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People in southern Ontario complain when the temperature gets to -20 C. Mind you -20 can seem absolutely balmy in the North where the temperature can plunge down to -40 C, a temperature at which a banana will freeze so hard you can drive nails with it. I know, I’ve tried it.
I’d moved to Northern Ontario to teach and thought I’d spend three years there before returning to the South. That was the plan, but eight years later I found myself at the Sandy Lake First Nations Reserve (a 3.5-hour flight northeast of Winnipeg, there are no roads), housesitting a cabin on the shores of a river that led to the school. It was not just the North that I had become attached but the people who lived there; their patience, generosity and terrific sense of humour.
Despite the fact I was in my early 30s, I think the locals regarded me the way you would a slightly dim adolescent, someone who needed minding lest they fall through the ice during breakup. Unless you were a complete jerk, one of the families would take you under their wing.
When it does get down to -40, the Anishinabie take it as an opportunity to visit friends and family and regale each other with stories told over mugs of hot tea and fresh bannock. But I was not used to the ferocity of the cold and generally remained cocooned inside my lodging. The problem is that this enforced solitude gives your brain the opportunity to entertain thoughts it normally would not do so. Ideas are mulled over and magnified and it produces a condition called “cabin fever.”
One February brought a lung-burning cold, a cold so piercing that the ice in the river shrank and the night’s silence was punctuated by booms and zings as it cracked. I had installed a fresh bottle of propane for my stove that morning and was grumbling about the cost. The bottle itself was a gunmetal steel cylinder about five feet tall and a foot wide with a small wheel on the top that controlled the flow of the propane.
For the next week, I continued my snit about the cost and chewed on that particular bone until the thought struck me. I could save money by blowing out the pilot light in the stove and shutting off the propane before bed. As you can see, I definitely needed a reality check. If I was going to shut off the propane, why would I need to blow out the pilot light? Moreover, the amount of money I would save would be so minuscule that at best I just might be able to buy myself a pack of smokes, something I never considered. Instead I was chuffed at how clever and financially responsible I was being.
So, every night, I’d blow out the pilot light, turn off the propane, skin down to my briefs and slide into bed, gasping at the cold of the sheets. One night, just after the sheets had warmed up enough for me to burrow a little further under the blankets, I was struck by a thought. Had I remembered to turn off the propane? Immediately my brain was filled with Hollywood-induced visions of exploding buildings, great orange tongues of fire rising to the sky and greasy black clouds of smoke billowing over the ruins of my cabin. Panic-stricken, I skittered out of bed, jammed my feet into felt-lined snow boots, and dashed out the door. It was a still, clear, moonlit night, but the cold was like a blow to my chest. I placed my hands on the propane bottle, forgetting that metal gets super cold, a fact to which anyone who has licked a metal fence post in winter can attest. I crossed my arms over my chest, thrust my hands into my armpits and danced around in my briefs. Then I tried to crank the metal wheel and shut the valve. The damn thing wouldn’t move!
I shoved my hands into my armpits and danced around the snow in my boots and underpants to warm up, and then tried to crank the valve shut again. “Please God, come on, move!” Back go the hands under the arms, the dance in the moonlight to warm up and then another attack on the propane bottle. I don’t know how long this continued.
I heard Wahbitay, the elder who was my neighbour, before I saw him. It took me a moment to realize what the creaking of the snow implied. My first thought was to jump behind the propane bottle but I realized this would be futile. He would have seen me long ago. Reluctantly, I turned around and saw him, a bucket of water in each hand, head down as he trudged up the path. There is etiquette to cover every imaginable situation. However, I am pretty sure no one has ever imagined a situation in which an elderly Cree gentleman is confronted by the sight of his neighbour, bouncing around in his underpants under a full moon on a bone-chilling night, all the while uttering indecipherable pleas to a propane bottle.
As he approached, he looked up and our eyes met. I gave him a weak smile. He reciprocated with a nod. Then he walked past me and continued up the hill to his cabin. He didn’t even break stride. Soon afterward, I finally figured out my problem. I was trying to close a valve that was already shut.
There was one benefit that came from that experience: The events of that night convinced me to live a little more extravagantly and leave the propane on. I did see Wahbitay from time to time on the path. I’d give him a smile and he’d favour me with a nod as we walked past each other. Neither of us mentioned the incident. Of course my skills in Cree matched his in English so we lacked the means to do so anyway. But I wondered. When Wahbitay went to visit his son and grandkids, how would he explain what I was doing that night? I can see him at the kitchen table, a steaming mug of tea clasped between his hands. “And there he was, dancing around in his underwear speaking to the propane bottle. My English, it is not too good but I did hear the words “God” and “please.” A sip of tea and a chuckle. “You don’t suppose these white folks worship propane?”
Bruce Stodart lives in Toronto.