I’m reading Emperor of the North, by James Raffan, the story of Sir George Simpson and the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early-to-mid 1800s. It is a fascinating book, not just because it chronicles the making of a company that exists to this day, but also because it paints a picture of Canada before it was Canada, a land of sparsely scattered trading posts, First Nations tribes, and seemingly endless wilderness.
And if you’ve ever spent a winter in Winnipeg, you would probably wonder how any lunatic could even contemplate being in Manitoba past September.
George Simpson regularly crossed it in snowshoes and dogsleds, sleeping in canvas tents and eating nothing but pemmican. And I’ve been outside on Winnipeg winter’s day; it is a cold that defies understanding. Snot freezes instantly. You fingers go numb even in mittens. Your eyes water even when the wind isn’t blowing in them. It eats up sound, so that earmuffs and hats bring everything down to a mute, frigid stillness.
My mother owned a brown, late-eighties Eagle Vista compact car. Never heard of it? That’s because it was one of the worst little crap-boxes ever produced. It had a 69 hp engine. I’m fairly sure that some of my daughter’s toys have more powerful motors than that. In that kind of oil-freezing cold, even the block heater struggled to keep it alive in winter. It required a 45-minute warmup just to keep from stalling out after first gear. Most times it wasn’t worth the effort to fire it up, so we ended up walking to wherever we needed to go, particularly when it dropped down to the -40 degree mark.
But not on the day we went back to Bird’s Hill Park.
The name still sends chills down my spine.
In the summer months, we once got completely lost in its depths. My mother, my brother and I were caught in a steady rain while looking for a cabin that my mother had supposedly found before when following a goat path off a deer path off a side path. After hours of wandering we eventually found a logging road and were able to track our way back to that ugly brown car, but I still hear the sound of dueling banjos in my head any time I think back to that day.
We should have learned our lesson, but back we went on a frigid winter’s afternoon, ignoring the signs that the park was closed, plowing forward in second gear until a sickening, crunchy thrump told us that we would be staying for quite a while indeed. My mother had run the car into a dense snowbank. We were stuck.
She sent us off to play in the nearby hills. I was about ten at the time. My brother was about eight. We could offer little help in freeing the vehicle. Between gusts of icy wind we could hear all manner of elaborate swear words drifting over from where my mother was, in vain, shoving and kicking at the ugly brown car with its insufficient ground clearance.
My brother and I dug into the hills to make snowforts, perhaps contemplating our chances of surviving in them overnight. In one drift I pulled out what I thought was a piece of wood. It was, in fact, a mouse, frozen solid. I showed it to my brother. We both had the same thought.
“We’re going to die out here. Just like this mouse.”