A week ago, while on my walk in the wilderness nearby, I was surprised there were no fresh tracks from snowmobiles. To people up the coast the early spring is the best time of the year for snowmobile riding.
The days are a little longer in March and early April, and the sun is back from winter hibernation. The snow is melting, but in the forest there is still plenty for snowmobiling. Generally, on most days, the snow is hard, so travel is fast and exciting.
I recall the warm spring days on a snowmobile back in Attawapiskat only a few years ago. It was a tradition for all of us to leave the community as best we could on our machines over a road where patches of gravel had come up to make riding slow and uncomfortable. The pay-off for all of us was about half an hour away through the slushy river ice to the great James Bay. Once on the bay, where the ice was hard, the going was easy and fast. There is something very special about riding a good-running snowmobile as fast as you possibly can, over the hard ice, under a blue sky and with just a fine line on the horizon.
On the ice, out on the bay, it takes concentration and focus to race along with a fully-loaded sleigh in tow. A different set of tools is involved when leaving the bay and heading back onto land or along a river. We Crees from up the coast have acquired a great expertise in moving snowmobiles through the most difficult and dangerous situations. In the spring thaw, huge gaps of water appear near the shoreline due to the steady movement of the ice from the comings and goings of the tide. As insurance, we put on our hip waders when reaching areas of water that have to be crossed to get to land. It takes some knowhow and a lot of guts to run a sled at high speed, pulling a sleigh across a channel of water from the ice in the bay to the ice closer to shore.
Often I have ridden in slushy conditions along rivers and inland as myself and my family and friends piloted our snowmobiles to the hunting camp. It takes a lot of knowhow to run a snowmobile in slush and not get stuck. I have always counted on my dad or my brother Anthony to lead us along the trails on the land. These trails are ancient and to know the right spots and the right way you have to be willing to spend a lot of time learning the ropes from an Elder. The best way to get through the slush is to ride fast and with confidence. Once you get stuck in the slush the day takes a turn for the worse. It requires a lot of energy, strength and time to move a stuck machine out of the icy slush. Often the rider who is trapped in the slush gets very wet. This is dangerous in the still-freezing temperatures of early spring.
It was always a relief to reach the camp after a day’s ride on the snowmobile. It felt good to reach the large prospector tent set high and dry on an ancient, traditional campsite. The warmth that radiated from the home-made stove made the inside of the canvas tent feel cozy. The spruce boughs spread on the ground inside the tent provided for a soft cushion and circulated the sweet smell of pine. After a hearty meal and a few cups of tea it was always easy to fall into sleep with the hum of familiar voices and the crackle of flames from the old tin stove.