My nephew Willie Wesley dropped in for a visit recently. He arrived with his wife Delores and their young sons Brayden and Liam. It was good to sit with them outside in the shade and share some stories in our Cree language. It is always a treat for me to be able to chat in my original language and it helps me to keep the words of my ancestors alive.
Willie, Delores, eight-year-old Brayden and two-month-old Liam are heading out on an adventure as they move back up north to Fort Albany, Delores’ ancestral home. Willie is from Attawapiskat. They are excited about their move after spending years in North Bay.
To make sure that he could transport some of his heavier possessions up to Fort Albany, Willie decided to embark on a two-and-a-half day expedition up the historic Albany River route from a launch point at Calstock First Nation. He was thinking of making the trip alone but was advised that the boat ride could be a difficult, confusing and possibly dangerous one. He and Delores were relieved when her father, Joseph Nakogee of Fort Albany, accepted to help his son-in-law with the long haul up the river.
Willie was raised in a very traditional life on the land at Attawapiskat. He learned from his grandparents Marius and Susan (my parents), and from Brian and Janie (my sister). Willie travelled the land in winter by snowmobile and in summer by boat for fishing and hunting trips from the time he could walk. Even though he is in his 20s he knows the land, how to live a traditional life and the survival skills that entails. His knowledge grew over the days he travelled an unfamiliar river route with the guidance of his father-in-law.
Joseph knew the flow and character of this great waterway. Still, it was not without a few challenges piloting Willie’s heavily loaded 16-foot aluminum boat with a only a 30-horsepower motor to push it along. Amazingly, Willie managed to fit his boat trailer snugly onto the boat along with a steel bed frame and some heavy tools. Due to the heavy load the motor was only capable of pushing the watercraft up the river at about 15 miles an hour.
They slept the first night at a moose camp in a portable pop-up ice hut; the second night camped along the riverbank. On their route they saw three moose and a couple of eagles. Willie was amazed at Joseph’s knowledge of the waterway as he pointed out many islands and tributaries by name as they slowly made their way up the Albany. They had to cross two sets of rapids, but the going was steady and Joseph expertly got them through safely.
I know that Willie felt vulnerable with no way to communicate with the outside world as they wound their way up the river. They had a GPS but they knew that they were very much just specks in the vast wilderness of northern Ontario. Joseph’s knowledge of the dangerous shallow spots along the river ensured there were no mishaps on their adventure.
Willie’s grandfather would have been proud of him on this adventure up the Albany. My dad was on the land at a very early age and was only 14 back in the 1940s when he first started guiding American fishermen up to remote waterways far north of Attawapiskat. His knowledge of the land and the stars was enormous and he managed to pass a lot of that traditional information to his children.
There is so much history on the Albany River for our country and our province, but especially to our people, the James Bay Cree. The Albany River has been an important Indigenous waterway for thousands of years and for many hundreds of years was used by the English and French fur traders.
Willie was surprised to know that every First World War veteran from Attawapiskat, Kashechewan and Fort Albany would have travelled south as a group along this river to access the rail line near Pagwa rail station just west of Calstock. When those who survived would return several years later, they arrived in small groups or as individuals, dropped off at the station and simply told to go home on their own. During different seasons of the year, they walked or snowshoed. If they found a canoe, they paddled back alone to their homes after having served their country.
Like most adventures under the guidance of someone with so much experience on the land, I knew that Willie also benefited from the conversations he had with Joselph as they slipped along on the rapid, wide river. I am sure he sensed the many spirits of that river on his journey and that they will surely help him on his way into the future. This famous river still has more stories to tell.