People in southern and mid Ontario have packed away their snowmobiles for the year.
However, many along the James Bay coast ride their machines right up until the last patch of snow in mid ApnE In my home community of Attawapiskat, there are still people risking the ride over the frozen James Bay ice to get to their goose hunt camps.
They still use the snowmobile to get to their traditional hunting grounds along the James Bay coast or to Akamiski Island for the annual spring goose hunt. There are many hunters in my community who have the skills needed to safely travel over the melting ice and snow on the bay and river. My dad Marius is one of these people and he has a great deal of knowledge of snowmobile travel in all types of conditions. There have been many times when I was growing up and taking part in the spring goose hunt that we had to make the trip in wet and slushy conditions. I recall one trip during a warm spell in the first week of April.
After spending several weeks on the land along the Nawashi River, which is about 100 kilometres north of Attawapiskat, we prepared ourselves to leave to go home. Even though we had spent a long time at our hunting spot we were only able to actually hunt for a few days. Most of the geese fly over for only a few days. The spring goose hunt requires a great deal of timing in order to make it home with geese for the family by snowmobile. Once the weather begins to warm under the welcome spring sun, the entire landscape quickly becomes a wet, slushy and impossible surface for traveling. At our camp on the Nawashi River we were situated on a familiar gravel hill that has been used for centuries as a campsite. During this very warm spell the surrounding snow and ice quickly transformed into water and surrounded our high spot.
Every evening leading up to our departure, we all gathered inside our prospector tent to listen to the crackle of the bush radio and hear the conversations and reports about the goose hunt from other families along the coast. Dad interrupted the distant voices to talk to other hunters in Attawapiskat who were keeping close watch on the river ice to find out the conditions for traveling. Other hunters along the 100-kilometre route also provided their input and gave directions that indicated we should avoid larger rivers and go further out on the bay where the ice was still solid and good for traveling.
We loaded up four sleds with camping gear, fuel, a large canvas tent and our precious cargo of geese. It was obviously time to head home. We could not follow the Nawashi River but instead had to ride over the remaining patches of snow in the bush to make our way to the open ice of James Bay. Once out on the bay, travel became easier. The flat surface ice and snow of the salt-water bay is always the last area to melt away. We traveled for several hours on the smooth surface at full throttle and in the warm glow of the mid day sun.
As soon as we reached the Attawapiskat River and began to travel along its familiar bends we grew excited and knew that we were almost home. Our long ride became complicated with the fact that dad had noticed the river ice was about a day or two away from breaking up completely. The ride across the melting ice over the deepest parts of the river worried everyone and we all moved as quickly as possible to the other side.
Attawapiskat was now just a few feet away on the bank of the river. However, the ice along the bank was broken up due to the movement of the incoming and outgoing tides and this created another dangerous obstacle for us to deal with. There were huge gaps of water to cross. Each one of us lined up with our snowmobile and then raced to hydroplane over the twenty-foot space of water to the muddy bank of the river. I also must note that we each pulled a heavy sleigh behind us. One by one we made it across the water in front of an audience of people watching from the top of the bank. They voiced their approval as we touched on to the safety of the bank. We parked on the muddy bank and walked home to fetch dad’s truck to haul our sleds into the community. After our day long ride over the snow and water we spent the remainder of the day using the truck to pull the heavy sleds along the gravel roads. Almost all the snow was gone.
The very next day the remainder of the river ice broke up and melted. Break up or Maachestan had started. We had made it home, just in time.