You Think This is Cold?

Posted by Howard on Feb 6, 2014

The winter of 2014 has actually set a low temperature record in the Vancouver area, but it's nothing compared to spending record-setting the winter of 1949 in the Fraser Canyon area around North Bend, as remembered by 100-year-old memoirist Frank White in his book That Went By Fast: My First Hundred Years, forthcoming from Harbour Publishing in October:

The next thing that happened was the bottom fell out of the thermometer. This was the winter of 1949-50, which turned out to be one of the coldest ever recorded. It started out fairly mild, in fact November was unseasonably warm, but by December it was getting pretty damn cold and we were struggling to keep the shack liveable. The walls were just rough mill-run boards with a thin skin of tarpaper over the outside and I could see it just wasn’t going to get us through, even after I went up to Lytton and bought the largest tin heater I could find and even after I stoked it until it was cherry red and chuffing like a steam engine. Our fronts would be searing while our backs were freezing. It was a major excursion for the kids to get out to the outhouse so we let them use potties. During the night the contents would freeze into a yellow block Kay would get rid of by putting them on the stove and heating just enough to get it lose in the pot, then she would stand in the doorway and heave the toxic block over the snowbank. “We better be sure to be out of here before it all thaws in the spring,” she said.

It got too cold even for the skunks. They somehow figured out that our little cabin was the one building in the whole neighbourhood that had some heat coming down through the floor, so they started congregating in the crawlspace, which was cosily closed in on all sides by the deep snow. Pretty soon we had a veritable parliament of skunks down there. I don’t think skunks are designed to live together in a confined space because these guys didn’t get along worth a damn. They were constantly fighting and chittering at each other in their weird birdlike way, so it sounded like a monkey house day and night. Occasionally they would blow off at each other and the fumes would come up through the floor so strongly it was like breathing teargas. We’d be running outside to get fresh air until we started to freeze, then we’d run inside where it was warm but asphyxiating. This only happened a few times, but all of the time there was some amount of stink, as if they had the ability to give small warning shots at each other.


We got used to that, but the thing that finally broke our patience was the phantom knocking sound. One night we began to hear a distinct tapping sound on the floor. Tap taptaptap tap. It would move around from one corner to the other, growing louder and fainter but never stopping. We were going nuts trying to figure out what the hell it was. We knew it was something to do with the skunks, but it was unlike any of their other innumerable sounds and the mystery of it bothered us just about as much as the racket itself. I don’t suppose I would have put up with them as long as I did if it hadn’t been for our pet skunk making us a lot more kindly disposed toward skunk-kind than normal, but finally I`d had enough. I knocked together a box trap out of an old apple crate and placed it strategically along their path. Skunks are not very cautious and in no time at all we had one in the trap. It wasn’t very happy so I shot if from a safe distance and chucked the body out behind the snowbank with all the frozen pee. By the time I was done I’d shot 22 skunks. The answer to the phantom knocking noise came with the last one I trapped. Skunks have quite small, wedge-shaped heads and this one had obviously been rooting around in the garbage where it found a jam jar just big enough to get its head into, but too tight to wiggle out of. It had spent a week banging this bottle on our floor trying to knock it off.