Freighter canoes are important vehicles that are used to make life easier on the James Bay coast. The rivers are our highways and these canoes provide our transportation. Just about every canoe bought up north is a canvas covered wooden boat purchased from the Northern Store. These boats come at a great cost and are highly valued by my people.
Our family went through several freighter canoes while I was growing up. Dad sometimes bought new canoes from the store. Other times he had to settle with a used boat depending on our economic situation at a given time and the high cost of new craft.
One year he dealt with friends and relatives in Fort Albany and he cut a deal on a large 24 foot freighter canoe for a good price. The only problem was that it had to be transported back to our community which was about 100 kilometers away. Dad also managed to sell our old canoe to someone in Fort Albany, so this meant an adventure on the river and the open waters of the great James Bay. Happily, dad considered that at the ripe age of 12 1 could accompany him on this adventure. We had no time to waste as dad was busy with several projects on the go so a weekend trip was hastily planned.
On an early Saturday morning we rose with the sun and got our boat ready for the long journey. Although it was only a short trip we packed some warm clothes, rain suits and a tarp to keep warm and dry. We also brought along a thermos of tea, some sandwiches and enough gas to last the trip to the Albany River.
It was one of those perfect summer days with a cloudless, pale blue sky. 1 felt safe and excited as dad expertly guided the boat along the Attawapiskat River and then out onto the bay. Under the power of our 40 horsepower Johnson the light canoe rose out of the water with each crest of wave. This was a different experience for me. It was just myself and dad out on our own. It felt good to be moving through the wind and ocean spray with the fragrance of sea salt in the air.
In a matter of four hours we arrived at the Albany River. 1 could tell that all of this was easy for my dad as he knew the route like the back of his hand. We pulled up to the muddy banks of Fort Albany and made the climb up to the top where Antoine Edwards, dad’s cousin was waiting. Although we were here to do business it was also a time to visit family and friends in Fort Albany. We made the rounds and caught up on all the news and goings on. Finally with our new canoe we headed back out onto the water.
Dad had taken the time to have a good look at the new canoe and he had established some weakness that he pointed out to me. He noted that the gunnels were not made from one long piece of wood but that they were spliced. He explained that in time due to the demanding conditions on the open waters of the bay this design would not hold up. He had some other little concerns but generally he was pleased with his new canoe.
We made good time and managed to near the community just as dark fell. It was cool now and much more difficult for me to figure out where we were. Thankfully, my dad knew exactly where we were even in the dark. A full moon helped illuminate our way even though the sky was overcast. I was worried but dad assured me that the faint white glow on the horizon was indeed Attawapiskat.
To determine where the river cut into the land dad poked his paddle into the water continuously until he found a deep channel. This was a small creek known as Akik Seepee (Sea River) which we knew would lead us to the Attawapiskat River.
Out of the dark we came steadily along the river until we reached the banks of the community. I had a good story for my mom and my brothers and sisters and we all had the benefit of a new canoe that would bring us countless hours of use and pleasure. On this night, life was as good as it could be.