The Coldest Time of My Life
By Linda C Butler
Told by Charlie Vance (1909-1989)
In 1927 I worked for Ross Navigation hauling freight in Northern Manitoba with horses. We arrived on New Year’s Eve at Joe McDougall’s cabin on Elbow Lake. Joe was a watchman for a mining company and there was only a small log cabin with no room for us fellows to sleep inside. Also, there was no barn or stable for the horses, and we cut trees to clear a stall in the bush for each horse. We then put a pole between the trees in each stall for a manger for feed.
The horses had been sweating and we rubbed them down with dry gunny sacks. We had to dry the horses, otherwise the horse blankets would become wet when we put them for the night. We fed them all the hay they could eat, but were careful not to overfeed the oats.
We made a bonfire and sat around for warmth and to prepare supper. McDougall joined us and showed us his thermometer which read 65 below F. After supper, I spread out 4 or 5 bales of hay and put my down-filled bedroll on top of the hay and crawled inside. Just before I went to sleep I pulled the bedroll away from my face and saw the Northern lights dancing overhead.
About five in the morning someone hollered for us to wake up and water and feed the horses. As we got ourselves out of bed the foreman came along and said: “I want you fellows to button up well today as it will probably be the coldest day of your lives.”
“How cold is it?” we asked.
“It is 57 below and you will be facing the wind. If you get cold, signal the fellow behind to change places with you. I don’t want anybody to get frostbite, so keep rotating. You may never see a day as cold.”
I was on the front end as I was with a four-up (2 teams) which pushed the snow plow. There were about five teams of horses on the front end as the horses were alternated, as they tired easily when pushing a plow.
The oats for the horses were bagged in gunny sacks so we had lots of extra sacks and we put them over the horses’ heads with slits cut for their eyes. The fellow on the snow plow also wore a gunny sack on his head with a peep hole to see out.
As we travelled we tried to keep the teams and the sleighs bunched together to break the wind. On New Year’s Day, 1928 we crossed the ice on Elbow Lake in the bitter cold facing the wind. Finally we reached the shore on the other side.
We had a 20 foot square tent with us, which we seldom used, but that night we pitched it, and everyone was there to help. The tent had steamed up the first times we used it and it was heavy, as we have never been able to dry it properly. It was hard to lift in the air with the poles that went underneath.
We set up a stove with a stovepipe leading outside. The air inside the tent warmed up beside the stove, but it was cold by the outer canvas walls. Everyone opened and spread out their bedding so there was room to sleep. That night, even in a tent, I shivered and could not get warm. When I slept by myself in the open, I rolled in my bedroll and stayed warm, but the tent was uncomfortable with so many men crowded together.
Morning finally came, and someone called: “Time to get up and tend the horses.”
I was glad to prepare to leave this cold place. It was indeed the coldest time I ever remember in my life.