Waubageshig, Ottawa

Retrieving the Sleigh

It is mid-April. My three brothers, Michael, Tom and George, and I are outside playing catch in the warm afternoon spring sun. I’m 11 years old, Michael is 8, Tom 7 and George 6. The spring sun has been warm all week so the snow around our house has disappeared. We’re very happy to be outside again playing in the sun. But on Snake Island, the thinning winter ice on Lake Simcoe keeps us from leaving for school on the mainland for several days.

Our mother is in the kitchen making bannock. As she mixes the dough she worries because our father, Harold, left early in the morning to cross the still-frozen Lake Simcoe for the final time before the ice is too soft to walk on. Every spring he takes a hand sleigh to make the final crossing by foot on what he believes is the last possible day the ice will support him. The crossing with the hand sleigh is necessary because he will be bringing sufficient food supplies to outlast the spring ice break-up. Our family needs two or three weeks of extra supplies like flour, sugar, potatoes, canned milk, and squash to cover the time it takes for the lake ice to either melt completely or be blown away by a strong spring wind.

When the spring ice is too soft to walk on our family is isolated on Snake Island in Lake Simcoe. Some years the isolation lasts almost a month; other years the ice disappears within a week. How slowly or quickly it disappears depends on many factors such as the wind, how warm the spring sun becomes, and how thick the ice became during the cold winter months. Because of these different factors it’s impossible to predict how long the spring ice break-up will take, so every year our family prepares for the worst by getting in extra supplies on the last day possible.

This year my father has loaded his hand sleigh with 10 kgs of potatoes, another 10 kgs of flour for bannock, two cases of canned milk, six large hubbard squash, and two 5 kg bags of carrots and onions. Our mother can continue to cook tender moose stew and thick tasty fish soups as well as fry bread and baked bannock even if the ice break-up this spring takes three or four weeks. The isolation during this unpredictable time will not prevent our family from eating healthy nutritious meals regardless of the duration of break-up.

My mother, Bea, takes time from rolling out the dough for the bannock to look for our father crossing the ice with the supplies. It’s a warm afternoon and she is concerned that the ice will soften too quickly making it dangerous to cross the ice safely. She uses binoculars to find him heading for the island shore the hand sleigh behind him. There he is! Pulling the loaded sleigh he is almost one-half a kilometer from shore. She opens a kitchen window to tell us that father is almost to shore safely!

The four of us stop playing catch and turn to look towards the frozen lake. We spot him as he makes his way steadily to the island pulling the heavy sleigh behind him.

Suddenly our mother reopens the window. She points to the lake as she puts her head and arm out the window. In her hand is the binoculars she used to locate him. “Your father has fallen through the ice”, she says in a frightened voice. We drop the ball we were throwing back and forth and look in the direction where he had been just ten minutes earlier. There’s nothing on the ice! He’s disappeared!

Then suddenly, here he is, running towards us along the path! He’s soaking wet from head to boot. He runs quickly by and into the porch. There he removes his wet heavy gloves, parka and boots, all dripping with ice-cold water. He moves into the kitchen to remove his wet socks, pants, shirt and sweater. In front of the kitchen stove he dries himself quickly. Before she gathers up his wet clothes, mother goes into their bedroom and puts an extra quilt onto their bed. Shivering from the cold water and wet clothes, father gets into bed to warm himself and recover from his ordeal.

By now we’ve come into to the house to hear what happened – why had he fallen through the ice? Standing in our parent’s bedroom we see him covered with extra blankets and a quilt, still shivering from falling into the icy water.

He looks at us and says that the sleigh with their supplies is still on the ice, next to where he broke through into the icy water. He looks at me and nods. I understand. As the eldest child it is my responsibility to retrieve the hand sleigh with the supplies before it too falls through the ice warmed by the spring sunshine.

The day is still warm from the sun. My parka is open and I stick my toque into a pocket. I won’t need it until I get onto the ice. I’m walking quickly down the path in the opposite direction from where my father went running by us a few minutes earlier. I need to return to the spot on the shoreline where my father found the morning ice thick enough to carry his weight. I know I’ll need to get to the hand sleigh as fast as I can in order to prevent it from falling into the water with all the family food supplies for the spring break-up. Without the extra supplies we run the risk of little to eat if the spring break-up lasts more than two or three weeks.

Even though it is late afternoon, the sun is still shining warm and bright. The ice will be softer now than it was two hours earlier. When I finally reach the wooden plank my father used to reach the thicker, solid ice from the shore I can see the hand sleigh loaded with supplies sitting on the ice about 200 metres away. The rope used for pulling it lies next to the jagged hole in the ice where he fell through. As I cross the plank onto the solid ice I pull out my toque and I notice a trail of broken ice that runs from the sleigh to the shore. As I slowly walk towards the sleigh I realize why the ice is broken all the way to the shore.

When our father broke through the ice 200 metres from the shore, it was too soft to support his weight, and when he tried to climb back onto it the ice simply broke under his weight. To reach shore to save himself from either drowning or freezing to death he had to break the ice for almost 200 metres with his hands and body! This knowledge causes me to shiver as I visualize our father not more than an hour ago desperately breaking the ice with his thick heavy gloves trying to find solid ice to stand on.

As I continue to make my way to the solitary sleigh, I stay as far away from the trail of broken ice as I can hoping that the ice will be thick enough to support my lesser weight. If I can find and stay on solid ice I should get to the sleigh without any risk of falling into the cold icy water.

As I close the gap between myself and the sleigh I can see the water rising and falling in the trail of broken ice as well as in the hole next to the sleigh where our father fell through. I know from experience with spring ice that my weight even though I’m a lot lighter than father still causes the solid ice to move up and down as I gingerly make my way towards the sleigh.

Although I want to get to the sleigh quickly I move carefully, one foot in front of the other, testing the thickness of the ice with each foot the best I can. So far, so good! As I creep along the ice, I extend my arms out from my sides to keep my body from going under the ice if it fails to support me and I break through. When I’m about five metres from the sleigh I can see that the rope attached to it is lying partly on solid ice and partly in the broken ice where father fell through.

I stop walking. Then, I kneel down on the ice on all fours looking at the sleigh and the hand rope. If I can’t reach the rope, getting the loaded sleigh to the shore will be almost impossible. I have to reach the rope without risking my own safety.

Slowly I lie down and stretch full out on the ice. With my weight spread across the ice more broadly than when standing or even kneeling, I inch her way towards the rope and the broken ice and water where father sank. I use my hands, elbows, knees and the tips of my heavy boots to crawl and squirm closer to the rope. In ten minutes I’m wiggling through the cold water that gathered on top of the ice near the sleigh.

Carefully, ever so carefully, I move within two arms length to the rope and sleigh.... and the rising and falling water in the hole. My heart is beating so loudly I think my brothers can hear it at home.
Now I’m close enough that I can see the clear water and the broken bits of ice rising and falling steadily next to the sleigh. Taking a deep breath I move closer. Then I stretch out my right arm and grab the rope! “Got it”, I say to myself as I let out a big deep breath.

With the rope in my hand I now have to wiggle backwards tugging on the sleigh at the same time. The metal runners on the sleigh move easily on the wet, slick ice. I angle myself away from the broken ice, pulling constantly on the rope handle. After ten minutes I think I’m on solid enough ice to get onto my knees. By now the sleigh has turned partially around and is no longer next to the open water. I get to my knees and pull hard on the rope. The sleigh swings completely around towards me.

I continue to move backwards on my knees tugging the rope and moving the sleigh farther and farther from the open water. When I and the loaded sleigh are about four metres away from where it sat next to the hole I take a minute to rest. While I rest I look at the trail of broken ice our father left behind as he smashed his way to the shore. I know he is lucky to be alive!

After a short rest, I stand up slowly holding onto the rope tightly in both hands. I turn around towards the shore. My coat, gloves, and pants are shiny with water from crawling on the wet ice but I know I’m still drier than father was. Staying clear of the trail of broken ice I slowly walk to the shoreline pulling the loaded sleigh behind me. With our additional food supply for this spring’s breakup safe and sound my family will not be hungry if the Lake Simcoe ice lingers.

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