Part of Liquid State, an occasional series on our relationship with water.
The Moose River’s mouth is so wide that if you were on the big water of James Bay searching for it, you’d think it wasn’t a river at all but a great inlet. Dangerous waters there. Wind can whip up the shallow bay into monster waves. Strong currents, but it’s the waves that have drowned so many. Water, like my son, shows its anger on the surface. This is the place that has inspired my writing, but it is more than that. This place that I love can be dangerous, but it is more than that, too
My son and I, we like it better on the river than on the bay. Too many ghosts out on the big water. Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of ghosts on the river, too. But they never felt as aggressive as the ones out there. You can appease the river ghosts easier with a sprinkle of tobacco and a few whispered prayers. You get out on the big water in a storm and a carton of Players isn’t going to help. And so my son and I, we stay to the rivers.
Start at the mouth and follow the Moose by travelling against its strong current, and in about six or seven miles, you will hit Moosonee on the right and Moose Factory on the left.
Moosonee is accessible only by train, Moose Factory by freighter canoe in summer and ice road in winter. I’ve heard visitors call Moosonee hardscrabble, and Moose Factory a shining example of the reserve system. Go there. I urge you. Decide for yourself.
Travel this river with my son and me, push against the current, heading south past the hydro wires and on to the Kwetabohigan Rapids. Long, rolling water dotted with submerged boulders. Good paddling, just tricky enough to keep your heart beating fast. You look down and all you see is black, the brown shoulders of big rocks just below flashing by and threatening to flip your canoe.
Past the Kwetabohigans are the sandy shores of Negabau Islands. The river here is wide. Old campgrounds on the heads of the islands that go back more generations than I want to count. On a canoe trip once, my son and I wandered the beaches and he bent down to find an eagle feather lying there. A gift for him. Good energy on those islands, a place of rest and comfort for ancestor travellers.
A few miles past and if you head left toward the sound of the crashing water, you find the Allan Rapids. This is where the Abitibi pours into the Moose. Good rapids that challenge even the best paddlers. If you’re coming down them, stay to the extreme left, hugging the sharp cliffs of the shore that rise up from the mist.
Push south in the calmer water, past the islands so big they look like mainland. Sturgeon as large as a man nudge rocks below you, turning them over with their snub noses, sucking up crayfish. The black spruce and poplar and aspen are thick along the shores. The water is shallow despite the river’s girth. Otter Rapids Generating Station, dozens of miles south, upriver, is part of the reason, opening its mouth once a day to ease the built-up tension behind its concrete, causing the river to rise and settle as if it is governed by tides. Above, ospreys glide and watch.
Twenty miles now of rock lead up to bush; drinking creeks spill into the river, beaver dams up the bigger creeks, moose and fox and marten and wolves on the land, pickerel and pike and sturgeon in the water. Pulp mills and loggers, they want this place. Well, not all of it. Just the land by the rivers, where the choice trees grow. The loggers, they know that if they are to harvest the trees by the rivers and creeks, they will create mass erosion that will kill off the fish, and then the land animals who hunt them. But they want it still. And they say they will get it from the Cree.
My friend William’s camp, where the Onakawana slips into the Abitibi, is the most magical place I know. A couple of cabins on a ridge above the river where you can watch the endless flow of water below, the forest and the river giving us what we need to survive. The spring breakup thunders and sometimes sends the ice water so high it floods the camp. In autumn, we hunt moose grazing red willow on the shores. In spring, after spawn, we fish for pickerel and pike that feed all of us. Enough for us to bring back gifts of thick fillets to elders in Moosonee and Moose Factory. In summer, my son and I paddle from William’s camp with the current, paddle to friends in the north. In winter, we snowmobile up and down the frozen back of the river between William’s camp and the bay.
This stretch of water between James Bay and the Onakawana is where I bring my son when we need to reconnect again. When the trouble of his teenage years threatens to unground him, and me. There’s magic in this stretch of river. Magic on the shores. No one else around but us. This place, it belongs to no one, to everyone. To those who respect it. These rivers, and the lowlands around it, are part of Mushkegowuk, the Moose Cree homeland. This magic, it passes through us, those who own nothing and everything. It has become a part of my son, and of me.
Joseph Boyden is the author of Three-Day Road and Through Black Spruce, which won the 2008 Giller Prize, and Born With a Tooth, which is being re-released in paperback Aug. 6. His new novel, The Orenda, will be published in September.
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