Winter Survival in the Great Northwest
Although I live in North Carolina and experience very few bitter winter days, I still remember the great northwest and winter in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s emblazoned on my brain and used to haunt my dreams. You think I exaggerate? Not at all.
I have to admit that a northwest winter is a mixed bag of memories. Waking up to the sight of a crust of sparkling white snow and crisp, cold air brought a certain excitement to my heart. The air seemed so clean and pure, but it froze the hair in my nose each time I breathed it in I worried that my lungs would freeze. The doors on my car were usually frozen shut. An entire process ensued each morning getting them to open again—not to mention the trials and tribulations of scraping ice off the windows. My advice to any Nebraskan is to keep their cars in a heated garage. In those days, we “Flower Children” believed in doing things the natural way like hanging clothes on a line. If you’ve never done this in the winter, you’re in for a real treat. Wet clothes freeze into stiff boards before you can even hang them up. Clipping clothespins to the frozen garments had to be done without gloves and it doesn’t take long before fingers go numb and knuckles become raw. The best thing to do is string a line inside the house—or get in the twenty-first century and use a dryer. Pray that the power doesn’t go out while you’re at it.
But what about the brave pioneers that went out west before there were power grids, central heat and modern machinery? How did they survive winters in the great northwest? And what about the Native Americans who lived on the Great Plains? How did they keep warm? How did people spend their days when blizzards roared and the temperatures dropped below zero?
The more nomadic tribes of Native Americans moved to their winter camps further south where they could enjoy a more moderate climate. The tribes that stayed were well prepared for the harsh rigors of a northwest winter. They wrapped heavy animal skins around the poles of their teepees insulating them from winds and weather. In the center, they built a small fire and covered the floor with thick, furry skins that held in the heat. Of course, they had prepared dried meats and cornmeal during the warm weather to last until spring. As well as gathering wood, they gathered seasoned buffalo chips to use for their fires. Winter was a time to repair and make weapons, baskets and pottery and it was a time to tell the stories passed down from ancestors. All in all, they were quite cozy. They didn’t have to wake up to alarm clocks and crack open frozen car doors.
The hearty pioneers who moved west had harsh lessons to learn about winterizing in such a harsh environment. There was no time to waste during the warmer months. Hunting and curing meats along with planting crops of vegetables that would last them through the cold winter was essential for survival. A real priority was gathering and cutting enough wood to last. If the heat producing fire died due to the lack of wood, it was game over. Wisely, they built their log cabins small with the fireplace in the center so that the heat was well distributed. Lofts built above the living area helped keep them warm when the fires were banked at night since heat rises. Since they had no glass, the windows were covered with oiled paper or cloth. The light could brighten the interior even though no one could see through the windows. They filled the space between logs with mud that further helped to insulate their homes. Some dwellings were made of dried mud and some were built into the side of a hill that also helped to insulate the living space.
For a short period in my childhood my family lived in a log cabin that had once been a carriage house. It had two huge windows, one upstairs and one downstairs that brightened the entire living space. A fireplace downstairs placed in the center of two long windows made the whole place cozy. Of course, we had modern heating, but I have to say that was the coziest place to live.
I have gratitude that I live in a world of furnaces and electricity and in a state that doesn’t have much in the way of severe winters, but I admire those hearty individuals whose adventuresome spirits took them to a place where their will, strength and intelligence would surely be tested. My hat is off to them and to their contribution to the history of our nation.
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