I took a short walk this early spring afternoon. Even though I was surrounded by huge snow-banks, I had the feeling that spring was in the air. The sun was shining bright but a cool breeze reminded me that winter was not leaving without a fight. On the ground, the ice was giving way to patches and holes of dark-coloured pavement, dirt and sand. Water was pooling in every depression, pothole and crevice as it slowly trickled down the street. There was also the familiar scent of spring, which for me is a mix of cool humid air with the light smell of the earth and the trees coming back to life. Big black ravens squawked and cawed to each other seeming to comment on the flurry of activity on the street.
At one point I heard the percussive beat of a helicopter flying overhead. It must have been the surroundings and the spring air in harmony with the sound of this aircraft that immediately brought me back to a time on the James Bay coast. That steady beat of a rotor cutting through the air is a sure sign of spring up the coast. These aircraft are seldom used in the wintertime as snowmobiles are more readily available and affordable for travelling on the land. In the summer, it is more economical to use a freighter canoe to travel along the coast. However, in the spring, the melting landscape of ice and snow becomes a dangerous surface to travel on. When land travel is perilous the helicopter is the only way to travel at times in the spring.
This aircraft became popular in the 1980s up the coast for use during the spring goose hunt. We called this flying wonder a “Chee-koo-nah-moo-shee-sh”, which literally translates into Cree as dragonfly. There is no traditional word for this modem machine in our Cree vocabulary so it was easily given its Cree name due to its long tail and what looked like transparent wings when it flew through the air.
As I continued my walk downtown, I did so with the sound of the helicopter in the background and past images of the community airport in Attawapiskat. I remember being at the airport with my friends to watch the coming and going of the helicopter during the spring goose hunt. Hunters arrived at the airport dressed for the cold weather in parkas, mitts and snow boots. They seemed out of place in the warm weather and gravel surface in the midst of the spring thaw in the community. They loaded up hunting gear, tents, tarps and camping equipment into the cargo hold of the helicopter and then two or three burly men climbed aboard along with the pilot. If it was a good season, my friends and I knew that more than one chopper would fly in and out all day ferrying hunters and their
equipment from the community to the hunting camps. It was exciting to watch the turbulent cloud of dust and sand that the helicopter created and to listen to the loud steady pulsating noise of the spinning rotors.
Another memory that comes to mind when I hear a helicopter surrounds the excitement and anticipation of the spring breakup. As soon as the warning of the spring breakup went through our community, a helicopter was brought north to survey the situation from the air. Elders and traditional people were flown up and down the river to show them where the ice was damming, where it was breaking and how the snow was melting in the forests and mushkeg. Most of the community members spent their time by the riverside and we all eagerly anticipated every return flight of the helicopter because we knew it brought another report of what to expect. To us a helicopter flying overhead during breakup signaled either news that the river was moving freely and there was no danger or the bad news that the ice had dammed the flow of water and that the notice for evacuation would soon follow.
I remember one bad spring breakup that worried our community in the 1980s. As a child in this situation, I can recall everyone being on edge as to whether the water was coming or not. We were warned by our Elders not to venture far from home and to not dare go near the river. In the midst of this nervous anticipation, the sound of a helicopter was a constant reminder that we were all under the mercy of the river.
After several days of waiting there came a notice for evacuation. We were given the choice of either flying south to other communities along the coast or even further to shelters in major cities. We were also given the option of being flown by helicopter to our hunting camps in the wilderness where we would be safe from flooding. Mom and dad chose to take us to one of the islands on the bay which was safe from any danger and we spent the next two weeks taking in a few more days of goose hunting and enjoying long walks along the pebble shores of Twin Island.
The whole time we were there, we could hear the distant thumping of helicopters ferrying people all along the bay or Elders to the mouth of the river to survey the breakup. That sound quickly puts me into high anticipation and a kind of anxiety with the memories of danger and adventure during breakup. It’s that time of year again and the dragonflies are coming.