During the cold winter months you might find it strange but we Cree up the James Bay coast like to go on Keh-twa-sho-shin (picnics). That’s right picnics. These occasions are recreational and a time for the family to gather in the outdoors for some fun.
I recall heading out on our snowmachines to Sa-ka-eh-gun (the lake) just a short ride north of Attawapiskat. The whole family, mom, dad, my brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles and my grandmother made their way on snowmobiles or as passengers in sleighs pulled by these machines over the frozen snow. We picked this day because it was Saturday and although very cold the sun was shining brightly in an all blue sky.
Once we reached a good site on the shores of the lake, in the protection of the forest, the women chose a location for a fire. Dad led all we boys out to cut a few trees into firewood and then he proceeded to start the fire. We boys also gathered pine boughs to lay in the snow, intertwined and placed at the edge of the fire for people to sit on. We also picked out straight cooking sticks upon which the geese would be placed over the fire.
Once the fire was started the women took over and with know-how, handed down through the ages they controled the heat of the fire by the way they placed burning wood much like someone would adjust the heating element knob on their kitchen electric stove. First things first, a big pot of tea was boiled up and then the geese, which had already been plucked, were split open and speared on the cooking sticks to barbecue over the heat. Bannock was also prepared and wrapped around the end of the cooking sticks which were placed over the fire.
It was obvious, by the curls of smoke drifting up from around the lake shore, that other families were also taking advantage of a bright sunny day. When we did this in the late fall, if we were lucky, the frozen lake ice had little or no snow on it and some of the adults and the children put on their skates to enjoy a large ice surface that would dwarf anything in an arena. There was so much room that hockey games sprang up here and there and various groups of families wandered, skating across the frozen lake.
I remember being too young to play hockey so I joined my friends to skate across the vast length of the lake. I can still picture the scene, with the various picnic sites and their smoky plumes on the shore, the older people sitting by the fire and tending to the cooking and hockey stars gliding in and out of their zones.
After a while we would fall exhausted on the ice. In the shallow spots, it was magic to put my face against the frozen ice with my hands cupped around my eyes so I could stare through this window into another world just a few inches below.
Towards the end of the day we all made our way back to the campfire, sat on our dry and comfy pine boughs by the fire side, ate wonderful cooked goose and bannock and drank hot dark tea. With the going down of the sun the shadows grew longer to remind us it was time to head home.
Now that I think back on these times, it almost seems as though these were spiritual periods, that gave us all a break from the reality of living a modern life in town full of complications. This was our way to meditate.