The Freeze

Buckwheat Bob Harrison


We had never made this trek in winter before, so it was a new experience. The Claim was along Soldier Creek, which joined Briggs Creek about a quarter mile downstream. Briggs Creek fed into the Illinois River. There was a small, reasonably flat shelf on the side of a mountain ridge, with fertile soil for growing, and of course there was plenty of water. Up the side of the hill was a frame house constructed by some miner long ago, and several people currently lived in it. This time it was in a bit better state than it was the last time I was there. Betty and I slept (or tried to sleep) inside the cabin one rainy summer night, under a leaking roof. I mean really leaking. Everywhere.

Two couples had built shacks near the creek. Pete had built a pretty nice, small dome structure, while Tim had thrown up a dirt-floor shack. We learned that Donnie and Rebecca were not in their cabin on Horse Mountain, as we had thought. They had evidently run out of firewood and come down to spend the winter in an old shack, a short way down Soldier Creek. We found them just about frozen to death, with an inadequate stove and no room for anyone else to stay. Rebecca had blankets hanging from the ceiling in a vain effort to hold some heat near the stove. After we visited a while they suggested that we go stay in Tim and Carla’s cabin. They had gotten smart and gone to town.

As we entered Tim and Carla’s shack, it was evident that the owners had been gone for some time. The place had holes in the walls, of course, no insulation at all, dirt floor, and the stove was a squat half of a 25-gallon barrel, cut off and stuck in the ground. And no firewood. Obviously we would have had trouble getting warm, even if we managed to find wood in the dark. The only thing to do was to take off our boots, climb in bed, and pull the covers over our heads. The bed was a plywood sheet on a board frame with unrecognizable pieces of foam here and there. The whole thing was really clammy and vile, with about twelve blankets of various lineages piled on the bed. They obviously hadn’t been washed in a long time. We spent a miserable night, but at least we didn’t freeze. Looking back it seems that over the last couple of years, I had spent several miserable nights at the Carrot Claim.

In the morning we got up, chewed some frozen pancake, and discussed how we were going to get the hell out of there. While we were musing about this, Pete and his lady arrived in his jeep. Pete and I had never been friendly but I sure was happy to see him. We lived our life by choice and I would not expect anyone to help us unless it were an emergency. Pete poured us some coffee and we warmed up a bit before starting back to town. I learned a bit about woods plumbing from Pete that morning. His exposed plastic water pipe was frozen solid where it was above the ground. He got a can of white gas and poured it generously on the pipe. He said, “I’ve heard that gas will thaw water in a pipe.”

He lit the gas and sure enough, within a few seconds the water started running, a trickle at first, then completely free. White gas is so volatile that it combusts right away, and will not melt the pipe. I was impressed. Several years later I heard of someone who tried it on pipes under the floor of his house. It didn’t work quite as well. I don’t know if he had insurance.

This was the second time that Mara had been down the river. Last summer we had walked the whole way, the weather had been near a hundred degrees, and she had just about died of heat stroke, struggling down the road. Now it was just the opposite. Although in later years Mara earned her living as a tree planter, which is one of the toughest and most miserable jobs there is, at the time of this story she had been in the woods for less than a year. She was in terrible shape, and could see no reason to change that condition.

Before we left home, one bone of contention I felt very strongly about was that she should wear pants when we were in the woods. There are too many problems with skirts. I had been very insistent that she wear Levi’s on this trip, but instead she wore a long Levi skirt, slit up the sides so that she could stride normally. This is fine for walking on flat surfaces, but it ain’t worth a damn for climbing over rocks and logs. We decided that we would just have to walk back to town, and hope we could hitch a ride somewhere along the road. There was about two feet of snow on the ground. Our destination was Mar, Walt, and Cilla’s place, about nine miles back toward town. If we followed the road back to Briggs Creek and then up River Road, the way we came in, we would have to walk about eighteen miles, but at least the pickup and Pete’s jeep had cut a trail coming in. Three miles back down Old Glory Road, then three more miles just to get back parallel to where we were now. There was an old logging skid trail that cut from the claim to the River Road, which would cut about six miles off the trip, but it would mean breaking trail for about two miles. I finally decided to cut across rather than going back and around, mostly because I really hate retracing steps. And there I sat so patiently, waiting to find out the price I had to pay to get out of going through all these things twice. Thank you, Bob Dylan. This philosophy has gotten me in trouble more than once in my life.

We started across the meadow, with snow up to our knees. Mara got stuck, trying to get over the first log we had to cross. I was reflecting on that goddamned skirt and gave her butt a little kick. Not hard, just a sort of nudge. She turned around and shouted, “What the hell are you doing?” I said that I was just getting it out of my system early, and hoped she would listen to me next time. Fat chance. We struggled through the snow. I was able to find the way easily, because of course there were no trees in the middle of a skid trail, which had at one time been a road. We finally staggered onto River Road and took a little rest. The sight that greeted us was really beautiful, with the canyon and trees covered with snow and ice. The Illinois River way below us was frozen clear across in some places. The sky was leaden, though there was a bit of sun shining through. The fact that there was some sun bothered me a bit, because it doesn’t take too much sun to go snow blind, or so I’m told, and we didn’t have sunglasses.

We discovered that we had another problem, potentially worse than cutting trail. The wet surface of the road had melted and re-frozen, which left a layer of ice. This made it almost impossible to walk without slipping and sliding and expending a great deal of energy. Mara was at a particular disadvantage, because she was wearing her only boots, cowboy style, with no tread. That plus a skirt frozen to the waist must have made it a particularly unpleasant walk for her.

Soon after we started down the road, a redneck and his wife came slowly by us in a jeep, on his way back to town. He must have taken a Sunday drive to see the sights. We stuck out our thumbs, and he drove right past. That was the last car we saw that day. I was really angry with that citizen. I told Mara, “If I had a gun I would shoot out his tires, then we could all walk back to town.” Somehow we made it to our halfway point, exhausted, cold, and tired. We found our friend Mar and a lady we had never met before, named Ginger.

Ginger had on a thin coat and was really in bad shape. She had arrived recently from Montana with some dude named Cosmic, who seemed to be absent. They got blown away by the cold in the Big Sky country and headed for the coast, shedding their cold weather clothes along the way. She said it was colder here than Montana. I still believed the temp was in the teens at night, and maybe the high twenties during the day, but it sure seemed colder than that to me. Of course no one had a thermometer, telephone, radio, or TV, so we had no idea how cold it really was.

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