It has been very hot for the past few days. I have been doing a lot of summer things that are new to me, like sailing and recreational swimming. I do not do too well in the heat so I have been seeking relief from the scorching sun by going into the water. I never learned to swim so I usually wade out into the water with a friend who can. Lately I have been learning a few swim strokes and I have gotten to the point where I can actually float on my back.
As a young boy growing up in my home community of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast I spent many hot days in the water along the Attawapiskat river during our short summers. Most people swam near the launching sites of freighter canoes on the riverbank in front of the community. I usually enjoyed wading in the water near the hospital and church where a gravel road ran from the top of a steep bank and down into the river. It was a popular spot because the gravel road led to a major canoe-launching site and to a small island that could provide the better swimmers with a place to access deeper water. During low tide the receded water would allow access from the small island to the larger Potato Island on the river. At the lowest point of the tide it was possible to walk from the Potato Island to a sand bar which provided a link to a cleaner and fresher main flow of the river.
Many of the people I know up north do not know how to swim and there are many reasons for this. One prominent reason has to do with the fact that our summers are usually not that long and there are not many warm days to go swimming. Most of the time people don’t even think about swimming in the frigid waters of the Attawapiskat River or in any of the lakes surrounding the community. After all, the rivers and lakes are frozen even in the month of May and our first snow comes in October. All of my memories of swimming back home have to do with being in really cold water.
Another reason why people don’t learn to swim back home has to do with the irritating dense swarms of mosquitoes and black flies. Any exposed skin is an open target to these insects. It has never been a natural recreation for us to strip almost naked in the midst of these insect swarms to enter freezing water.
On really hot summer days my parents took the family out for a day in the water. At high tide dad loaded everyone onto the freighter canoe to motor us all out to a sand bar for a day on the water. The freighter canoe, which dad anchored to the shore, floated out to act as a sort of dock as we played in the shallow water of the sand bar. Dad took his place at the back of the boat at the controls of the outboard motor to watch over everyone. Mom sat on the center bench of the canoe where she could reach each of us in turn to scrub us with soap and shampoo. This bathing in the river was a luxury to us as we had no running water in the community when I was young. It was only during the early 90s that Attawapiskat received its running water and sewage system.
The water on the Attawapiskat River has a dark tea color to it because of the mushkeg and vegetation. However, it is clean and drinkable when taken from the main channel. I have always taken for granted that water is clean and safe to drink. Over the past few years with news reports of people dying from drinking water I now find myself being very cautious about the water I drink and swim in.
The lakes and rivers down here to the south are warmer for swimming but they are contiminated in many ways. One big problem is run off from farms. Another is the pollution from industry. Up on the James Bay coast we still have clean rivers and lakes because there is no farming and no industry. Perhaps putting up with cold water was not all that bad.