Living for the past 35 or so years out here on the relatively mild Canadian west coast, it’s not all that uncommon for people who know that I spent some of my early years living in the central part of the country, to ask me if the stories they have heard about just how cold it can get in Northern Manitoba are really true, or if they’ve been exaggerated somewhat. Whenever I’m asked that question, I always think back to one particular night that I spent as a young boy with my father out on the trap-line. It had been an unusually cold day to begin with, the mercury in the thermometer hovering around the -35 F. mark, so when a stiff north wind started to blow just as the sun began to sink, my father and I both knew it was going to be what we referred to as a tipi-night.
Now a tipi-night, as you’ve probably guessed by now, was given that name because of the type of shelter we used on those special occasions. On regular evenings, nights that were cold, but not anything out of the ordinary, if we couldn’t make it back to the cabin before dark, we would set up a small nylon pup-tent, climb into our sleeping bags, and we would be fine until morning. But there were times, and that night was definitely turning into a bad one, when the temperature would drop so low, usually due to high winds, when the nylon tent just didn’t do the trick. Aside from the danger of it just blowing down around your ears (it’s not always easy to anchor anything into frozen ground), the Arctic winds would just pass the cold right through almost as if you were just sleeping outside. So for those nights, strapped to the side of the dog-sled, my father had a medium-sized tipi
(just big enough for 2) that he had acquired somewhere along the pathways of his very interesting life. It was made of canvas, which did a much better job of keeping the wind out, and bonus of all bonuses, because it was a tipi, it was vented at the top which meant you could have a small fire right inside where you were sitting or sleeping. Without a doubt the way to go on a bad night, and from the way the howling wind was already starting to chill me right through my parka and two or three other layers of clothes, this was going to be a bad one to remember.
My father must have seen me shivering because he sent me to find a little bit of fallen tree branches (not an easy task on the Tundra, and something I speak about at more length in my Tall Tale “Unbearable”) to start a small fire in the tipi, and to load in the supplies that he didn’t want left on the sled overnight. While I did that, he worked on getting a larger fire going outside, and storing the food away so as not to attract animals; he also fed the dogs.
I had just gotten everything in order when the flap flew open and a cold blast of air pushed my father into the tipi. For a moment he just huddled around the fire I had built and I could see he was trying to get some warmth into his body. Even the fur collar on his parka looked like it was frozen stiff. As he warmed up a bit, he saw that I was in the process of unzipping my jacket. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was getting ready to climb into my sleeping bag and go to sleep. He told me I could if I wanted to, and then with a sly grin on his face, he said but then I’d miss all the fun because his friend Ben had just shown up with his nephew, and since it was getting dark, my dad had told them they should set up their tent outside of the tipi over by the big fire he had just built. He told me even though it had gotten a lot colder outside since I came in, if I wanted to help him get Ben set up, then maybe we could all huddle around that big fire and tell some tall tales, or maybe some ghost stories for a little bit before everyone turned in for the night. Basically, I think he wanted to make sure his friends were going to be OK out there before he allowed himself to settle down for the night. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough room for 4 people in the tipi no matter how you worked it. Just before letting in another blast of icy wind as he went back out, my dad left one final challenge hanging in the frozen air, “That’s if you think you’re grown-up enough to handle the coldest night of your life and hang with the big folks and the polar bears?” Then he laughed once and he was gone. The tipi flap had just barely slapped shut by the time I had pulled my first mukluk back on.
As anxious as I was to get out and see Ben and Rick (Ben’s nephew) I made absolutely certain – like my father had always taught me – that I took the time to dress properly before I threw back the flap and stepped out into the wavering light cast by the fire that was roughly 8-10 feet directly in front of the tipi. That’s why I know that it had nothing to do with my carelessness or anything like that, yet when that cold hit me after my second step it was like walking into a soaking wet sheet of frozen razor blades. I reflexively drew in a startled gasp of air through the muffler that I had wrapped twice around my face, and instinctively turning around, gave serious thought to diving back into the tipi, never again to emerge until Summer was well into mid-season; even then I was going to keep my parka on.
I actually did make a grab at the flap, but before I could get a grip on it through my heavy mittens, the first odd thing in a series of odd things occurred, that would finally prove to me once and for all that this was the coldest night the world had ever known, and the world may never know another one like it until the day our good old Sun finally burns itself out. And just what was this strange occurrence that heralded the coldest night ever known? It was a laugh, a part of a laugh to be more precise, and a piece of a laugh that along with several other pieces of several other laughs, and parts of conversation, were totally and completely out of rhyme. Let me explain.
As I now stood there in front of the tipi, with my back to the fire 8-10 feet away, and the three men sitting around it, It sounded to me like they were conversing in a foreign tongue, the structure of which I was totally unfamiliar with…with one little problem. The words, which I could clearly hear, were English. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the words, it was the rhythm that was all wrong. And now a second thing occurred that only added to my growing confusion, and believe me when I say I was confused. I was so confused that I had temporarily at least, forgotten that I was quite likely standing there freezing to death. Anyway, the second thing that was adding to my puzzlement was that I could distinctly hear the sound of sizzling as though the men were frying something, but the sizzling sound also was coming and going in some strange kind of rhythm quite unlike the steady sound you would expect if someone were cooking something in a frying pan.
It was my fingers and toes starting to get rather painful that snapped me out of my motionless state, and turning around, I managed rather stiff-legged (it was too cold to even think about bending my knees) to start slowly moving towards the fire. As I did so, the third odd thing was revealed to me. Peering through the slit I had left in the wrapped muffler for my eyes, I was finally getting a better look at the three individuals sitting around the fire, but due to the way they were positioned (trying to keep the wind at their backs), I still couldn’t see any of their faces dead on, and none of them could see me approaching from their backside. What I could see only added to the mystery and I have to admit that despite the fact that the conversation which I could make out was ordinary enough, and even interspersed with more of that off-rhythm laughter, the circumstances were starting to creep me out, and I may even have had thoughts of “Bodysnatchers” once or twice.
Aside from the strange talking and the sizzling sound, I now had to figure out why it looked from where I was at like my dad and his visitors were doing something that to all intents and purposes looked like they were “eating in reverse”. You see, they kept bringing their hands up to their mouths, then making throwing motions toward the fire after sometimes fumbling around in the air in front of themselves as though they were trying to catch a hummingbird or something. I told you it was weird. Whatever they were doing, they weren’t getting close enough to the fire to be taking anything out of a pot or anything, just throwing something in that general direction. Well, I could actually draw this out for you even more, because being as young as I was, I was feeling pretty nervous by this point, but shortly after this, just as I was about to decide to head back to the tipi, and wait out the night with my own private little fire (and my .22 caliber rifle for protection), I made out a piece of my father’s conversation wondering where I had gotten to, and that was enough to make me change my mind and take the last couple of steps that brought me into everyone’s line of sight. As they all tried to welcome me, and encourage me to take a seat before I truly froze solid, I suddenly put all the different little things together, and figured out just what the heck I had been witnessing. An incredible event for sure, but in the end nothing to be afraid of. Just the simple answer to that age-old question, “Is it really as cold in Northern Manitoba as they say it is?”
Well, if I didn’t know the answer to that before that night, I knew it then. How cold was it, you ask. That night, the night I will never forget, it was so cold on my father’s trap-line, that he and I, and Ben and Rick, sitting around that fire, watched each other in utter amazement as every time any of us tried to say something to anyone else, “Our words came out in chunks of ice, and we had to fry them to hear what we were saying!”