“Do we just wait in line here?” I asked the preteen Cree girl and her friend as they watched our convoy maneuver slowly for the approaching ferry.
“You have to do it backwards.” She said with the authority of a dock supervisor.
“Thanks!” I exclaimed, relieved to have some understanding of how things worked in this unknown part of the world.
I turned my Jeep around and slowly backed down the gravel drive which disappeared into La Grande river. The wind swirled bits of sand and gently rocked the Jeep while the tires crushed gravel. The others in the convoy followed suit. The ferry approached and the passengers squinted their eyes as the strong winds tossed and flipped their hair.
It was very windy, but the ferry didn’t miss a beat. It beached at the gravel approach and started lowering the ramp. The passengers walked off the ferry while the ramp was still descending. The engine roared and churned the water as the watercraft pushed against the shore and bucked the wind.
The two vehicles on the ferry quickly disembarked and then it was our turn. A figure in a bright vest appeared in my mirror and impatiently signaled me to back onto the deck. I quickly complied as the Jeep bounced onto the ramp back tires first, then front tires. My guide gave very specific and precise signals. He guided me to my spot in the back corner with a few inches to spare. The wind blasted through my open window as he squeezed past my door and the ferry wall to guide the next vehicle.
“Reroute”, the next vehicle, didn’t fare so well. The ground guide’s impatience quickly escalated. His signals became more animated and his voice grew louder. Then, he reached into her vehicle to provide her a frustrated tutorial on her steering wheel. After a quick block of intense instruction and a briefing of where she will park, they tried again.
The rest of the convoy quickly loaded. Then a large dump truck joined us on the open deck. With half the convoy on the deck, our ferry spun around and charged across the quarter mile of river bucking waves and wind.
We off loaded the vehicles, ascended the hill and parked to await the rest of the convoy. We were on Fort George Island, the former Cree Settlement of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi. The wind carried columns of dust and churned blankets of sand across the road. The “streets” looked more like the streets of Somalia than the streets of a former Hudson Bay settlement in the subarctic of northern Canada.
Our plan was to attend the “Mamoweedow” on the island. Mamoweedow is a gathering of the Cree people to reflect on their resettlement from Fort George to the mainland. In 1981, due to the construction of the James Bay hydro-electric project, many upland rivers were diverted to join La Grande River. This increased the flow of the river markedly. Due to the increased river flow, concerns that the island would erode prompted the resettlement. Over 200 homes were relocated to the mainland and the Village of Chisasibi.
This resettlement obviously changed the lives of many. Today, Mamoweedow is a way to reflect on the resettlement and to return to the old ways.
The goal of this expedition was to reach Cape Jones about 80 miles north of Ft. George. There are no roads or any evidence of transportation to Cape Jones. After months of research on the internet and trying to contact various parties, it became apparent that our only hope was to arrive in Chisasibi and get to know the people. After building a relationship, maybe we could find a local Cree guide to help us. We did not have enough time to kayak to Cape Jones and back. Although it would be possible, any delay would push past our deadline for returning home. The weather proved that our original plan was optimistic at best and silly at worst. The risks of kayaking in our short time frame were just too much.
Even if we couldn’t find a local resource to take us to Cape Jones, we also felt that getting to know this culture would be interesting enough to satisfy our desire for adventure, exploration and learning. Chisasibi is the most northern Cree village accessible by road. A 90 kilometer paved road, running from Radisson, and parallel to the La Grande River, connects Chisasibi to the Route de la Baie James (James Bay Road). These roads are lonely stretches that are the farthest reaches of road on this side of North America. Just travelling the 600 kilometers of the James Bay Road is a bucket list item for a number of tourists who visit Chisasibi. Most visitors, however, usually just arrive in town, look at the ocean, get gas, maybe a meal and leave. We wanted to look behind the walls, to discover more, to look deeper and to go farther.
So, there we were on day 5 of the expedition, on a hilltop of the island with high winds, dust swirling about, watching the rest of the team cross the river on that precarious ferry. We were in a strange land, with people who thought we were a little strange. But, we were determined to get to know them and make friends.
Written by Chuck Hayden