Shoo-Shoo-Peh-Gun—The day the ocean stood still

Xavier use

By Xavier Kataquapit

Every time I look out over a body of water, whether it is a lake, a river or even an ocean, I always think of Weeneebek, or what is known as James Bay in the English language.

My father Marius Kataquapit was an expert boater that had travelled on this water by freighter canoe all his life. He often took us out as children as a teaching on the water. Those trips were always fun, but they were often difficult and sometimes even miserable as the Weeneebek was rarely calm and most often a rough sea of powerful cold waves and huge ocean swells that challenged us on every trip.

There was only one moment in my lifetime that I was fortunate enough to witness the magnificent beauty of a calm and tranquil Weeneebek.

In the early fall when I was 16, dad took me and my two youngest brothers on our first moose hunt far north to Opinnagau River. Accompanying us on a second boat was my older brother Anthony and our cousin James Kataquapit. They were far more experienced, stronger and more adventurous, seasoned hunters. Dad was growing older and on that week-long trip he let the younger men wander off on their own hunt while he watched over the three of us younger ones. Our group didn’t have any success, but my brother and our cousin had a great harvest of two moose.

The ride south back to the community was long and miserable and by the time we approached Ekwan Point, about 40 kilometers before the mouth of the Attawapiskat River, dad realized we would miss the high tide that would safely allow us to arrive in the community. It was mid-day and we had time to camp out on the lands of Elder Emile Nakogee who was living on his own there at the time. We spent the evening with him and early the next morning, at 2 a.m. in the dark, we quickly packed up again to time our arrival with the high tide.

The air was cool and calm. The sky was clear, and on this moonless night the brilliance of the stars illuminated the sky with a blue glow. The James Bay coastline is difficult to follow as the change from land to water seems almost imperceptible. The first few hundred feet of water is very shallow and deceptively smooth and calm. As we left Ekwan Point, I asked dad if we had left the shallows yet. In the dark he shouted over the noise of the engine, ‘shoo-shoo-peh-gun’, the word to describe the water as calm, motionless and flat. We were in deeper ocean, which was surprising. Normally this entry would have featured rough seas.

I recall Anthony’s boat motored next to ours and his silhouette looked like it was floating in air. There was no obvious horizon. The still, flat, glass-like ocean reflected the same sky in all directions. There was no wind or waves to hide from so we sailed along without tarps, covers or protection from what was normally rough water. We marvelled at being lost in space with stars bright above us and reflected below us on the mirror like ocean. Dad carefully calculated our path using the stars as a guide, the almost imperceptible tree line to our west and the faint silhouette of an island just south and ahead of us. 

We arrived safely at Manawanan or Twin Island, as it is known in English. In the dark and without unpacking too many things, we quickly built a bonfire and set our sleeping bags nearby so that we could rest for a few hours. At dusk, we packed up as fast as we could in anticipation of the rising tide, which would allow us to easily travel the Attawapiskat River and reach the banks of the community.

During this last leg homeward from Manawanan to the Attawapiskakt River, incredibly the ocean remained as calm as it was the night before. As we moved almost floating on air in the morning twilight, we approached the mouth of the Attawapiskat River as the brilliant fireball of the sun reflected off the still calm waters. 

Dad stood up over the motor at the back of the freighter canoe, catching the air as we moved forward. This image is lodged in my memory and one that I treasure. I can still see him as my father, at home, as a traditional Cree on the land and water. His hair at that point was streaked in grey and his face carved in strong lines and weathered by a lifetime of nomadic movement on Weeneebek, the great James Bay. As always, we were in good hands and on this special day the sky, the water and the land all came together in harmony and peace as we made our way home.

Most of my memories of James Bay have to do with challenging weather and rough seas, however this one day is like a rare gem and I am reminded of it every time I lay eyes on still water.