On a cold and bitterly freezing January evening, a small silhouette of a man is walking along a pristine white layer of snow along a river. He has on a thin old parka that has been mended many times. The dark coloured coat hangs down just below his waist and the collar is zipped up close to his face. A scarf is wrapped around the man’s head and he wears a thick moose hide hat that is lined with warm beaver fur. He is walking with his snowshoes, a pair he made himself the previous fall before the heavy snow accumulated on the ground. He is also weighed down with an old green canvas backpack that is filled with animal traps, some food and other small supplies for his journey. On this trip he is not using his dog sled team.
He is alone on the river, trudging back to his base camp after tending to his trapline. He has been out on his own for two weeks. The wilderness is a lonely place but one he has grown accustomed to. What might seem to others like a lifeless land of forests and frozen lakes is actually a world full of life. There are layers to this world with winter birds in the sky, all sorts of animals on the ground and water mammals and fish under the ice. Every once in a while, Marius spots the movement of wolves or caribou or moose. Their stories of movement, life and death struggles and rest are told in the tracks and markings etched in the snow.
The weather is taking a turn for the worse as the sun sinks in the sky. My dad has been out all day after an early start in the morning just before sunrise. This allows him the opportunity to travel during the best time of the day, in broad daylight when the weather warms up several degrees. In the winter this is crucial as the sun rises late in the morning and sets early in the evening. There is only a short period of daytime light in mid winter.
A cold wind is blowing from the north. The wind picks up loose layers of fine snow and blows them along the length of the lonely river. The drifting white dust moves in waves and wispy lines on top of a frozen hard layer of snow. The white hard layered snow crunches noisily as Marius walks with his snowshoes. His frosty breath is thick and heavy. He covers up his mouth and nose because the cold air is making it hard to breathe.
When he finally arrives at camp there is more work to be done. He quickly establishes a fire and makes something to eat. There is an ample supply of beaver meat and he stews his food on top of a small metal stove. After a hearty supper, he can feel the cold seeping into his tent even though he continually supplies wood to the fire. To keep warm he goes to work by the light of a small candle skinning pelts and preparing them for stretching.
Late at night, he is tired and exhausted from all his hard work. He prepares a bed on top of a floor covering of spruce boughs, lays down his parka on top of a thin mattress and puts down a sleeping bag and blankets. The bed is strategically placed near the fire so that when he wakes, he needs only to sit up from his bed to reach for the firewood and stove. Before lying down he gathers some logs nearby and kindling for the morning fire. The fire is fueled one last time with a supply of wood and he wraps himself in his blankets beside the warmth of the stove.
In those days my dad was a fit young man and every ounce of energy went into surviving the elements and gathering as many pelts as he could to support himself and his family. This was a way of life that was and is still very familiar to him. With the coming of the white man and money life changed for the Cree of James Bay. We no longer roamed the land but were forced into small reserves where the only way we could feed our families was to trap for the white man and bring him a steady supply of animal pelts. The wealthy Europeans needed furs for their fancy and trendy coats and hats. My dad was one of thousands of Cree who had a hard life living hand to mouth to provide for the latest in fur fashion.