Primitive Winter

WE had been having perfect winter weather. The snow lay deep in the valley, clean and white. The lake was covered with ice, transparent green and blue except where a wind-blown mass of flakes reflected a thousand diamonds. The trees bent under their crystal burdens, which only served to emphasize the pure, rich green of their needles. In the sheltered glades the bright red of the kinnikinic berries added a dash of color, and the waxy green of the Oregon grape made one wonder if winter really were here. The stars shone in a never-ending cold brilliancy all their own, and the aurora borealis played through the long nights.

For weeks it had been one glorious holiday season. Long sleigh-rides, tucked in warm hay under heavy skins; moonlight parties, where the skates rang loud and clear and mingled their song with the laughter of the lighthearted participators, or the long toboggans flew over the icy surface, perhaps to dump their occupants in a waist-deep drift, perhaps to go skimming far out on the shining lake; skiing, with flying coats and mufflers, down the long, smooth slopes or over the breath-taking jump-offs; snowballing amid merry shouts, even though the weapons did sometimes hit hard, or again sent a shower of frozen particles down one’s neck; snowshoeing back in the woods, where the deer leaped from cover and were gone, where the space under the bushes was covered with tiny tracks of little wild things, where the snowshoe rabbit was only a bit of earth bounding away and leaving an endless path, to follow which brought many exciting discoveries but never the thing you sought — for these things we were ail gloriously young and filled with unlimited energy.

But it ended, as all things end. The moon shone all one bright day with a ring around it. ‘Blizzard coming,’ the old-timers said, and we were all glad of the big woodpiles near at hand and the well-filled cellars.

The blizzard came. The morning was still, clear, freezing. The thermometer started dropping at ten. At two the signal whistles on the mill began blowing, and in school we children could not see to read. At two-thirty it was forty below, and the snow and ice were coming from the north in a solid sheet, tearing down the valley. The janitor fired the furnaces as much as he dared, and we all huddled in a room on the most sheltered side of the building, waiting for the men to come after us. The school was in the direct path of the storm.

At three-thirty they came, ten men who had risked all in that journey of an hour and a half to reach their children. An hour and a half— and town less than a mile away! We waited for the storm to slacken and the men to thaw ears, noses, and fingers. At four-thirty there was a lull, and we hastily bundled up and started for home.

There were only two men and four children in the group that went to Sunshine Hollow. Our way lay through the lumberyards. It was a few hundred yards to the piles, but the rest of the distance was fairly well protected. By the time we had covered the open space it was storming hard again, with a shifting, whirling wind. We could see only a few feet before us, and our track was soon obliterated. The men took turns breaking a path. It was a killing job. Some places the snow was packed hard, but not hard enough to bear our weight. Again the underneath crust held the trail-maker and broke under those who followed. On the sheltered side of many of the piles it was sifted so fine that a trail Mould not hold, and here it was necessary to carry a child and wallow through. Some of the lumber was completely covered, and the surface blown smooth. Here we attempted to cross on the boards. Once the leader stepped off the edge into eight or ten feet of snow, but luckily we were tied together and he was drawn back to safety.

It was soon pitch-dark and every inch of the way had to be felt, but since it had quit snowing and Mas not so cold, the handicap Mas balanced. The last quarter of the way, the men carried us inside their mackinaws while breaking trail. Sometimes the man who followed carried two. We must make time, for time was life. The man who had fallen into the drift continually stumbled. Twice he dropped his burden. At last he fell full length, apparently spent. The other man went ahead a few paces. He stumbled and fell uphill. It Mas the road! Across the little ridge was home! That imparted new energy, and we were soon over the crest, with the welcoming lights shining from every window in the Hollow, for all were keeping watch with the anxious mothers.

HOMlong that trip had taken us, we children were never told. The man who had fallen was carried home, and spent a delirious week going over and over the terrible journey. When he recovered, his hair was white, and he had lost two toes and a finger. The rest of us Mere more fortunate. Careful thawing meant much pain at the time, but no succeeding damage.

The other parties did not fare so well. The group that went to town lost one child. They searched for her all night and found her at daybreak within a few feet of home. Her father died of gangrene as a result of that night’s experience, and her mother went insane, listening always for the call that she had failed to hear in the storm.

The others suffered even more. In going a quarter of a mile into the face of the gale, two sank by the wayside and never regained consciousness; a third died of resulting pneumonia; and one bright six-year-old could not stand the strain, and remains mentally six.

Why did we not remain at. the schoolhouse? Because the men knew the boilers could not stand the pressure. They burst soon after we left. Had we remained, it would have meant freezing and starvation in the long week that followed, for the thermometer failed to register warmer than thirty below zero, and the wind and snow ruled every day.

Such is winter in that primitive land. A time of beauty and joy; a time of suffering and sorrow.