Snowstorms are [ust another part of life during the winter season in my home community of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast. I have many memories as a young boy playing in the snow outside our front door in the middle of a blizzard with my young brothers. Most of the time we wanted to be outside.
Most of the time, my friends and I didn’t see stormy winter weather as something to keep us from enjoying the outdoors. We played hockey in any kind of weather at the local outdoor hockey rink. When we were not playing hockey we wandered around our neighborhoods and played other games in the snow.
When I was young, storms in the community were never a great threat as I was able to run home once I had too much of the cold. When I got to be a teenager I was able to join my dad, Marius and my brothers for long snowmobile rides on the land. Out in the middle of nowhere it was a more serious matter to deal with bad weather.
One of the most difficult rides on a snow machine I have ever endured took place north of my community on the Lakitusaki River. We had travelled there in the early spring to set up camp and prepare for the goose hunt. During our stay we decided to visit an old abandoned American military base to gather plywood to add to a shelter we were building at our camp. The base was once part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line used during the Cold War. It is called site 415 and is located in the middle of Polar Bear Provincial Park, a six-hour ride north of the Lakitusaki River. It is in an area known in Cree as, Mooshawak, which basically translates into English as “barren land.”
This is where the tree line ends and the flat featureless tundra begins.
We left early in the day under a bright blue sky. By midday the weather changed to gusting winds and by early evening the blowing snow whipped up and obscured our vision. It was a unique storm that only takes place in the tundra.
Dad explained that the wind and snow only blew along the first several feet from the ground. He demonstrated this fact by climbing on top his toboggan and peering above the blowing snow where he was able to view the clear skies above and the tops of distant trees.
The weather had also turned bitterly cold and we all bundled up by putting on every item of clothing we had brought with us. In heavy clothing it was difficult for any one of us to dress ourselves alone so each of us partnered up with another to assist in dressing with our clothes. My brother Anthony helped me dress for the cold and suggested I put away my glasses as they would give my face and cheeks frostbite. Once my glasses were put away he covered my face in a scarf, pulled a toque over my head as well as a fur lined hat and zipped my parka snug around my neck.
We drove home in that storm with little visibility. Dad and my brother Anthony guided our group of four snow machines and their sleds back to camp. I was unsure of myself as I had a hard time seeing without my glasses and in addition I had the slowest snow machine, an old 1980 Elan that was on its last legs.
I drove through the storm barely able to make out the sled in front of me and at one point I lost sight of it altogether. I could not see anyone. I followed the disappearing tracks in front of me as best as I could and hoped that I would find my way home. I drove for about four of the six hours without seeing any of the other snow machines.
I was relieved once I was able to see the trees of the Lakitusaki River on either side of me. I knew I had made it and that I was on the right track and would be home soon. Once we all arrived safely back at camp, we gathered around the warmth of our stove, sipped on hot tea and ate a dinner of moose stew and bannock.
Living out on the frozen land is dangerous. You have to develop many skills to survive in the harsh weather. Still, I have fond memories of these intense and difficult times. I think I have become a survivor.