Koon is the Cree word for snow. It is a natural phenomenon that covers our northern world every winter and it is a very important part of life.
As a boy growing up in the North, snow was just a normal part of the year. We never feared it or gave much thought to the dangers of the cold. Susan, my mom, was always careful to bundle us up in warm clothes and a new set of her moose-hide mitts, a fur-lined hat or a hand-knit toque and plenty of layers of shirts, pants and long underwear. We thought nothing of walking to school through blinding snowstorms in temperatures of minus-40 degrees or colder.
As children we found mounds of snow were great places to play in. After big storms, snow drifts could build up as high as the eaves of buildings. Every winter storm changed our play areas from packed snow to new forms of drifts and mounds that covered everything in pristine layers of white.
No matter how freezing the weather was, we would head out to find our friends and play. We took our handmade miniature wooden sleds which we pulled by strings on a stick to mimic our parents and other hunters and their big snow machines. We would pretend that we were braving the deadly cold hundreds of miles from home and surviving on our own. Of course, at one point reality set in and our bravery gave way to frozen feet, hands and ears. Then we ran home to warm up with a hot cup of tea, bannock and the warmth of a wood-stove fire.
I never shovelled much snow when I was a boy. We only cleared the front step to unblock the entrance and that was about it. Instead, we trampled down the snow and walked over it layer by layer. By mid-winter, our front staircase would lose a step or two as the packed snow grew thicker.
I spent my first few years of high school in Timmins living with a host family. There were many things that were new to me at the time. The winter culture was very different to what I was accustomed to in Attawapiskat. I was surprised that people spent so much time shovelling and moving snow to clear their driveways and walkways. Everyone avoided walking in the snow, and I remember feeling that it was unusual because I had spent all my childhood playing in it back home.
Snow is important to everyone in the far North. This white layer of fluff and ice unlocks the world to us in our mushkeg wilderness. In the summer, the land is swampy and impassable, but once it freezes over, we can travel anywhere and everywhere. About 60 years ago, most of my people travelled by dog sled or snowshoes. People would spend weeks and months moving on the land to hunt, fish and trap. In the 1960s and 1970s, the snowmobile arrived and suddenly we had the power to cover vast distances.
These days we have a much more sophisticated ice road system that links coastal communities together and allows us to visit back and forth. Before the pandemic we even had an ice road that took us south to Kapuskasing, Cochrane, Timmins and the highway system beyond. Many of my family members and friends purchased trucks and cars over the past 20 years to take advantage of travel on the winter ice road.
Today the ice road is still being developed but the link to southern towns and cities is not open this year due to Covid. Now that we can finally travel easily from community to community and points south, it is sad that we are blocked once again, this time with the massive outbreak of the Omicron variant. We are all looking forward to better management of this virus with the hope that enough people get vaccinated, and the virus will wane. Perhaps then we can get back on the ice roads.