I am always thrilled by the season’s first snowfall. A few days ago I was pleasantly surprised to awake to see a soft fresh blanket of snow outside my window that covered the pines and forest floor. In my remote cottage near the great James Bay, winter comes early and this first snow provides a bracing reminder that freezing temperatures and icy roads are on the way.

It was obvious to me this past week that the weather was going to turn cold. I could see it in the colour of my campfire, in the soft ring around the moon and in the frantic comings and goings of An-nee-koh-cha-sh (squirrel) as he readied his winter food stash. Still, I never really feel that winter has arrived until that moment when I climb out of bed and witness for myself that the fluffy stuff has once again turned the world into a Christmas postcard.

We humans are not so different from our animal and bird friends when it comes to getting ready for winter. Like them we begin to sense the cold weather coming and we do what we must to prepare for it. In northern towns all across Canada people are weatherproofing their homes. They are tuning up the snow blowers and searching garages and sheds for the shovels they need to deal with the coming tons of white, fluffy and often wet and heavy snow.

Those living in the far north are insulating their water lines so they won’t freeze, cleaning the wood stove chimneys, ensuring that there is a sufficient stockpile of cut and split firewood and sealing up any leaks in floors, walls and windows. We have more in common than we like to admit with the An-nee-koh-cha-sh, Amisk (beaver), Mah-keh-shoo (fox), Mah-ee-kan (wolf) and other creatures of the northern forest. All of us are doing what is necessary to live out the blizzards, minus-30 or lower temperatures and the hazardous conditions that make winter a test of survival.

Perhaps Mah-s-kwa (bear) has the best idea in terms of dealing with winter. He simply curls up in a cozy den and drifts off to sleep with a full belly until the seasonal alarm clock of spring and a hungry stomach. Then again, maybe Niska (Canada goose) has the right way of thinking with an escape flight to warmer climates in the south.

I warmly recall the first snow as a child in Attawapiskat. That day was very special for us in our small isolated community. It meant that freedom was on the way. As a remote, fly-in community we have few travel-worthy roads in the spring, summer and fall. That meant that we were really tied down to our town. You would think we Cree would love the short summer season we get but in general we all prefer winter. In the summer we can’t leave town and we must put up with millions of mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies and all sorts of other nasty flying creatures with a singular genetic devotion to preying on our flesh and our blood.

Winter brings us a frozen, snow-covered land while our lakes and rivers are paved with ice to become highways we travel with snow machines of all sizes and sorts. The frozen season also allows us to construct the winter road and that means we have an ice highway out of town to other communities along the James Bay coast and the route south to Moosonee. It really is a big deal to all of us to be able to jump into a truck and drive to the train station in Moosonee and then go by rail to Cochrane, Ontario. From there we can access highways, trains and flights to anywhere in the province, country and the world.

So, my awakening to the first snow of the year will always mean freedom, the excitement of freely moving across the land and being able to find a peaceful spot under the cover of towering pines where I can build my fire and enjoy some piping hot tea.