My people on the James Bay coast have only been using motorized transportation for a few decades. A generation before mine, people had to use their own energy to get around on the land. It was luxury to own a team of dogs to pull a sled over the snow and ice in the wintertime. Even though this must have been a difficult task for everyone, it was considered normal. Getting to a destination took some time, but everyone eventually made it to where they wanted to go.
Surprisingly, there still exist many of the trail systems that were established by our ancestors who walked, snow-shoed or went by dog sled all along the James Bay coast. These are road systems that have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years. People have been using these networks for generations to get to traditional lands, hunting grounds and fishing areas.
I have had the opportunity to travel some of these ancient trails first hand while on traditional hunting trips with my family. The trails are actually kept up with use by hunters and gatherers when they are out on the land. When we travel north along the coast, there are several options to get to any destination. At the coldest times of the year, everyone uses an inland trail system that winds along the very edge of the tree line.
These days, snowmobiles are used. At different points, the trail heads into the forest here and there as a means to protect the traveller from blowing winds and cold weather. In the spring thaw, travellers move further out onto the tundra flatland of the James Bay shore to take advantage of the last remnants of ice and snow.
One year I went along with my family on a trip to the Lakitusaki River or Lake River in Polar Provincial Park to prepare for the spring goose hunt. We left during March on one of the coldest days of the year to cover a difficult six-hour journey with several snowmobiles. We sped away from home on a trail leading onto a lake north of our community, then onto a well-established trail leading northeast to get onto the James Bay shore. This route has always been used by everyone in Attawapiskat to travel to hunting and traditional grounds north of the community.
We stopped at Lake River for a week and stayed in the remains of the old Hudson’s Bay building. Lake River was once actually a thriving community and an important trading post. Even today you can still see a Catholic church, the remains of
several houses and of course the store. The long-abandoned settlement is visited by traditional hunters and trappers who stay in the area at different times of the year. Often local Elders who once called Lake River home return for a visit.
During our stay, we explored the river to fetch water to drink and wood for our stove. Dad took this opportunity to show us some old trails. I think my brothers had the same thoughts as I did as we rode our snowmobiles on the ice of Lake River. We thought of dad’s descriptions of one of the trails but could not figure out where they would be as the forest on the banks looked the same everywhere. Dad stopped several times to drive his snowmobile into the immediate brush to search for the trail. We followed and after several tries, we finally found what we were looking for. It was just a clearing in the woods leading north onto a muskeg flat.
As we followed the route, it seemed to disappear then reappear again as it cut through forested areas and then drifted back onto the flat muskeg and tundra. Dad was using his boyhood memories to find this ancient trail. This was a trail leading to trapping grounds north of the river and many hunters, trappers and travellers had passed by this way before. I imagined dark figures covered in layers of clothes, their faces buried in furs to keep the cold away, walking on snowshoes over the deep snow and pulling sleds of supplies to make it to the next shelter. Back then, this trail would have been a road of life or death, as no one had the safety net of a snowmobile, an emergency rescue team or any kind of assistance from the outside world.
I can imagine the importance of these simple trails back then. Many of the modern snowmobile trails on the James Bay coast were actually once walking routes used by my people. They lead to all our important traditional areas and hunting grounds. I have talked to many Elders who described their travels on the land. Although they enjoyed those times they also felt that the risks were great and the life very hard.
As much as our Elders love the traditional ways it makes them happy that today we can speed along on snowmobiles to the places they hold sacred. The traditional hunters and trappers deeply appreciate the network of roads in the wilderness as their parents, grandparents and ancestors used these routes to survive on the land. It is special to know that we will never be lost as long as we continue to walk or ride in the paths of our ancestors.