Frozen

A true story, and a modern parable.

Sckeerunch, sckeerunch, sckeerunch, I didn’t enjoy that sound.  I would have much prefered the relative silence of walking in new fallen snow.  This snow had fallen 3 days ago, on Thanksgiving night.  It had been a typical snow storm for our ranch in the Uinta Mountains, a deep, dry powder, that by now had formed a crust on top.  The crusted snow was not strong enough to hold my weight, so every step broke through, announcing my travel.   It is the bitter cold that makes dry crust almost squeak with each step, like a quick short stroke of fingernails on a chalk board.  It’s as though my steps were a form of torture to an already tormented landscape.  I would not see any wildlife up close this morning, not with my every step giving warning of my approach.

It can be an eerie experience to see the world in the cold, grey, early morning light.  The sun was not up yet, nor would its rising likely bring much relief from the bitter cold.  I had checked the temperature this morning, the mercury had retreated to the very bottom of the bulb.  No matter what angle I had held the flashlight towards the thermometer, I could not see the red liquid up into the delineated portion of the scale.  The temperature must be below -45°.  This did not surprise me, since the day before had not risen above -38°.  We were used to winter temps of -10°, and -15°, but these temperatures were well below anything I had ever experienced.  That is one of the reasons I had decided to check my traps this early.  I wanted to see what my familiar world was like, as it coped with these unfamiliar temperatures, that thankfully, only happen rarely.

Everything was still and lifeless, except the muffled gurgles of the water in the ice capped creek.  I had set my traps along Henry’s Fork Creek that ran through our ranch.  My trap line started about a mile upstream from our cabin, and ended about a quarter of a mile below the cabin.  The traps were more of a self-imposed mandate to go for a daily excursion, rather than wanting to collect any furs.  In fact, I had not caught anything yet this winter.

At 18 years old, the idea of catching a bobcat, and putting its hide up on my bedroom wall was only part of the motivation needed to labor with the checking of a half-dozen traps everyday.  My grandfather had shared many stories of hunting and trapping to survive the great depression, so I guess the mystique and desire to pit my skills against the rugged mountain environment was the greater part, of the experience.  Winter in these mountains is long and cold, and you have to find something to occupy your mind, or you will go insane.

By now my trap line was routine, and my route had not changed much, with one exception.  A few days ago, when the temperature had suddenly dropped, I crossed a beaver pond on the ice, rather than worming my way through the willows along the bank.  As cold as it had become, the ice was thick enough to hold me.

I approached the pond, and paused at the edge.  The beaver had downed many of the trees, and this spot offered a little bit of a clearing, maybe I would see some sign of life.  Nothing, I hadn’t seen any wildlife this morning, only some deer, and moose tracks.  I started out across the ice, thinking about how the cold had every intelligent creature hunkered down in a hole somewhere.  I got most of the way across the pond when a new sound horrified me.  The quick and violent sound of ice shattering beneath me.  Unlike the stories I had read were the sound of ice cracking gave warning of impending danger, this was a sudden shock.  One second I was on top of the ice, the next I was in chest deep water.

The shock of the icy water robbed me of rational thought for a split second, get out, get out, get out, was the only impulse that could occupy, my panicked mind.  My weight had broken the massive sheet, and now I was struggling to get my footing in the muddy bottom.  The ice sheet had fracture lines radiating from the hole, out to the edges of the small pond.  Now the ice was floating on the top of the water, so I was able to climb up on to the slab, and crawl to the edge.  I did not realize it immediately, but the water level in the dam had dropped, 6 inches, leaving nothing under the ice to support my weight.

I had dressed in layers that morning.  First I had put on thermal underwear, next some heavy cotton sweats, then jeans, and a thick wool shirt.  Two pair of wool socks, covered with a pair of knee-high moccasins, that I oiled with mink oil, a jacket, mittens, scarf, and knit hat finished off my wardrobe that morning.   I had dressed with the intent that my activity would keep me warm, but not so many layers that I would break a sweat.  Sweating in ultra cold temperatures like these will reduce the thermal properties of your clothing, and you will be colder, so it is vital to use layers to regulate your temperature.  I had not worked up enough body heat to shed any layers, and up until breaking through the ice, I had been cool, but not cold.  However, none of this clothing was designed for wet situations.  The icy water saturated every layer, only my upper chest, back, head, and hands were dry.  My mind was racing, I was three-quarters of a mile from the cabin, and soaked through in sub forty degree temperatures.

I had matches and other survival items in a small watertight container.  I also carried a knife, that I could use, to shave some dry kindling off a stick, to start a fire.   A huge pile of sticks from pulling the beaver dam apart last summer, offered plenty of wood for a fire, but would that be enough.  I had no change of clothes, no blanket, or any shelter, would I be able to get a sufficient fire going before succumbing to the cold?  I wasn’t sure if I was shivering from the cold or the fear, but I knew I had to decide on a plan of action fast, and the wrong choice would mean certain death.

I was less than a mile from a warm fire in the cabin, but could I make that distance in this cold.  To make a direct line back to the cabin would mean breaking a new trail in the crusted snow, some of it drifted as high as my waist.  That is tougher than it sounds, when powder snow is crusted like this, it will not hold your weight, so it is like climbing steps, you lift your weight up on the snow, then break through each time, it can be exhausting to go even a short distance.  Being young and strong, I quickly decided that I would make a run for home, and hope the exurtion  would help keep my body temperature up.

The cold was so intense, and my soaking wet layers of clothing, were offering no insulation.  My skin had instantly gone numb, and the penetrating cold was now working its way deeper, causing my muscles to ache.  It had only been a few minutes and already my outer layer of my jeans and coat were frozen, my clothing was literally freezing solid on me.  Unexpectedly the frozen clothing was forming a barrier to the cold air, but making it difficult, and painful to move.  I made my way out of the underbrush of the creek bottom, were the snow is deepest, and up onto a meadow that ran most of the way to the cabin.  If I could just keep moving, and stay on the high spots, and out of the drifts, I could make it.

I have no idea how much weight the water had added to my clothes, but the more it froze, the harder it was becoming to move.  Like a character from a horror flick, I moved heavily and deliberately over the white expanse.  My muscles, and lungs were hot from the work of breaking the snow with every step.  My inner warmth barely caught my notice though, as the pain demanded the attention of my mind.  I didn’t dare stop, and the deepening pain from the cold was more than enough motivation to keep going.

As I cleared the top of a small ridge, I now had a line of sight to the cabin.  On a normal winter morning the cattle would be starting to gather near the barn, in anticipation of a load of hay that would soon be spread on the meadow for them.  Not this morning, not in this cold.  The last few days, the cattle won’t even come out of the brush to eat, they stay tucked in the willow thickets, to avoid the wind, just like every other creature in the face of this biting cold.  My lungs are starting to burn, and the pain of drawing in the deathly cold air is a concerted effort with each breath.

I finally reached the cabin, shivering uncontrollably, I open the front door, and stepped into the warmth and comfort of that rustic old log building.  The smells of a crackling fire, and a fresh pot of coffee greeted me, and while those familiar aromas offered some comfort to me, the numbing cold drove me straight to the stove.  I desperately wanted to get out of my frozen clothes and soak in the radiating heat from that old cast iron stove.  My mittens, and hat were dry so they came off easily, but the rest of my clothing was welded together like an icy suit of armor, that only flexed at the knees, and hips.  Slowly turning to thaw my clothing out, I was eventually able to get out of my icy bondage.  Once I had rewarmed myself, and the danger was past, my grandfather and I had a good chuckle about that frozen suit, and how I was like the cave man who had been thawed from inside a solid block, but it was a nervous chuckle, both of us knowing that I had come very close to literally being a frozen feature in the wilderness.

I have often thought of that frigid winter morning, and how suddenly your environment can change.  At one moment you are secure and familiar with your life, and the next, you are faced with decisions that may affect your very survival.  I feel we are facing one of those moments in our history as a nation.  Events, and political ideologies are forcing us to make decisions.  If we don’t make our choice, based on sound principles, or if we hesitate, will we find ourselves part of a desolate and frozen landscape?  We cannot simply start a fire in the wilderness of contentious ideas, no we must make the difficult, and even painful march home, through a morass of obstacles, and get back to the security of solid structured principles.

Shane McKenna

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