Spring has always been a time reserved for the excitement of the goose hunt. Everyone ventures out on the land to take part in a long tradition of gathering food and to take part in cultural activities with family and friends. However, this period also has another side that is difficult for my people to deal with every year. This is the time when the great sheet of ice that covers the land and the rivers and lakes begins to melt and break apart to make the journey from the interior out to the great James Bay.
This is the break-up and this event has our communities on the James Bay coast on edge every year. We never know if this period will pass by without incident or if it will cause great danger and devastation to our communities.
As soon as the last winter storms pass and the warm spring weather begins, everyone heads out onto the land. To the traditional hunters and gatherers, the wet conditions and slushy snow is not a hardship. It is considered normal and part of the season. At times when temperatures soar, snowmobiles and the toboggans they pull sometimes look more like personal watercraft powering through a foot or more of water or slush.
There are many knowledgeable Elders and traditional people who keep in touch with and direct younger hunters on the land. Everyone keeps an eye on what is happening to the major rivers and creeks along the coast. Most families have a bush radio and during the spring goose hunt, half the news on the airwaves is dedicated to where the geese are flying. The other half is designated to the conditions of the ice and snow. People keep a close watch on when and where the ice will start to break apart and start drifting.
As soon as the ice is determined to be unsafe for travel, the word goes out to everyone. The hunt basically stops for the community but there are those who choose to stay out on the land to continue their hunting and wait out the break-up period. At this point there is a heightened period of excitement and anxiety. Elders begin the age-old debate of whether or not there will be flooding.
There are many factors that are considered if a flooding situation should occur for the community. How much snow was there for the year? How thick was the ice? There is also timing. How fast did the snow melt? How fast did the ice melt?
The size of the broken ice is also a factor. It can develop into large boulder-sized chunks, it can be hard and unbreakable or it can break apart into tiny pieces. At night time, the difference in types of ice can be heard. Large icebergs rumble, pound and thud periodically as they move along the river. Smaller ice chunks crackle and sound more like scrunching paper.
When the ice begins to move, it is a powerful force. Tons of frozen ice passes by communities along the coast. All of the accumulated ice and snow from along the major rivers empty into the larger rivers. The major rivers swell with water and the ice displaces the water even more.
This mass migration of broken ice is very unpredictable. For any number of reasons or circumstances, it can suddenly pile on top of itself and become lodged into place. When this happens, it literally creates an instant dam and blocks all the outgoing water on the river. Since the western James Bay coast is mostly flat lowlands without many high points, water can come from numerous directions. When it blocks on the river water can move inland quickly and cause massive flooding. In other instances it can slowly seep into the surrounding mushkeg and eventually flood the community from all directions.
When flooding does happen, it is without warning and the water arrives as a surprise. I have heard many stories from Elders who experienced flooding in Attawapiskat in the past. In the mid-1950s there was major flooding that brought up to a metre of water inside homes and buildings in the community. The account I heard from my Aunt Rose Kataquapit was that the water arrived during the day. It was only a matter of minutes for the water to seep into the houses.
People were prepared, however. They had their freighter canoes sitting outside their front doors. In fear for their lives the people paddled toward the inland forest away from the river. The surging ice can move houses and large objects to and fro with ease to create obstacles or even crush small wooden boats. During this flooding the people found some higher ground away from the community and waited until the water subsided before returning to their homes. When I sat with my Aunt Rose in her kitchen, she pointed out the water level as being the height of her wood stove which was about one metre.
In the 1990s, the James Bay communities of Attawapiskat, Kashechewan and Fort Albany developed a series of dikes to protect them from flooding. These dikes surround the community and rise 10 to 20 feet in height, which gives just enough protection. In recent years, this system has helped the communities cope with minor flooding situations.
But the power of nature and Mother Earth can not be contained. When break-up comes it is best to be prepared and if possible be out on the land. Otherwise, coastal communities must be evacuated and displaced in cities and towns to the south. That creates a whole new set of problems. I often wonder why all these communities were built in such vulnerable locations in the first place. Nobody seems to have an answer.