A story of survival on the Bay de Verde Peninsula

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I will tell you now about a winter blizzard that occurred in the early days of my boyhood, growing up on the North Shore of Conception Bay.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

I will tell you now about a winter blizzard that occurred in the early days of my boyhood, growing up on the North Shore of Conception Bay.

In those days, just before Confederation with Canada, the main supply of fuel for household heating and cooking was wood. Each day during the winter, long lines of harnessed horses and slides would travel from the coast, inland toward the forests, many miles away, bordering Trinity Bay.

Starting at dawn, or before, the trip over the snow-covered paths and frozen ponds would take, sometimes, two hours to get to the "big woods," where the large trees would be harvested, in those days, with an axe.

A mid-day feed

Halfway through the day there would be a “bile-up” with the flat-assed kettles boiled over an open wood fire with strong tea, home made bread, dried salted caplin or watered salt fish roasted on the fire.

Then would begin the loading of the wood onto the slide and the long journey back home, sometimes a distance of 12 to 20 miles.

My father left our house that morning in late January just before dawn and joined the rest of the woodcutters on the way "across the long haul," as they called the snow path; the day was ideal — cold and clear — with light winds.

Very soon they were — a dozen of them — far inland.

Blinding storm

At noon the sky suddenly changed — darkened, with scudding clouds driven by winds in off the water. Soon, snow began to fall, school was cancelled and all the children sent home.

The men, far inland, hurried at loading the wood onto the slides, and started the long journey home, one behind the other.

The wind soon increased in intensity and the snow, driven by the gale, began to drift, interfering with visibility and filling in and obliterating the path.

I can only tell you second-hand what went on in there, that day, because what I have to say was told to me by my father, and, later, by a couple of other men who sat in our kitchen and related how they survived.

But what I can tell you first-hand is what the family went through that afternoon.

As time went on the snowfall increased, the wind intensified in severity and the temperature dropped well below freezing. Inside our house it became quite cold, mainly because my mother was rationing our supply of firewood, which normally was replenished during the day from a large outdoor pile close by the root cellar.

But this day she stopped me from going outside, because she feared for the safety of her 11 year-old in the rapidly worsening storm.

Wrapped in blankets

As the day passed into the late afternoon the worry and tension in the house increased. The wind was now a howling gale. Outside, all sight was obliterated by the drifting snow.

The old house, never built for protection in a gale, shook and rattled as the northeast wind strained its rafters. The wood stove, starved for fuel, finally went out altogether, and the house became increasingly cold; my mother and grandmother, both crying, wrapped us all in blankets, and silently, I am sure, prayed.

Inland, far from the coast, the men, in the long line of slides on the way home, realizing that they were now in deep trouble, stopped, and, all together, threw off their loads of wood.

In the front of the line was placed the most experienced man, he with an older and stronger horse as they headed for the shore.

A terrified boy

That afternoon will live forever in my memory because I was terrified my Dad would die in the blizzard. After all, in a winter storm a couple of years before, a woodsman from down the shore had perished in the snow.

As the night approached, my mother lit kerosene lamps — electricity was no longer available because of the storm — and she tried to make a rudimentary meal out of bread, molasses and cold leftovers.

My grandmother, over by the cold stove, prayed silently, telling her rosary beads. An hour of darkness went by … then two …

Then suddenly, during a lull in the wind, I looked out through the frosted window, and there he was, my father, on the empty slide, pulling in, covered with snow.

The relief was immense. In through the porch door he came with his clothes, his face, his eyebrows festooned with frost, and said to us all as we rushed to hug him: “Pretty damn dirty, out there …"

Then we watched him untackle the horse from the empty slide, open the porch door and bring the animal inside, into the porch, into the house.

Tending to the horse

The only part of the poor creature that was not a mass of white was evident on the two forelegs, where, below both knees, all the way down to the hooves, were clumps of clotted blood, mixed with snow and ice, frozen onto the brown fur.

“He’ll be staying in here, for a little while."

Out he went and brought in dry wood from the barn and, very soon, there was a fire going in the wood stove. When the house warmed up and the kettle was boiling he dressed the lacerations on the animal’s legs and applied an ointment.

We were happy to stand aside and observe, content that the day had ended so well, and that he was alive.

Shortly after, the animal was brought out to the barn and fed a special feed of heated oats and bran, and all the hay he could eat.

Broke through ice

The next day, my father told his story.

Somehow, the group had separated as they approached the coast. My Dad and another man who had a very powerful horse ended up travelling over Middle Pond when, at the lower end of the pond, both horses went through the ice.

The bigger horse, closer to shore, fought its way onto solid land, leaving my Dad’s horse floundering in the water, with the slide still attached.

My father, lying flat on the ice close to the now exhausted animal, finally succeeded in throwing a noose around its neck; the rope was then hitched onto the slide on the shore and the poor creature, the slide still attached, was dragged out of the water.

The animal had enough energy left to travel to the porch in Long Beach, lacerated legs and all.

My Dad was attached to all the animals under his care, but this horse, he loved above all others, and the love was returned, for many years.

— Dr. William O'Flaherty worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

Geographic location: Conception Bay, North Shore, Canada Trinity Bay Long Beach Newfoundland New Brunswick Western Bay Northern Bay Moncton

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