Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Winter Survival in the Great Northwest

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.
Sarah’s Provocative Ponderings:  http://pasttheprint.blogspot.com/
My Amazon Author’s Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/sarahmcneal
My Christmas Release:

Gifts From The Afterlife
How dark must it get before Lydia sees the light?
The 99 cent book store:


  1. Sarh, I agree, while I think I would have survived well during that time, I'm glad I live now. My dad grew up in Nebraska and tells of the cold winters. His family worked on a cattle ranch.

    The Wallowa Nez Perce wintered in a canyon of the Imnaha River. It was in a deep canyon which provide some protection from the wind, less snow, and it was by the water.

    Interesting post!

  2. Hi Sarah, your post made me laugh out loud at the memories of Nebraska winters. I'm a California girl through and through and had never seen snow...until I flew into Lincoln on a January day to attend college. Oh, I still remember the shock and the cold LOL. Whew.

    Now I'm researching the Donner party and survival cannibalism aside, I can't even begin to oomprehend the frigid conditions and only cotton and wool clothes.

    Merry Christmas, everybody.

  3. Sarah, I agree that I'm thankful for modern heating (and cooling) and our electric appliances. I admire the pioneers, but would not have survived had I been one. Modern medicine is the only reason I'm still here. My mom's family had weak lungs and many children died before very young from respiratory problems.

  4. Oh, Sarah--I'm cold just thinking about very cold winters, especially for our ancestors. Right now it's 72 outside with bright blue skies and sunshine. The native Americans and pioneers would think this is warm. For me? I'm cold at 72 degrees.
    Our blood is different, thinner probably, because those who live and survive in freezing temperatures can stand it a little better. Me? I'd roll up in a fur blanket and never come out until spring.
    Very good post--and I hope your Christmas release does well!
    Have a blessed Christmas.

  5. Sarah, this was fun to read. I want you to know I am still a mountain woman. We have no heater - we live in the Sierra Mountains in California (not far from Lake Tahoe) and have a three level house and heat it with a pellet stove on the middle floor and a wood stove on the bottom floor. My hubby cuts our wood and keeps a huge pile of wood.

    We are just over the mountain from where the Donner Party died. The winters here are so unpredictable and people are foolish even to this day to go into the moutains and die. Almost every year people go out for Christmas trees in shorts and flip flops and they get lost.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.