I often lie awake at night and dream of the Rainy River. I can feel her coolness on my childhood feet, breathe in her earthy smell. I remember her haste as she pulled at my legs, urging me to come along with her. Many poets have referred to the river as a thread, flowing through our lives, connecting us, holding us together, the passing of time, and I am comforted by the analogy. Edmund Spenser wrote in 1596, “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song” and Emily Dickinson penned in 1890, “My River runs to thee. Blue Sea, wilt thou welcome me?”
Rivers like to wind, changing their course when something tries to block the path, bending ‘round outcrops of trees and firm ground, willing to tumble over rock faces from high ground to low, never pausing to rest, their pace determined and relentless as they make their way to the sea. I remember wishing the water would stop but for a moment to let me catch my breath, to give me time to right my stride, to gather myself up in a straighter posture but …
The Canada Arts Council has awarded me a grant to write the life story of my Cree grandmother, five generations back who was born during the dwindling years of the two hundred fifty years of the fur trade. Nahoway was born in 1775 at the Fort Prince of Wales at the mouth of the Churchill River, in the north of what we now call Manitoba. As I begin my research of Nahoway’s life, I have a renewed awareness of the importance of rivers and the sustaining value of water. The waterways provided transportation for First Nations peoples on their trading routes that had been established for thousands of years. The HBC was formed May 2, 1670, by Charles II of Great Britain/Ireland, claiming all land whose rivers drained into Hudson Bay, calling it Rupert’s Land. The HBC sold the land to the Government of Canada with title passing in 1870.
I was fascinated to read the Beluga whales came into the warmer waters of the Churchill River in mid-June and headed back to sea in mid-October. I struggle to imagine a river eight hundred feet deep, enough to accommodate a whale though the Beluga is relatively small, reaching eleven to fifteen feet in length at maturity, but still.
We are drawn to water, to its mystery and movement. I imagined as a child that if I slipped into the river, suspended on her surface, I might travel around the world and “my” river would bring me home, to where I started, to where I belonged. I had no interest in leaving my farm, my feet firmly entangled in her roots. More recently, I took my pen and paper to the ocean, to the Bay of Fundy and sat atop a blanket on the dark red shore. The tide came in, touching my feet, and immediately began to ebb, heading back to sea, not pausing for even a single breath even though I invited her onto my blanket to share an egg salad sandwich. I am amazed by such unwavering determination, a clear warning that life marches on with or without us.
Canadian Geographic tells us we have 8,500 named rivers in Canada. If you’ve flown over northwestern Ontario, you know that number makes perfect sense as you witness more water than land. I can’t help but think of those who must walk long distances in third world countries to find clean water to drink and for cooking.
Nahoway’s youngest child was taken from her when he was a very young boy, not yet seven, and sent to the Orkney’s to receive a “proper” education. She never saw him again. Near the end of her life, she spent many days perched on a slab of limestone at the edge of the Red River waiting for Colin’s return, hoping each day would be the one when the river would bring her son back to her. Perhaps that is why I love the Rainy River so, its power and might. Its beauty stays with me still, comforts me as I drift off to sleep.