Features & Stories

Story and photos by Trudy Frisk

"Irish Jimbo & Kenny"
City dwellers don’t usually realize how much weather affects comfort and mobility.  It’s different in the country. During winter cold spells, my family phone calls focus on four basic questions. “How are the horses?  How cold is it?  Are the water pipes frozen? What’s your weather forecast?”  Here’s a summary of recent calls.

Me, “How are the horses?”  My brother, “They’re holding up okay. They’re in their shelter, got their blankets on, eating well. “Me, “What about that cougar?  Have you seen tracks lately?”  “Not for four days, maybe it moved on. Lots of deer, though.”  After settling livestock and wildlife questions we get to other critical issues. 

“How cold is it?”  It’s always colder where my siblings are, three hundred and twenty kilometers north of where I live in south-central B.C.  “It’s minus 36, minus 43 with the wind chill.” replies my sister.  Makes my minus 23, wind chill of minus 35, seem mild, barely worth complaining about. We compare circumstances, keeping in mind the true North, strong and frigid.   A friend in Whitehorse wrote on January 25th, “It’s minus 41 here today. That’s the real temperature, without a wind chill. We don’t need your stinkin’ wind chill!” Point taken.  There’s always somebody tougher somewhere.

“Are your water pipes frozen?” is a question which would baffle most city people.  “No, why would they be? We turn the tap and water comes out. Nothing could be simpler.”  Rural residents have a grim understanding of the effect of frost on flowing water. After all, rivers freeze, don’t they? Waterfalls, too, if anybody’s paying attention.  Keeping water running from the well into the house is a delicate matter, involving a constant trickle of water, not so little that it’ll stop altogether or so much that it’ll overwhelm the septic tank. This is the time of year to hang an incandescent light bulb, (for those who stock-piled ahead of the ban), in the well house to provide a little heat. Heat tape for water pipes is a rural stand-by.  

Sometimes the best efforts fail. Then it’s time for drastic action when a hair-dryer becomes much more than a hair-dryer. Given persistence it can be used to thaw out water pipes. If that doesn’t work, bring on the heaters. To do this a person has to stay home, making sure the house is safe and water doesn’t refreeze.  A quote from one disgruntled pipe-thawer, “I’m putting a heater under it.  It’ll either thaw out the pipes or burn the place down.  After five days of this, I really don’t care!”  Ah, for life on the fourteenth floor of a high rise!

"Roger, getting dinner ready"
I was lucky; my water pipes didn’t freeze.  But my car’s ignition did.  When I reported to my usual mechanic that the key wouldn’t turn, he diagnosed that the steering wheel was locked.  “Just jiggle it a bit.” “ No,no,no!” yelled my brother.  “You’ll break the rod connecting to the starter! It’s frozen; it has to be warmed up.  I had a truck that did that every winter.”  I phoned BCAA and explained the predicament. In the background I could hear the dispatcher consulting with the tow truck driver.  Finally she came back on the line; “We can’t thaw it out”, she apologized, “but we can tow you to someplace warm.” “San Jose, California.” came to mind till I reflected that we’d have to traverse the snowy horrors of the lower mainland and Seattle.  Fifteen minutes with my trusty hair-dryer thawed out the steering column. Drivers spoilt by underground parking in their condos will never feel that satisfaction. Nor will they comprehend the importance of the block heater. A wonderful invention, the block heater, almost as significant as duct tape. Before block heaters, drivers carried batteries into the house to keep them warm on cold nights, or they lit fires under their vehicles, complicated maneuvers made unnecessary by block heaters. 

“What’s your weather forecast?”  In the city one day is much like another.  Buses may be late or roads slippery because of snow and ice but these are small inconveniences.  In the country, a rancher can set off for town on a clear morning, driving on a good road, only to have a blizzard blow in that afternoon, leaving him wondering whether to head home or pick a cozy motel and wait it out. If he does try for home, he’ll know there’ll be no snowplowing until the storm’s passed, and even then, the side roads come last. As for the long road up to his gate, with luck he may make it down the hill to the house, but chances are he won’t make it back up. That’s the real reason farmers have tractors; to plow out their roads.

Then there’s the matter of fuel.  Wood heat is still a standby in many rural homes, but it’s not a steady heat. Oil or propane heat requires access for the fuel trucks.  Consequently my brother was out on a cold sunny day with his wheelbarrow full of sand, sanding the hill by hand so the propane truck could get in before the predicted storm.  The weather forecast means a lot to people who live in the country. 

Why do they do it?  Why choose a life style where; no matter how cold, tired, and hungry the people are; they tend to their animals first? Why risk food, fuel, water, transportation not being accessible during winter when they are more necessary than ever?  Why stock up on supplies, in case they can’t get to the stores or find, when they do, that the transport trucks carrying freight are parked along a highway which is too dangerous to drive or have huddled up in some town because the roads out are closed?  Wouldn’t life be simpler in the city?

Not for these people. Convenience isn’t their first priority.  They value privacy, the pleasure of looking out across their own land, with no near neighbours looking back.  They’re proud of their ability to cope with difficulties. Sharing reports of wind chill and storms says “It was hard, but we did it. The animals are fed and sheltered, we’re safe in our home, we’ll meet whatever tomorrow brings.”     

For many of us this rural way of life is our heritage. The land has barns our fathers built, garden plots we cleared and tended as a family. The hills and pastures are full of our history. When we face nature’s challenges, we’re carrying on a tradition. Leo Finlay, a Valemount old-timer summed it up: “When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me!”

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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