James Bay, ON - Joseph Boyden
My Watermark is the James Bay Watershed, which includes the great rivers of the Abitibi and the Moose that run north with the Arctic into James Bay and then into Hudson Bay.
My Watermark is a place that is near and dear to me, a place that for over 20 years now has truly fed my creative imagination and I hope it continues to.
About 20 years ago, I moved back to New Orleans from James Bay. I missed the place, so I asked my wife Amanda, “Do you mind if I take a few of my new friends from New Orleans up to James Bay on a canoe trip of 100 km?” She said, “Sure, good luck.”
So I took five of my friends from New Orleans up there and realize quickly that none of these guys have ever slept outside, none of them have ever even been in a sleeping bag. We started the trip from my friend William’s camp, in a very remote place on the Abitibi River. The Abitibi runs into the Moose and the Moose flows into James Bay. I thought - how hard can it be - just follow the river and get there in 100 km. The first day was a nightmare. There were thunderstorms, my friends didn’t know how to paddle, and I was trying to teach them. There were three canoes and six of us.
By the second day, we were kinda feeling our oats. We were kind of getting it, paddling in rhythm. My friend William Toews - the great Cree hunter and bushman warned me, “Joseph, where the Abitibi pours into the Moose, there are big rapids. You might want to portage”
It was getting near dusk, we could hear the rapids and thought it doesn’t sound that loud, why don’t we shoot the rapids and set up camp at the bottom. I was the fearless leader. I was like - I’ll go first.
The first wave hits. Oh shoot, what did I do now. Second wave hits. The canoe goes sideways, Third wave, the canoe capsized. I swam up to the surface and watched as each of the other canoes did the exact same thing. And then I watched our canoes float away, our packs float away, our food float away, our matches - soaked, float away. We climbed up on the shore - and looked down the Moose River, we had about 50 km more to go. We were shivering, half-naked, night was falling and we were like what do we do now.
It is so easy to romanticize the idea of water, but we don’t control water, it controls us. The James Bay Watershed is a place that continues to be turbulent for me. It’s the place when I sit down to write, that I think about and say this is what Canada is about.