“AR” and I walked across the wet gravel expanse. The crushed stones and grey sand carpeted the entrance of modern aluminum doors for the commercial center. We walked through the entrance to find a man named “Jimmie Snowboy”. I had talked to Jimmie the day before through an informal interpreter and thought he had dismissed our request for a freighter canoe pilot to make it to Cape Jones. He seemed to have little interest in our silly request and said nothing to me, only speaking to the interpreter in Cree.
We stood just inside the entrance. I looked to the place he had been when I met him the day before. It was empty. I scanned the rest of the benches and tables, he wasn’t there.
I confirmed with AR that Jimmie came to their table in the restaurant and asked if we were the group going to Cape Jones. She confirmed that he did. “Do you see him?”, I asked wondering if it was the same person I had in mind. She said, “No”.
AR had just texted me an hour earlier. I was at the Band Office talking with the Director of Economic Development about securing a ride to Cape Jones. Curiously, he was from Sri Lanka. I kind of expected a Cree to hold that position. But, it was what it was.
I figured a man in his position would have some good contacts for someone who would be interested in getting paid to guide us. After a conversation in his office, it became apparent that he had nothing. In fact, I was a little surprised as it seemed he had little influence with the Cree People of Chisasibi. I was a little in awe at his seeming lack of knowledge of the people.
This strange disconnect from the non-Cree people stationed in Chisasibi was pretty apparent with the tourism industry setting up there. The tourism workers, many of whom were white, were very good at “white tourism”. They had some knowledge of the area, knowledge of the tourism profession, but few relationships with the people.
It is true enough that they were there to bring in white tourists and their money, but there seemed to be a divide separating the two cultures. Even more curious was the mention of the “white captains” who were currently training on the coastal waters of James Bay. They were getting familiar with the area. They were mapping the waters, noting hazards and paths for their large zodiac. They did this without the assistance of a Cree guide, who would have invaluable knowledge of the area. It was interesting to note.
We stood at the entrance of the Commercial Center, unsure of what to do. We were in a strange land 1,600 miles from home being watched by a dozen Cree men, sitting motionless on benches and at picnic tables. They had no reactions, no expression, they just looked at us.
“Let’s come back in a little while.”, I said to AR. She agreed.
Our chances of finding a guide in a couple of days looked very remote. We had made no progress in soliciting any “solid” interest. The one person who might of shown interest disappeared. Our time on Fort George Island had AR, Hot Pockets, myself and the other expedition members asking about someone who could take us. We mentioned money, we mentioned a remote family connection and we embarrassed ourselves by square dancing with people who were apparently trained and experienced in choreography, but still nothing.
AR and I left the commercial center. We returned to the restaurant to join the rest of the group. I had something to eat and then we returned to the commercial center for one last attempt to find with Jimmie.
We stepped through the entrance and immediately spied him. Sitting in the same spot as the day before. This time, he was sitting with another man. He glanced at us, then looked away. He seemed to be in a quiet conversation with the man next to him.
We approached him with a little more confidence than the day before. I asked while standing, “Are you interested in taking us to Cape Jones?” He looked at me with a curious and confused look. His friend sitting next to him said, “Cape Jones? Yeah.” I asked for permission to sit next to Jimmie. He looked a little perplexed and nodded to the seat next to him.
I sat and watched him. He looked unfazed, uninterested and stared (again) at something in the distant. I wasn’t sure where to start. He said nothing.
I started with, “How much?”
Jimmie smiled and laughed. And. . . I had no idea why. I tried to think of a reason. The only thing that came to mind was that my offer, which I hadn’t made, was too low. . . already. “OOOOKKKAY”, I thought. So I said, “$500”. He laughed again.
At this point I thought to myself, “What the hell? Is this some sort of native custom?” I glanced at AR who was sitting on the other side of Jimmie and his friend. She just looked back, seemingly as confused as I was.
Then, with great relief, his friend (who turned out to be his cousin) said, “That’s too low.”
“I’m Chuck”, I said, with an introductory tone. He didn’t care.
Excellent, finally a little progress. He spoke good English. His name was “Lameboy” – which I suspect was his family name. He worked security for the town. I immediately got the distinct feeling that he was there to look out for Jimmie’s interests.
“How much?”, I countered.
“More”, Lameboy said.
Jimmie interrupted, “Why do you want to go.”
“My dad worked at radar stations like Cape Jones. I want to go visit one. It’s the closest one I can get to.”
Jimmie looked at me with weak interest as he arched an eyebrow and his eyes got wider. Lameboy said, “Really? Your dad worked at Cape Jones?”
This seemed to have struck a chord with them. I understood that the Cree take family very serious, but now I was understanding that it was even more important to them.
“We’ll need gas”, Jimmie said.
The next few minutes were spent trying to figure out if Jimmie was in fact going to take us. We discussed where we were staying, where to launch from, and when to leave. Jimmie, closed an eye, looked upward as if thinking very hard. He figured how many gallons of gas, how much the gas would be, how many were going and the fact that we would need two freighter canoes to make the trip with 10 people. But neither of them said, “Yes”. This was strange. We still didn’t have a commitment and didn’t know if we were going or not.
In a last ditch attempt to get a commitment I said, “I just want to put my foot on the same land that my father did.”
They both shook their heads in knowing understanding. We sat quietly for a while. I’m not sure why.
Then Lameboy interrupted the silence, “Less go get gas.”
I really was at a loss. Now we are getting gas. They expect me to pay for it, but didn’t say they would take us. I said, “OK”.
With that, we all stood, made a quick arrangement to meet at the gas station (the only one that I knew in town).
We departed to our separate vehicles. AR and I drove to the gas station and waited. I wondered if we were going to buy gas and never see them again. After all, they still haven’t said yes. AR and I discussed the possibility of a scam, but neither of us felt a scam was afoot. We had both been around the block and they didn’t give that impression. For sure, they hadn’t promised anything.
They didn’t show. AR drove back to the commercial center while I waited. Within a few minutes she called on the radio and said they were on their way, they had to get gas cans.
Jimmie and Lameboy pulled up with 7 – 5 gallon gas cans. They proceeded to chat with the attendant in Cree. AR and I stood around a little awkward. With the cans full, we gathered in the cramped space of the gas station. The young male attendants wrote on paper receipts, punched a calculator. Jimmie requested a half dozen cans of “mixed oil”. The total came to just over $200 – a great price for Canadian Fuel as Jimmie was “First Nations” and a good share of the fuel was tax free.
I had cash in hand, but I wasn’t supposed to be obvious about it. As I stood behind Jimmie, I noticed his hand was outstretched behind him, slyly, for a secret exchange of money. I placed a wad of cash in it, he presented it to the attendant as if he had pulled it from his own pocket. He received a “toonie” (Two dollar coin) and a couple of “loonies” (one dollar coins) as change and, like a magician, offered it back to me behind his back.
With fuel loaded, Jimmie, his cousin, AR and I awkwardly gathered outside. We stared into the distance in different directions.
“Longue Pointe”, Jimmie said.
“Longue Pointe”, I confirmed.
“What time?”, he asked.
“What’s good for you?”, I asked.
He stared into the distance, deep in thought. We all paused for a minute as if I didn’t really ask a question. Finally, I said, “8 to 9?”
With that, Jimmie nodded and walked away. AR and I departed for our vehicles. As I climbed into my Jeep, Jimmie’s cousin suddenly appeared at my passenger window. I looked at him. He stood appraisingly with both arms on the door. Then, with much earnestness, he lifted a hand and pointed at me. In a hushed tone, with a squinting eye, he said, “Be good to Jimmie, he is a good guy.”
I paused for a minute. I searched his gaze, knowing without any reservation, exactly what he meant.
“You already know. . . “, I said, pausing for a minute, “that I will.”
He smiled then simply walked away.
AR and I drove back to let the group know. They had lots of questions. How much? When are we leaving?
I answered the questions without confidence. I simply said, “it’s a Cree thing, he will be there tomorrow between 8 and 9. . . I think.” They all seemed to understand.
With that, we left Chisasibi for the 50 mile drive to Longue Pointe. We set up camp again, on the rocks, as the wind calmed, the rain stopped, the clouds scattered, and the tide sank back into the ocean.
Just as we began to settle down for sleep, a deep bright orange light came through the windows. The sky turned blood orange just as the sun began to set. The wind died completely, and the sky was painted with broad strokes of orange and deep yellow.
As the saying goes, “Orange at night, sailor’s delight”. We took some pictures, stared silently at the sunset and went to bed.
Written by Chuck Hayden