Friday, December 4, 2015

The Lansdowne Letters: Freeze-Up Strikes

Fifty-five years ago today,
my father was cut off from the outside world.
Freeze-up was underway,
and that meant there was no way in or out 
of Lansdowne House on Lake Attawapiskat 
in the wilderness of Northern Ontario.

Winter in the Northern Bush

Sometime between November 7th and 11th,
a hard freeze struck the vast empty land,
ending the flight of bush planes.
Lansdowne House Lies in the Wilderness
West of James and Hudson Bays

The scattered people living there hunkered down 
for the long and indefinite wait
till the ice thickened enough to support planes.

My father wired his wife and mother
from the Hudson's Bay post
to let them know freeze-up was on
and there would be no more communication
until ski planes could land.

Austin Airways Route Map
Canada's oldest airline serviced remote communities 
like Lansdowne House with float and ski planes.

On Tuesday, November 22, 1960 
My father wrote:

Dear Mother:
We are expecting the end of freeze-up any day now.  
The ice is OK up here, 
and all that is holding things up is the ice at Nakina.  

As soon as that is strong enough, 
the mail will start on a regular basis again.
I thought that I would write this letter 
and have it ready to go out on the first plane in.

Why Dad Preferred to Type!
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All rights Reserved

Uno’s typewriter went on the Fritz (he broke it) 
just as freeze-up started; and consequently, 
I was not able to continue the Lansdowne Letter.  

However, I kept sort of a journal, 
and as soon as my typewriter arrives, 
or spare parts for Uno’s, 
I’ll start the Lansdowne Letter again.

When I do, I will include the highlights of the freeze-up - 
which were not too many, as things have been pretty dull 
since I laid up the canoe and started walking to school.

I was amazed with the rapidity with which the lake froze over.  
On a Saturday afternoon, I went across in a canoe with an Indian,
and Monday evening I walked across the same strip of water. 

1½ - 2 inches of ice are sufficient to support 500 pounds, 
but the planes require 7-9 inches ~ 
7 for a Cessna and 9 for a Norseman.

A Norseman Equipped for Winter
Last Friday my stoves went out, 
and I couldn’t hold classes.  
Mike, Dunc, and I took them apart, 
cleaned them and the stove pipes, 
and got them working again.  

However, due to the cold school, I caught one hell of a cold.  
As a result of this cold, I have completely lost my voice.  
I have not been able to utter a sound since Sunday.  

Mike is also sick with a cold.  
Duncan is the only one who hasn’t 
seemed to suffer from the cold school.

I have not held classes Monday or today, 
but I am going to try tomorrow.  

I think I will let kindergarten and grade 1 go home, 
and have grades 2, 3, and 4 work on Christmas ornaments.  
I think I should be able to do this 
by writing instructions on the blackboard.  
I will have a go at it anyway.  
It should be amusing.

My reducing program and muscle building program 
are coming along fine.
I now weight 204 pounds, down from 237 when I arrived.  
My waist has come down from 40½ inches to 36 inches.  

After Christmas Maureen is going to take in all my pants.  
They are all miles too big, but I will have to wait 
till I get out to have my coats taken in.

It is quite cold up here now, 
and we are beginning to get lots of snow.

 Duncan McRae Near My Father's Cabin
The Father's Island, Lansdowne House
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

We have over a foot on the level, 
and the temperature varies 
between 10 above and 5 below so far.  
When it rises to 20 above, it feels so warm 
that you want to go about in shirtsleeves.

Oh yes – that cheque I wrote for the HBC 
(the one I mentioned in my letter to the bank manager), 
I forgot to date it, and it came back from the HBC head office.
I had money when it came back, 
so I bought it back from Bill Mitchell and tore it up.  
You can phone the bank manager 
and tell him not to worry about the cheque, 
as it won’t be coming in after all.

© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

It is going to be awfully lonesome up here without the family, 
but I couldn’t possibly afford to come home.  
Besides, I am afraid that if I got home, 
couldn’t force myself to come back 
without Sara and the children.

I have no news to give you 
because things have been very quiet and humdrum.  
Any news that did happen, I am saving 
for when I resume typing the Lansdowne Letters.  

Since I have received no letters from you, 
I have no questions to answer.  
In short, I have run out of material, 
so I will close this letter.  

I will write you another letter as soon as the mail comes in.  
I will get it out on the next plane.  
I will be resuming the Lansdowne Letters 
just as soon as I get my typewriter or Uno gets parts for his.

Bye now,
from your silent Son.
Love, Don

Getting through freeze-up was not easy on my parents.
While my father combated loneliness and isolation in the North,
my mother struggled to maintain a secure and happy home
for we five young children in rural Nova Scotia.
And as much as they longed to be together for Christmas,
it was not going to happen.

To their credit, it never occurred to me that anything bad could happen.
I saw my father as a daring adventurer confronting the wilds.

I longed to join him in that mysterious place. 

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Crossing to Tiverton
on Long island,
in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia
Photo by Roy MacBeath 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Links to Earlier Posts:

TLL: Luring Teachers into the North

TLL: A Housewarming, Northern Style


1.  Uno:  Dad's roommate and teacher at the Catholic school

2.  Length Conversions:
     1½ - 2 inches = 3.8 - 5 centimeters
      7 inches = 17.8 centimeters
      9 inches = 22.9 centimeters
      1 foot = 12 inches = 30.5 centimeters
      36 inches = 91 centimeters
      40½ inches = 103 centimeters

3.  Mike Flaherty:  The nurse at the nursing station.
4.  Duncan (Dunc) McRae:
     Duncan worked for the Department of Transport,
     and his duties included running the DOT Weather Station.

5.  Weight Conversions:
      204 pounds = 92.5 kilograms
      237 pounds = 107.5 kilograms
 6.  Temperature Conversions:  
     10º F above = -12.5º C
       5º F below = -20.5º C
     20º F above = -6.5º C

7.  Bill Mitchell:  The Manager of the Hudson Bay Post.  

For Map Lovers Like Me:

My Sketch

Lansdowne House, Ontario, Canada


  1. How well I remember those 5-cent Blue Queen stamps! The price of postage was so stable in those days we used these stamps for years. Not like now, when the prices go up every year.

    1. Those were beautiful stamps, Debra! The Queen was so young then! I don't know about Canada, but we can buy forever stamps here. When the price goes up, we can still use the forever ones we bought at a lower price. Have a great Weekend!

  2. Interesting post, when it gets below 30 it feels cold to me.

    1. Thanks, John! I'm ruined by living many years in Colorado. Some days 30º F feels cold! I can remember spending the winter in Westport on White Bay in Newfoundland. -30º F felt far colder by the ocean than in the dry north. Thanks for visiting and following my blog! good to meet you!

  3. Such isolation. I would have been so afraid that some serious accident requiring surgery would happen. But I guess they were so used to the conditions that they took that all in stride. Even when your dad doesn't have much to say he says a lot. I appreciated the pictures and maps that you include for it makes the story all the more interesting.

    1. Hi, Peggy! Lansdowne House was fortunate in that it had a nurse and a nursing station with a radio. If an emergency came up requiring surgery, Mike Flaherty, the nurse, could have done it following directions on the radio ~ well depending on the complexity of the surgery, of course. I remember stories circulating around the north about operations performed on kitchen tables following directions over a radio. All families had medical kits usually containing morphine. But it was what it was, and people relied on preparations and good luck. Thanks for your comments about the pictures and maps. I spend a lot of time trying to find good photos and maps. I finally gave up and got down to sketching a map of the area around Lansdowne House. As a teacher I quickly realized how important visual aids are for building comprehension and background knowledge. Have a lovely weekend, Peggy!

  4. Do those planes go in well equipped for emergency landings? Like a rifle, extra clothing and food, something to light a fire? Beacon? I can only imagine the courage of your Dad and the pilots and all others who ventured into the wilderness. His letters say so much, he might not have thought so, but they do.

    1. I can't really answer that question, Jean. I remember plane crashes that happened while I was in the North; most didn't have survivors. Some did, and people endured under very difficult conditions until they were found. That's something that I would like to find out more about. Have a great weekend, my friend!

  5. Never want to be stuck in isolation like that. Run out of food or something and one would be screwed after a short time. He was sure brave indeed.

    1. I thought it was romantic and exciting at the time; but then, I didn't truly understand how close to the edge everyone lived in the North. To this day, I keep my cupboards generously filled with food. I don't care to be hungry! Have a great weekend, Pat!

  6. I loved those stamps, Louise! Another great post, thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Linda! The QEII stamps are among my all-time favorites. I hope you are looking forward to a lovely weekend. I'm still trying to get on top of everything I'm behind on. It's going to be a busy weekend for me! Take care!

  7. My dear Louise, I am so sorry to have been missing in action. Similar reason to the last time this happened. Trying to write a post that is never good enough because the topic means so much to me. Not writer's block, since I add to it almost every day, but unfortunately, delete at least as much as I add :)

    I think of you and Terry so often. Hoping your Thanksgiving was a very happy time, surrounded by loved ones.

    As for this post, it inspires such a feeling of having known your father. That is the power of his words and your ability to bring them alive. I love the way he crossed his t's with such a long line. I'm sure that must say something about his creativity and independent spirit. I've come to the conclusion that we don't catch colds from being cold, but rather from being exhausted, so that our defenses are overburdened. But, most people I know still blame a cold on cold temperatures. I'm wondering what your opinion is on that not very important subject :) And, finally, a thought about the way your father managed to express his lonesomeness without every whining. He was truly a man of courage. Warm hugs to you, Louise. Hopefully I'll catch up with the posts I've missed in the near future.

    1. It's wonderful to hear from you, Carol! You and Bill have been very much on my mind! November has been quite a month for me! It started with a serious bout of internal bleeding that left me flat on my back for a week, and my strength is still at 100%. I managed to avoid the hospital, for which I was grateful, since there isn't much they can do for me.

      Then, I know this sounds crazy, we went to Vegas for six nights. But in Vegas I can sleep like a baby easily 10 hours a day, and I don't have to do or worry about anything. Plus my dear friend Cheri, who had come from Arizona while I'll was down, met us in Vegas too. She had not known that I was having medical issues when she flew into Colorado. I hadn't told her because she would have arranged to stay with someone else so as not to add to my difficulties. But she made it all so much better! Anyway, she and her husband Gary came to Vegas, and we spent a wonderful day in Red Rock Canyon taking short walks among the beautiful, healing desert rocks, among other fun things.

      Then it was home and off to a wonderful Thanksgiving in Breckenridge in the mountains with Terry's sister Noreen and our two nephews Kevin and Conor. Noreen's husband Cathal wasn't able to get over from London in the UK, nor could their daughter come. She was on her delayed honeymoon in South Africa. But we had a blast! I was pleased that I had recovered enough to function well at 10,000 feet/3048meters where her home is located. Iron pills have been my best friend for the past five or six weeks.

      We had so much fun preparing the Thanksgiving feast. It was challenging because we had a vegan who could eat only raw fruit and vegetables with no oils, another vegan, a vegetarian, and then six omnivores. I had to eat protein, preferably red meat, but I was happy to have a delicious organic turkey breast that Noreen ordered from Nebraska. Our game plan was to make roast turkey and turkeygravy for the non-Vs and prepare everything else for vegans. You would have laughed at my consternation with the vegan dressing recipe which I was making while Noreen was down in Denver collecting her sons from the Colorado school of Mines and the airport. I was flummoxed by the need to make two flax eggs! Fortunately, after searching my brain for a solution, I remembered Google, and the dressing was a big hit!
      The whole dinner was a joyful, satisfying hit!

      I appreciate your feedback on how my posts are coming across. It's impossible for me to be objective, since I'm so involved in the writing and it's personal. And can anyone ever be objective about one's father?

      I know that colds are caused by being run down and unable to effectively fight the germs. One of the surprises of retirement is discovering that I rarely get colds anymore, so I am much healthier!!! Upon reflection, my father realized that there was something unusual that happened to him and Mike that hadn't happened to Duncan and had inexplicably caused their colds ~ but that is a fun tale for another day.

      I'll be catching up on your posts too in the near future. I get a little more back on track every day. I have so many posts to write backed up in my mind, including one about our wonderful time together in Vancouver. Good luck with finding the right words to express what you want in your important topic. I know you will do a wonderful job.

      Hugs to you and Bill and gentle pats for sweet little BJ.

  8. How did they have enough food to get through the winter? I know the planes could land when the ice was thick enough, but it seems as if that could be unreliable.


    1. Hi JJ! It's so kind of you to visit when I have been missing your blog. I've seriously gotten behind in everything this month, and I am playing catch up in every area of my life. Unfortunately that seems to be my perpetual state. If I could just even out the rollercoaster ride ~ LOL

      I started to write an explanation about how people got their food and supplies in Lansdowne House, but then I realized that you had given me a topic for my next Lansdowne Letter. Thank you, Janie!!!! It's a complicated issue!

      Have a lovely rest of the weekend, and I'll be returning your visit in the very near future!

  9. It is incredible to think of him.walking on the lake. And what a horrid cold, it is sooo hard as a teacher getting a cold!! I had little voice on Wednesday and I struggled.

    1. Hi Kezzie! The things we teachers do! I'm sorry that you've been fighting a pesky cold. It must be particularly hard to be a music teacher and have no voice. It got much colder when winter settled in ~ I'm so glad I don't have to face that extreme cold now! Have a lovely weekend ~ restful weekend ~ I hope that you are 100% by now!

  10. Hello dear Fundy,
    I too haven't been much blogging these last weeks and you know why.
    I hope november has not too harsh for you as you suggest in a comment.
    Many thanks for your wonderful and supportive words, I really wish I could meet you one day "for real"!
    You guessed right, publishing photos is not that easy yet and so many remind me that Patrick was at my side then.
    Also, time wise with all that I have to face, I can't visit 50+ blogs daily, although yours is quite incredible with your father's adventures.
    Gosh, I can't imagine myself in such harsh and cold conditions, the thought only would kill me for sure!!
    I don't have the first idea how a man, as tough as he may be, can face a life in that kind of wild...
    I hope you are alright and well,
    Enjoy your weekend... sending you huge hugs :)

    1. Thanks for your wonderful reply, Noushka!
      I am doing fine now, although I'm behind in everything!

      I can't imagine that there are many people who can visit 50+ blogs a day under normal circumstances, let alone challenging ones. I love when you can visit, and I always love seeing your magnificent animals; but I especially appreciate our friendship!

      I remember as a child having no problem going out and playing at 40º or 50º F below zero ( -40º - -45.5º C). It would feel brutal now! People living in the north had to be tough, but the white people had it much better than the Indians. I truly admire the northern people who managed to survive in such a harsh, resource poor environment.

      Take care, my dear friend! I am hopeful that we will meet in person! Huge hugs right back at you!

  11. This makes me cold to just read this! (I can't see the photos on my computer.)
    I like the way that you see life, now and as a child, always thinking of the best way of looking at it!

    1. Hi Kay! Thank you for your kind, kind words! So sorry you can't see the photos! I'm not sure why. I'm playing catch up, again. I will get by your blog tomorrow. I hope that you, Richard, and Christopher are enjoying a wonderful holiday season! Hugs!

  12. Really interesting that the time between first freeze and complete freeze was when they were cut off.

    1. Hey, Alex! You're right, it was an interesting time, and it happened again in the spring when the ice melted. I hope you are having a great weekend!

  13. Amazing stuff - how fortunate to have these preserved in your family.

    1. Thanks, JoAnn! It is quite something to have these letters and photographs. I've have cared for them for decades. and now my concern is saving them for the future. Enjoy your Sunday.

  14. Oh that freeze-up! It would make me feel very closed in!
    I too remember those blue 5 cent stamps of the Queen. feels like yesterday actually.
    Must have been so difficult on your parents and you kids to be separated especially during Christmas.

    1. I didn't experience freeze-up, but I certainly experienced break-up. It was an adventure ~ but then I was eleven! I hope you are enjoying your weekend!

  15. How fabulous that you have your father's letters! Thank you for sharing them.

    1. Thank you EGCG! I am very grateful to have them!

  16. Just to think of the lonely winter makes me lonely. Why was your father
    teaching there? I don't remember.

    1. Hi Manzanita! My father had been planning to go back to university and complete an education degree. On a whim he applied for a teaching job he saw advertised, and got it. With the isolation pay which came with his teaching salary, my parents felt it was worth it for him to take the job and postpone university a bit longer. Nothing like have five children as a motivator! Have a good one!

  17. Your father was quite brave. I'm not sure I could handle that much matter how much of an introvert I am! Oh, how tough it must have been for your parents to be separated like that. We don't think about things like that until we are much older!

    1. I'm not sure I could handle it myself at this point, Martha. Somehow my parents managed. They went through a lot to ensure that their kids went to university. I think a lot about all that they sacrificed for us, and I am humbled. Take care!


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