It is a bright spring day in May of 1985. The whole community of Attawapiskat, or most of us anyway, have come out to stand on the river bank to watch the annual break up or what we call in Cree: Maachestan. There is a lot of anxiety in the air as everyone is worried about what will take place this year.
The break up began the night before when the ice fractured and filled the river with broken blocks. Now that the ice has started to move, everyone is anxious to see the end of this period of the season. This is a time when the forces of nature take total control of our lives.
On the first morning, the pack ice formed on the main channel on the far side of the river, away from the community. As the day progressed, Dad took us to the river bank several times to watch what was happening. Each time we visited we met others from the community who provided their input as to what was taking place. Some said that the ice was moving in a safe way and that it may not be a bad year. Others theorized that there was a chance that the large amount of ice could jam at the head of the river on the bay and stop the water from flowing out with a resulting possibility that we might be flooded. As people chattered, we could hear a helicopter flying overhead making its way west and following the river deep inland. Elders and those with the most knowledge about the Attawapiskat River, its different tributaries and channels and other features, were being flown along with Ministry of Natural Resources experts to investigate the scene and get the big picture. The river does not always flood in a dangerous way due to the break up, but if certain things develop, it can mean disaster for the community.
On the return of the Ministry officials and Elders the community received a briefing over the local radio station. On this occasion, they reassured everyone that we were safe and that it would take a day or two for the formation of ice to move on and clear us from any danger of flooding. While we were somewhat relieved by this news, most of us still felt a little anxious and worried as the worst was not over yet.
As young children, my younger brothers and I did not worry so much about the breakup, however, we understood that everyone was thinking about the possibility of flooding. As we visited the bank with our parents, we watched as men placed markers down by the river’s edge halfway up the high 30 foot bank to monitor the water level. We noticed that sometimes the markers disappeared, which meant the water was rising and this concerned everyone. At this time it was also noticed by those who were monitoring the situation that huge chunks of ice had become stuck on the river and was damming it. The word passed around that this could be critical. Then, happily, the ice dislodged under the power of the river and the water level fell again.
Throughout this period of worry and anxiety people prepared as best they could for the possibility of flooding. To facilitate an escape from the flooding we brought our freighter canoe closer
to our home on higher land and turned it right side up and ready for any emergency.
During the most critical time, it was a sleepless night for our parents who stayed up to keep watch over everyone. Dad made several visits to the water front to observe the movement of the ice with Elders in the community. From our home a distance away from the river, we could hear the movement of heavy blocks of ice crashing against each other on their way to the bay.
In the morning, our worries disappeared with the announcement that smaller flows of ice were spotted up river and the big ones had passed. This meant that we were now out of danger. Everyone was relieved and happy to hear the announcement and we all made our way to the river to watch the last flows of ice move down the main channel. From the high bank, we watched with others as we sat in the warm sun on the new growth of green grass. The danger had passed and the river was our friend once again.