The coming of spring breathes new life into the frozen James Bay coast. Winters are long and hard for my people, the James Bay Crees. After months of up to minus-40 and even 50 below zero, everyone welcomes the change in the season with longer days, with more light and the warmth of a more friendly sun. Everyone begins to prepare for the spring goose hunt.
This is a very big part of our tradition and culture. So much of who we are revolves around the goose. We owe our survival to the fat Niska (Canada Goose) and its cousin the WayWay (Snow Goose). These birds have provided food for my people for hundreds of years. Although most people these days are not living off the land full-time as they were 50 years ago, the goose hunt is still very much a part of our way of life. The spring goose hunt is the biggest one of the year, and it usually begins in April with the return of the Niska. The Niska is the first to come, and then a little later the WayWay arrive. There is also a major hunt in the fall.
There is nothing as wonderful to me as the sound of hundreds of Niskak honking wildly as they fly in ‘V’ formations over my head. That sound is a part of who I am and who my people are. We were never an agricultural-based people. We were hunters and gatherers. We had to move over the land to search for food and sustain ourselves. Although there are other animals we hunt, the Niska is by far the main ingredient in our diet. This is true even today for many people.
To prepare for the goose hunt, people turn their attention to getting their snowmobiles in good shape for the demands they will have to meet. Many people will head out to their hunting camps over the snow and frozen James Bay. They will prepare the camps and stock them with supplies.
It takes a lot of skill and experience to participate in the goose hunt. Only the very best hunters know how to travel over the treacherous melting ice of the great James Bay. When they leave, the snow and ice may be hard and solid but when it is time to return they will be riding their snowmobiles over slush and at times the trails won’t be marked. The skilled hunter has knowledge of the land and knows where the dangerous spots are. Often the hunters will travel in groups so that if one person gets into trouble others can help.
In the old days the hunters would have dragged their boats out over the snow and ice and then after the spring thaw and the goose hunt was finished they would head back to their homes by boat. Some still keep this tradition up, but most people just don’t have the time so they ride their snowmobiles back before the ice and snow melt completely.
People are very helpful to each other during the hunt. I can remember travelling with my family out to one of our camps on the Opinagau River. We started late and got caught in the dark. My dad remembered where his nephew Henry’s camp was on the way so we dropped in for the night. It was good to find enough room in his large prospector tent. There was a fire on and after having some tea and supper we bedded down for the night.
Most people stay out on the land for the goose hunt for about two weeks. In the old days when my people were nomadic hunters and we didn’t live in a community, people would stay a couple of months or more at their goose hunt camps.
One thing for sure — when somebody reports seeing or hearing the first flock of Niska there will be a lot of happy people up the James Bay coast. Some Niska will be cooked out on the land but most will be brought back to the community and stored in freezers for later. In the old days all the Niska were smoked to preserve them but now this is done mainly because smoked goose is considered a delicacy. So I say good luck to all the hunters on the James Bay coast this year and I hope they will all return safe to their families.