Take care in the cold

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After a warm early Poo-poon (Cree for “winter”) here in northern Ontario, now we are paying for it with temperatures of minus 20 or lower. The other day we got dumped with a lot of Koon (Cree for “snow”) and, of course, I found myself performing that traditional pursuit – shoveling my driveway. There was so much snow and it was so cold that it seemed to take me forever and my face felt almost frostbitten.

This work took me back to my boyhood in Attawapiskat as I worked with my brothers and dad Marius to haul freight up and down the coast. Many times I found myself out on the narrow ice road driving an old tractor pulling rickety old trailers full of supplies. Back then it was better to drive at night when it was colder: the more frozen and harder the road surface conditions, the better it was for moving along. At night it was often 40 below, and even though my brothers and I were young, we worked long and hard to keep dad happy with his enterprising dreams.

I recall having so much energy back then. Often, after working hard all day, I would wander over to the outdoor rink to clear it of snow so we could have a game of hockey or broomball. It was easier to play broomball much of the time because we could keep our warm boots on. To play hockey required more preparation, skates, some equipment if possible and adherence to some rules. Broomball was like a free-for-all and those swinging brooms were at times used more like weapons.

This has been a year of change for me. For the first time in my life, I actually feel older. I know it has a lot to do with getting sick while traveling in Asia and India last year. Although I saw five doctors in those countries while sick, I never did find out what was wrong. I have never been so sick in my life and my friend Mike and I coughed up spots of blood for weeks. I think we might have had H1N1, but whatever it was it surely did knock the heck out of me. From time to time all kinds of crazy symptoms continue to affect me. The minor chore of shoveling my driveway now feels like a big job and requires a lot of my energy.

I worry about my family and friends up north this time of the year. Many are now in their late 30s, 40s and 50s. A lot of them are out of shape, even more so than me, and deal with being overweight. Others still smoke and that makes things even worse. My family still runs a successful business and they are out on the land working hard in very cold temperatures. These are dangerous jobs in critical conditions and although they do their work very well, I still worry about them.

As we get older we still think we can work all day at the same rate we did when we were younger, but the reality is we cannot. We still want to push ourselves and often a kind of macho thing takes over and we go over and above what we should be doing in our work. I have known many people over the years that have had heart attacks this time of the year while shoveling or doing other outside work in the frigid temperatures.

When working in very low temperatures for long periods you can develop cold stress. This can hinder your thinking, result in frostbite and create the conditions for a heart attack. Many people I know are out in remote areas. If something happens to them then things quickly get very serious with little medical assistance nearby.

I want to remind all those people I care about up on the coast this winter to be aware that they are not young anymore and they must take things a little more easy when working in the cold. I hope they take more breaks and warm up with a hot drink or a snack more often. I urge them not to overexert themselves in the cold weather as that can easily set up a scenario for a heart attack. My brothers and friends up the coast all have growing families with children and grandchildren and they need to remember that we are counting on having them around for a long time.

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