Snapshots of a rural childhood

🕔Dec 03, 2008

A Hole in the Ice

Providing drinking water to the livestock during the summer was one of my favorite jobs: I didn’t have to do anything. Cattle are very good about sticking their own mouths in the ponds, dugouts, creeks or water troughs. I didn’t even have to lead them to water.
Winter, however, has an unfortunate effect on water, which is no surprise to anyone living in BC’s northwest. And even though everything is covered with ‘water’ during our winter months, the poor animals can’t drink it. Bummer, ’cause this means someone has to do some work.
Since axes are not well known for chopping a hole in the ice by themselves, someone had to walk to the pond every day to do it. I’m sure that a town kid would have been able to get out of it by pointing out, “Axes are sharp and I might cut myself.” But I would just get a reply like, “Would you rather cut the hole with a dull axe?”
The axe I remember was a double-bitted axe. I have no explanation for why this job required this style that has TWO sharp edges, but it wasn’t the axe that was the main danger, anyway.
The danger was in the flying chips of ice. We always used the same hole because it would only have one day of ice on the surface. An important feature is that the level of the water, hence the level of the new ice that had to be chopped out, was lower than the level of the pond’s main ice. It’s like chopping ice inside a bucket.
The sides of the hole, therefore, worked perfectly to redirect the ice chips right where my face was. This meant that the motion of swinging the axe included slamming closed my eyelids as the shards of ice exploded from the hole.
The worst, though, was that after chopping enough to break through to the water, every subsequent swing splashed water into my face—and actually all over me. So I pulled my hood tight around my face, and in addition to closing my eyes with each swing, I had to tuck my chin against my neck to prevent water from going down inside my clothes. It probably looked like I was becoming a curled-up shrimp each time, and after a few swings of the axe I was wet enough to feel like one, too.
Except it was winter. The temperature was minus …something. Being wet at minus whatever is not a good thing. Oh, and the wind was blowing—and hard. Not all day, every day, of course, but just when I had to open the water holes.
This means there was a severe skin-chill factor. In extreme conditions like that, a kid risks freezing to death within a matter of minutes. THIS was the true danger in the job of opening the water holes for those dumb cows.
And yes, I did freeze to death a few times. I’m lucky to have survived long enough to tell about it.

The first snow

The first snow was always a source of huge excitement for a farm kid. I always knew it was coming, eventually, because we had been watching the new snow creep down the mountains since Fall Fair time. And there had been frost in the mornings for a long time. “So when is it gonna snow?!”
Some years were strange because we’d get a deep cold snap before there was any snow. While this was great for skating on the ponds, it only raised the eager anticipation about when the snow would finally arrive. In a good year it would be before Hallowe’en, but sometimes we had to wait till later…way later, like a whole week, or even two, sometimes.
The first snow always seemed to happen in the night; it was like Christmas and the tooth fairy that way. But instead of digging into Christmas presents, we’d be digging into boxes to find our boots and snowsuits. Usually we’d find that they were way too small, but that meant we’d get “new” ones.
“Here, Teddy, you can have mine from last year.” Funny—I don’t remember ever having actual new boots.
There were always silly rules like, “No, you can’t go out in your pajamas,” and, “No, you can’t just go running out there for a minute in your socks.” It seemed like the snow might be gone by the time we were allowed to go out. The first tracks of the year! The first snow angel, the first snowballs!
With global warming, however, snow seems different: it just doesn’t seem to elicit the same excitement in me that it used to.

The winter school-bus experience

Riding the school bus for an hour in the morning, and another hour in the afternoon, 200 days a year for twelve years, doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, does it? I’ve heard many people whine and complain about how awful the ride on the school bus is, but I’m here to let you know that it has its benefits as well…especially in winter.
Waiting for the bus to arrive when the snow is so cold that it squeaks underfoot, and there are little ice crystals floating in the air, is not even a little bit fun. So how could anyone not be excited and appreciative of the bus when it finally arrived? Having the bus come along was a good thing.
It was particularly good compared to the options. Walking six miles to Telkwa would have taken much longer, and been much colder, than riding the bus. Taking the tractor to school may have been faster than walking, but it would have been colder. Besides, there’s always the embarrassment factor if one were to arrive at school on a tractor. THAT simply would not happen. The bus was definitely a superior option.
I got to practice artwork while riding the bus. No, I didn’t draw on the seats…that was some other kid. We used the frost on the inside of the windows as a sketch medium. I’d be lying if I said I produced any sketches worth saving, but I had the excuse of drawing while the bus was bouncing and jiggling along the gravel roads.
Winter is the time for seeing lots of moose, especially late in the winter. There were always some areas that were prime for spotting them, but really they could be anywhere. Even in town. I still remember being confused in grade 3 when I told my teacher, “I saw three moose coming to school this morning.” Her strange reply was, “How do you know they were coming to school? Were they carrying lunch kits?”
As I got older, like in Grade 7, I began to notice that girls were not always just annoying. Indeed, there was something kinda neat about them, and there were several of them who also rode the bus. So the hour in the morning, and the other hour in the afternoon, were NOT wasted time. Those poor town kids who didn’t even get up till 8 o’clock were simply missing out.
That hour in the mornings was also a time that could be used when I ‘forgot’ to do my homework. I think there were only two teachers who complained of my horrible handwriting, which was only partially legible when done on the bus. Years of doing bad sketching on the frosty windows apparently did nothing to make my handwriting very good. Teachers didn’t want to hear about the bouncing and jiggling of the bus not being my fault. Thinking back, I doubt that the homework done on the bus was very insightful either, unless I could borrow the answers from one of those girls who was no longer annoying.