True North, Strong and Frozen

Although my experience wasn’t nearly this extreme, reading this post by blogger Lesley Carter reminded me of my student teacher days in Kashechewan, Ontario.  Having been encouraged to try an ‘alternative placement’, I got in touch with an old friend who was teaching high school there.  I caught the train at Toronto’s Union Station, kissed my boyfriend goodbye, and settled in with my state of the art MD player for the long journey north…

Kash is across the river from Fort Albany

I arrived in Cochrane early in the morning and wandered around while I waited for the train that would bring me to Moosonee.  It reminded me so much of my days in Manitouwadge: dry snow scrunching underfoot, packed down so much that you could run and slide down the middle of every road; air so cold that your nostrils stick together when you breathe through your nose; being able to walk through the entire town in one morning and not pass a single moving car.  I boarded the train bound for Moosonee filled with nostalgia.  As we traveled even further north, I remember looking out the window and noticing the trees getting smaller and smaller.  I was reminded of old elementary school lessons about the tree line – how it was so cold that not even hearty pine trees could grow.  I began to wonder what I had been thinking when I agreed to come here in February.

I arrived in Moosonee to clear blue skies and lots of crisp white snow.

Me in Moosonee

The principal of the school had driven down to the station and my friend ran out of the truck to greet me.  We hugged, all smiles and excited chatter.  I got in the truck between the principal and my friend (there were no seat belts) and we began the 145 km drive to Kashechewan.

Now, during the spring, summer and fall, Kashechewan is completely isolated.  The ‘roads’ turn into swamps called Muskegs and the only way to access the community is by plane or helicopter (you can take a look here).  But in the winter, the swamps freeze over and icy roads are forged by some ambitious community members with a snow plow.  No law enforcement patrols these roads; they turn a blind eye and let the community assume the risk.  I use the term ‘roads’ lightly.  First of all, there are only two: a road further north to Attiwapiskat and the road to Moosonee (although there is a turn off to Fort Albany). Second, these ‘roads’ are like no other roads I have ever seen.  The choppy swamp and river water becomes choppy ice, and as we buckled along in that truck travelling 80 km/hr over those chunky ice bergs I was reminded of the wooden roller coaster at Canada’s Wonderland, the one where you are constantly thrown right out of your seat.  I wasn’t entirely confident we would make it in one piece – especially when we stopped to help about three trucks more substantial than ours stuck in the mighty 6 ft snowbanks on the side of the road.

Luckily, we managed to steer clear of the snowbanks and made it safely to Kashechewan (with slightly bruised behinds).  I was introduced to my friend’s roommate, other teachers at the schools, and given a brief tour of the community.  My stay there was filled with snowshoes and cross country skis, campfires sheltered by tree branches perched upright in the snow, skidoos, my first real hockey game, and bundled runs around the 5 km dyke that surrounds the community.  The highlight of my stay was a trip to James Bay at sunset.  Breathtaking.  Literally.

Me standing on James Bay

I returned home with a renewed appreciation for extreme cold, and the imprint of a new culture on my soul.  The students I met were welcoming, eager to learn and willing to share their rich heritage with me.  The staff, and the principal in particular, were supportive and gave me the freedom and resources to explore my new profession.  My experience in Kashechewan helped form the teacher that I am today, and I will be forever grateful.

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