Keewatin. That’s the  name of the north wind. The Old Ones gave it a name because they believed it was alive, a being like all things. Keewatin rises out over the edge of the barren lands and grips the world in fierce fingers born in the frigid womb of the northern pole. The world slows its rhythm gradually, so that the bears and the other hibernating creatures notice time’s relentless prowl forward. But the cold that year came fast. It descended on us like a slap of a hand: sudden and vindictive.

We loaded the canoe with the last of the geese and the fish. We were freezing. The old woman made me pile on clothing and she cut shawls for us out of the canvas of a tent. She’d made boots for us out of the same cloth and we tied them to our feet with rope around our ankles. It was snowing. The pellets were like comets whirring in from space. I remember thinking I could hear them. It took all we had to cross the lake to the portage. The old woman’s face was strained with the effort of paddling into the teeth of that wind. The whitecaps slapped up at our hands. But we made it, and when we hauled the canoe up and into the shelter of the trees, the absence of wind made it feel like we were stepping into a dwelling.

“We’ll have to walk the supplies out first,” she said. She took our canvas shawls and fashioned them into sacks and we piled everything into them and slung them on our backs. The walk along the creek was hard. Frost covered the rocks and we slipped often. The air froze our hands into claws where we gripped the rope that bound the canvas. We had to breathe through our mouths because the ice crystals froze our nostrils together. When we reached the shore of the river the old woman took my hands and put them up her skirt and held them between her thighs to warm them. I wasn’t embarrassed. I put my face against her belly, and when we had rested we walked back to the canoe. She made a harness out of rope and I walked the front of it while she hoisted the stern with a stick of alder, and together we slumped up the length of that creek and got that long canoe up the portage. It taxed us completely. She turned the boat over and we lay beneath it with the canvas slung over us and the snow hissing through the air outside. When I woke she had a fire going and I could smell goose fat and strong tea. We ate without speaking and my grandmother kept her eyes on the river. The water was black with the cold. We edged the canoe closer to the fire and tilted it and she put spruce boughs on the ground and over the hull to form a lean-to, and that’s where we slept that first night. We could hear wolves and the snapping of branches in the trees and she pulled me closer. The land around us was like a great being hunched in the darkness. In the morning there was an inch or more of snow and we had a breakfast of cold fish and tea. Then we set the canoe to the water and pushed off west to where the river swung south and then east again toward the railroad town of Minaki.

She sang while we paddled. Her songs sounded like prayers. I hoped they were. The cold was intense. Mist came off the water and everything was grey with the frost. The only sound was the peeling of the water across our bow. The humped shapes of boulders on the shore wore cloaks of white. Trees with new snow heavy in their branches looked like tired soldiers heading home from war. The glisten of ice. When my hands became too cold to paddle I put them in my armpits to warm them and the old lady paddled us forward. The snow began again in mid-afternoon.

It was falling straight down and spinning, plummeting, the wind dying off. Snow piled up in the belly of the boat. When the snow became too dense to see, the old lady eased us to shore between a pair of stones the size of wigwams.

The cold was an awesome beast. As I plowed through the knee-deep snow to forage firewood I could feel the beast tracking me, waiting for the exhaustion to fell me so it could feed on my frozen flesh. The fire we built against it was tiny. The wood hissed and I feared the flames would wink out. But the old woman humped off into the bush and came back with arms filled with fir branches, and when she threw them on the fire it blazed high and hot and crackling. Snow fell like pieces of stars through the night.

We ran out of food on the third day. By then the water was too cold to swallow. I could feel my teeth crack when I tried. My grandmother cut a swatch of buckskin from her moccasin and told me to suck on it like a soother. It tasted like moss, but it offered a little moisture. At a bend in the river we came across a deer standing at the shore. The old woman raised her rifle but she was shivering too much to aim. The buck raised its nose and watched us. That night she fed me a soup of spruce gum, berries dug from the snow, moss and stones.

Both of us dozed off in the canoe that fourth day. The river sent us shooting into a gap strewn with boulders and we woke with a shock when we hit one full on. The belly of the boat split at the nose and water poured in. We scrambled over its side into water thigh deep. My grandmother grabbed my hand and we pushed on toward shore. The water felt like knives of cold steel. When we made shore we turned and watched the canoe spin lazily in the current and then drift away, the bob of the last of our supplies heartbreaking.

The snow was even deeper now. The old lady waded through it, tugging me into a thick copse of cedars. She tore branches from them and piled them on the snow and made me lie down in them. She took off her canvas shawl, laid it over me and covered me with more cedar boughs. When I closed my eyes the dark was luxurious and I turned to it and let the sleep come. I felt slow and lifted on billows of air. Drifting. In my mind I saw the shores of Gods Lake as it was in the late summer. The sky was high and cloudless and easing toward sunset. I was drifting in the canoe a hundred yards from shore, and there were the shadows of my family, my people, dancing around a fire, and there was singing and the sound of a drum and the vague stir of laughter from the trees. I was weightless, boneless and very, very tired. The old woman slapped me awake.

“Gods in the trees,” I said, dreamily. My voice seemed to come from far away.

She slapped me again and I came to in the bracing push of the freeze. She’d cut sod and trundled it back. Together we gathered branches and made a small domed frame above the boughs on the snow, then covered it with the rest of the cedar and the sod patches. It wasn’t very big but there was enough room for us to crawl in and pull the canvas shawls over us. Our body heat kept us warm.

That night I fell asleep to my grandmother’s voice. She told me stories of the Star People who had come to our people in the Long Ago Time and brought teachings, secrets of the cosmos and the basis of our spiritual way. When I woke halfway through the night she was still talking, but her voice was weaker. The old story took me off into sleep again. When morning came she looked tired. Worn away. We were hungry. We stood shivering in the snow. She followed the shore of the river with her eyes.

“There was a trail your great-grandfather cut that led from those rapids through the bush to the railroad tracks south of here,” she said. “Can you see it?”

I squinted at the impenetrable wall of trees. There was nothing to indicate a trail. But I closed my eyes. I could hear the hiss of the river coursing past the rocks. I hauled in a deep lungful of air and raised my head. I felt snowflakes land on my upturned face.

“Saul,” I heard from the trees.

When I opened my eyes, I could see a slight bellying in the snow. It arced southward to a break in the trees so slight it was nearly invisible. “There,” I said.

We plowed through the knee-deep snow around the marshes that bled into the river. The roofs of beaver houses showed far back in the reeds. We walked all that morning. My grandmother stopped every now and then to lean against a tree and catch her breath. I could see how old she was. Her skin looked pasted to her bones, made so leathery by the deep freeze that it looked as though it might snap off in chunks.

“Over that next ridge,” I said and pointed. “There’s a long gap that leads around a beaver lodge lake. The railroad tracks are on the other side.”

“You can see it?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. She clutched my arm.

The sun was square in the sky when we made the foot of the ridge. My grandmother drew me close and pulled her canvas shawl over me. My feet were blocks of ice. The rope that held my canvas boots on had broken, so she took the rope fastening hers and tied them back around my ankles. Then she dug through the snow for clumps of moss to tie around my hands as mittens.

“What about you?” I asked.

“Got my gumption to keep me warm,” she said. “We have to keep moving.”

We made the railroad tracks within an hour or so. By then the wind had shifted and picked up intensity. It blew snow right into our faces. It drifted up between the ties. Lifting my legs over the ties was hard work, and at one point I fell over and lay there, too tired to get up. I felt her lift me. My eyes were heavy and my skin burned. I felt her stumble as she carried me, and I could hear her wheezing with the effort. I don’t know how long we walked that way. After a while her steps grew shorter and she weaved. Then she fell too. When I opened my eyes I could see slats of painted wood behind her. We were on the platform of the railroad depot at Minaki. All around us was whirling snow and the white expanse where the tracks ran west to Manitoba and east into the frozen heart of the bush.

“We’ll rest a minute,” she wheezed. “Then we’ll find Minoose.”

I tucked my head in against her chest. She held me and we lay there in the darkness shivering. I could feel her tremble. Wrapped in the cracked canvas of an old tent, I huddled in the arms of the old woman and felt the cold freeze her in place. I understood that she had left me and I lay there crying against the empty drum of her chest.

After a while I heard shouts and the clump of feet. The wind bit into my face as the canvas shawl was pulled away.

“Jesus. There’s a kid here.”

Somebody lifted me up and I felt the old woman’s arms fall away. I reached out to her, shouting in a mixture of Ojibway and English. She stayed slumped in the corner, her hair coated with snow. Her hands were cupped as though she was still holding on to me. I wanted to pull her to her feet so we could keep on walking. But instead I was borne away. A car door opened and I was lifted inside and set on the seat with a blanket thrown over me. The heat and the exhaustion pulled me under in a hot, red current.

If our canoe hadn’t hit that boulder we would have made it to Minaki. We would have found Minoose and sheltered there, and my grandmother would have found a way to keep me with her. Instead, she was gone. Frozen to death saving me, and I was cast adrift on a strange new river.