Surviving the harshness of winters gone by

Michael Dawe

Another winter is now upon us. While it can be a very beautiful time of year, it can also be quite dangerous – poor roads, bone-chilling cold and the risk of frostbite.

However, while winter can be challenging, most of us have ways to deal with it. We live in homes with reliable central heating. We can travel in heated vehicles. If we run into difficulties, help can be quickly summoned.

The first people who settled here did not have those amenities. Their homes were often poorly heated shacks with small stoves that had to be constantly refilled by hand with wood and coal. A spark from a fireplace, or a chimney fire, could quickly bring disaster.

Travel was by horse or sleigh, but most often by foot. That left those on a journey fully exposed to the elements and the cold that could quickly maim or kill.

Those most at risk were newcomers, who had arrived from other parts of North America or Europe, where the weather was almost never as severe as a Western Canadian winter. Thus, these people were generally unprepared for the conditions that they soon faced.

One example involved George Byers, who headed out alone from Calgary to Red Deer in a sleigh during the fierce winter of 1882-1883. He got lost and foolishly left his sleigh and outfit as he tried to find some shelter.

Fortunately, the Mounted Police from Fort Calgary had correctly guessed that the inexperienced young man would get into difficulties. They followed him up the trail and managed to rescue him. Nevertheless, Byers suffered badly frozen hands and feet.

Undaunted, the young man decided to try the trip again, this time with more experienced companions. However, once he got near to the place where he had left his sleigh and outfit, he wandered off on his own to see if he could find them. He got badly lost again. This time, his fellow travelers found him and brought him back to safety and shelter.

In another instance, a young woman and her two daughters came to Red Deer from Lille, France. Her husband had already headed out to the Eckville area to create a new home for his family on a homestead. Consequently, the woman rented a tiny shack to live in until her husband came back to fetch her.

A major blizzard hit, but the young woman decided to stay in the shack until the weather warmed up and the snow melted away. However, unlike Northern France, the cold lingered for a great many days.

Finally, with the last of her wood used up and almost all of her food gone, the young woman snuggled up in her bed with her daughters on either side of her. Fortunately, a passer-by noticed that there was no smoke coming from the chimney. Upon entering the shack, she found the three inhabitants unconscious with hypothermia.

A doctor was quickly summoned. The young woman and her daughters were eventually revived with several hours of hot water bottles and continual massage. However, they were forced to stay in the Red Deer Hospital for three weeks until they recovered.

This was not the only time that the young woman almost lost her life to the cold. After joining her husband on the homestead and subsequently becoming pregnant, she decided to go back to Red Deer the following winter to give birth to her son.

Unfortunately, the man, who was supposed to help to take care of her and her new baby, forgot to check the heater in the house. The fire went out overnight. In the morning, another neighbour found the mother and baby in bed, nearly frozen to death. Again, great efforts were required to revive them.

After this second close call, the young family decided to give up on their homesteading venture. They returned to Lille where the weather was much milder. Tragically, while they moved back to a place with a warmer climate, when the terrible First World War broke out, they found themselves living close to the front battle lines.

In other words, there can be things much worse than an old-fashioned Alberta winter.

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