
When we arrive at her home we spend more time bringing the snow indoors to fill her fresh water barrel. After all our work, she prepares a pot of tea and brings out some cookies to eat before I leave to go home. The house is warm and I sit at the table with Nokoom drinking tea. She is thankful for the help and I feel good at being able to spend time with her. Nothing was more important today than getting Nokoom’s snow.