Bill Waiser

Saskatchewan is no stranger to bad winters

Saskatchewan has had its share of hard winters. They don’t need exaggeration.

One of the most deadly was the killing winter of 1906-07. The winter began innocently with the first fall of snow on Nov. 5, 1906. Then, a little more than a week later, a brutal three-day blizzard raged across the West, dumping several feet of snow.

Pioneers called it “the earliest, most violent, and longest storm in living memory.” December hinted at a return to normal weather, but a series of heavy snowfalls, accompanied by record low temperatures, pounded the region through most of January and February.

Spring brought little relief. It was as if winter would never let go.

When ranch hands in southwestern Saskatchewan went to assess the carnage in the spring and count the stock losses, they found dead cows hanging in trees in the coulees because the snow had been so deep.

Wallace Stegner, in his classic Wolf Willow, named it “carrion spring.” Rancher R.D. Symons was blunter. He called it “the big smell.”

There was also a terrible winter in early 1947. A staggering four feet of snow fell in parts of southern Saskatchewan in January. Then, the wind started to howl. For one long week — from Jan. 30 to Feb. 8 — one of the nastiest winter storms in Canadian history raged across the prairies.

The blowing snow created incredibly huge drifts that made travel dangerous, if not impossible. Rail lines and roads were choked by snow, while telegraph lines were either blown down or buried.

People in rural areas were completely cut off from the outside world and had to survive as best they could. One farmer reportedly cut a hole in the roof of his two-storey barn to get inside to milk the cows.

The record for several consecutive severe winters probably belongs to the late 18th century — the consequence, in part, of a protracted La Niña event over the Pacific Ocean in the late 1770s, followed by the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783. Hudson’s Bay Company’s servants kept a sobering record of the dismal conditions.

The snow was so deep during the winter of 1783-84 that dog teams could not be used at some HBC posts for several months.

The winters of 1788-89 and 1789-90 were even worse, arriving in the early fall and lasting into the late spring. “In the whole of this winter,” Mitchell Oman at South Branch House complained in early April 1790, “there has been the most Snow that has been seen Inland this 15 years past.”

Before the month was over, another foot of snow fell. Malcolm Ross at Cumberland House was just as exasperated. “I never knew the spring to be so backward before,” he observed on May 4, “nor the ice to stay so long.”

These colder temperatures drastically reduced glacier melt in the spring, and the annual canoe brigades could not leave the region on time because “there was no water in the river.”

Indigenous people were accustomed to these climatic fluctuations. But their newly acquired horses were not, and they died in great numbers in the 1780s. Hunting bands responded by raiding rival bands for replacement stock.

The late 1790s were little better. Winter arrived so early in the fall of 1795 that it was possible to ride horseback across the frozen North Saskatchewan River by mid-November.

The annual canoe brigades were delayed again in these years — not because of low water but the lateness of the spring. “The Country around has the appearance of Winter,” James Bird gloomily reported on May 2, 1797, “the Snow being still deep on the ground.”

The HBC canoe brigade somehow managed to reach Cumberland House on June 4, only to find “the (Cedar) lake is still frozen over apparently as solid as it was in the middle of winter.”

The next two winters were just as hard.

“I have never experienced so miserable a time … inland,” William Tomison complained in November 1798, “and no prospect of its mending.”

But the weather did mend. All Tomison had to do — as Indigenous people knew — was wait until next season. The winter of 1799-1800 was so unseasonably mild that bison herds and the hunting bands that pursued them stayed out on the plains.

People probably forgot, at least momentarily, how bad Saskatchewan winters could be.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Even a locomotive is challenged by Saskatchewan winters. 
Photo Source:Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A27895


Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.