Friday, April 24, 2015

The Lansdowne Letters ~ Freeze-up Approaches

Fifty years ago two events loomed large
in isolated, fly-in communities 
throughout northern Ontario,
throughout all of the Canadian north 
for that matter:
the annual freeze-up and break-up

During these times bush planes
could not fly in or out of places 
like Lansdowne House, 
and shortwave radio provided 
the only contact with The Outside.

Bush Plane with Pontoons or Floats

To land, a bush plane required
a stretch of open water or thick ice.
While the ice was freezing or melting,
people were essentially cut-off from The Outside.

If a person needed to get in or out
during freeze-up or break-up,
he faced a long, hard, wilderness journey
with a dog team, a canoe, or both.
For most people this was not possible.

Lake and Forest, James Bay Area

As long as a person didn't have a medical emergency,
these freezing and melting periods were inconvenient:
no supplies, no mail, no visitors.
You had what you had, and you made do.

As either period approached,
the big questions were when and how long.
Everyone was guessing, speculating,
especially those for whom it was the first time.

My father looked at the worsening weather
and approaching freeze-up with a mixture
of fascination and trepidation.

Snow on Lake Attawapiskat
Painting by Donald B. MacBeath, Fall 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved 

On Monday, October 17, 1960 
My father wrote:
How’s everyone tonight?
I had a new experience today, 
and let me tell you something.  
You just haven’t lived till you have tried 
paddling a canoe in a snowstorm.  

It snowed on and off all day today, 
but it always seemed to be snowing 
whenever I had to cross the water in the canoe.  

When I got to school though, 
it always cleared and stayed pretty well clear 
till it was time for another canoe trip. 

flickr ~ Lyndsay Esson    license

It was on 
but good 
when I started 
going home at noon.
It was snowing
and blowing 
so hard when 
I started across 
that I couldn’t 
see the island; 
and when I got
about the middle, 
I couldn’t see either shore.

I was scared for a while that I might be 
blown out on the lake or something, 
so I just prayed and paddled like hell.  

I was even tempted to say a couple of ‘Hail Marys,’ 
seeing as my roommate and landlord have such faith in them.  

However, as you can see, I arrived safe and sound; 
and by the time I had to go back, it had cleared 
to the extent that I could see the mainland from the island.

It won’t be too long before it freezes 
from the look of things.  
Any water that splashes into the canoe 
the last couple of days has frozen in the bottom.
The top edge and the sides of the canoe 
above the waterline are quite heavily encrusted with ice.  
I’ll have to get a de-icer like an airplane if I am not careful.

The water fascinates me these days.  
It is so cold that the water is sort of viscous 
like maple syrup or thin molasses.  
It doesn’t run off the paddle like it normally does, 
but sort of oozes off like maple syrup would ooze off a knife.  

The paddle even seems to move through the water 
less freely than normally.  
The Father tells me that this is a sure sign 
that freeze-up is not too far off.

I see that I have made a few mistakes in spelling.  
Some of them, like ‘watter,’ are typographical errors; 
but others I must take full credit for.  
Oh but I wish that Sara was here 
to tell me how to spell certain words. 


Uno is making 
like Rembrandt 
and is trying 
to paint a picture. 

This wouldn’t be so bad, except he has been trying 
to paint the same damned picture ever since I arrived.  
I am getting sick of the sight of it 
and would like to see him start something else for a change.

Today was the first day back at school after the flu, 
and my goodness, but you’d think it was the first day again.  

Three days away from those Indian children, 
and I have lost all the ground that I had gained 
in overcoming their shyness.  
I sometimes wonder if I will overcome it.

We lit the big stove last night for the first time 
in an effort to keep the cottage warm all night.  
It isn’t very nice getting up in a house that is as cold as charity.  

I think, though, that we have a lot to learn about regulating it, 
for we nearly roasted for the first part of the night, 
and by morning the fire was burned out, 
and it was as cold as ever here this morning.  
Oh well, we have the whole winter to learn, haven’t we?

Well, I guess that winds it up for tonight.

Bye now,

I'm laughing as I think of all the years
I shared a small bedroom and/or a bed
with my sister Donnie ~ 
We had our testy moments too! 

Well, I guess that winds it up for me tonight also! 

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue


  1. Your dad lived on the edge of danger having to paddle when that water was so cold. If he tipped over he would have frozen.

    I didn't realize that he was an artist too.

    A sign of a good story for me is when I can see the action like a movie in my head and through his letters I can picture the isolation yet elation when working with the children. I so appreciate you sharing this story with us.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Peggy! It's encouraging, because in my heart I felt these stories needed to be saved and shared. Hugs!

  2. Dear Louise, I so enjoy your posts. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Linda! Your encouragement helps so much, especially on those late hours when I'm trying to find the right word or photo for my post. I wish I were someone who could get ahead by twenty or thirty posts, even five, but so far I haven't managed it! Happy Friday!

  3. Paddling like hell would sure be the way to be if stuck in a snow storm. Living up there had to be stressful with all of that. Weather can get you at any moment.

    1. You're right, Pat! Weather could get you! Could kill you! All the years living in the fat of Colorado, and I still keep my larder and car stocked for weather emergencies ~ even in the summer. Have a good one!

  4. Scary to be cut off, especially if there was an emergency.
    Did the guy ever finish his painting?

    1. The answer to what happened to Uno's painting is lost in time, Alex! Medical emergencies were the worst. In Lansdowne House there was a nursing station staffed with a nurse. Doing operations on a kitchen table being directed by a doctor over shortwave radio was not unheard of in the Canadian north. I know my mother worried when we five kids arrived up north with her. Dad too. We were always getting into trouble doing crazy things. And sometimes we were given a royal chewing out by the nurse in Lansdowne House who reminded us more than once if we broke our necks doing something stupid, he couldn't help us. Most families had first aid kits containing things like morphine. It really was like a frontier, Alex! Have a good weekend!

  5. Very interesting and captivating tale, nice of you to share!

    1. Thanks for your visit and kind comment, blogoratti!

  6. Paddling, a "Hail Mary" so like Alex in "Ice Road Truckies" faith must prevail to a large extent in those conditions. And are you writing a book, with these letters in it? I so enjoy them, and can almost feel I am there, the true spirit of a good scribe. You are so generous to share with us these private words from your Dad,

    1. Thanks, Jean! Dad always expected to write a magazine article or two using his letters, but you know how life is when you're have a demanding job and five children to educate. When Dad became very ill later in life he gave his letters to me. My parents always believed that I would do something with them, write a memoir, whatever. But I got caught up in life too. Now I have a million questions I wished I had asked before time stole my parents from me. I'll get there! Have a lovely weekend!

  7. 'Cold as charity'....never heard this one before, Louise!
    And your father painted as well and very well too! He was so in touch with his abilities. He obviously encouraged this in his children as well.
    Great descriptions of the water and how it would cling to the oars and how it appeared in the lake just before the freeze up. Wonderful visuals.
    And here you are following in his footsteps....oh how proud he would be, Louise.
    Thanks so much for doing these 'letters'.

    1. You never heard 'Cold as charity" before, Jim? I thought that was a Maritime saying. Maybe it was just a PEI one ~ or maybe it was Baptist. I do feel that Dad would be proud of what I am doing. I always feel both of my parents close by me. Doing these letters is a joy, and a relief because I've always wanted to share them and write that memoir! Kelsey Raymond (well know Nova Scotian artist from Smith's Cove and Mom's first cousin) always said that he wouldn't want Dad setting up a paint shop next to his; that Dad was a master of color. One of these days I'm going to tackle painting. There is so, so much I still want to accomplish! Thanks for your lovely comment!

  8. and people complain about bad traffic. Isolation from society is much more of an inconvenience.

    1. Isolation literally drove some people who went north to work insane. It was called "bushed." Have a good one!

  9. Oh wow, that would be so freaky. I'm such a city-slicker.

  10. Lovely tale. "Canoeing in the snow". How cool would that be, yet how crazy. Lovely imagery.

  11. What a great letter, though chilling too (no pun intended). I love your dad's description of the water texture as it approached freezing. I'm very glad he made it to the island despite the blowing snow! :)

    1. Thanks, Sue! I've canoed that water route in the sunshine. I would not want to be blown out into the open areas of Lake Attawapiskat. That would likely mean death. Have a good one!


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.