“Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write any more.”
So reads the last entry in the diary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. It’s dated 29 March 1912 as he and three companions have made a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to return safely from the South Pole. His team had gotten to the Pole in January only to discover that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had gotten there first a month earlier.
The cold the men must have endured before dying is beyond my imagination, despite just living through one of our coldest and snow bound winters in recent years.
As we have already celebrated the long-awaited first day of Spring, my wife Jody and I were outside today in mild weather tidying up some of the yard and the first of many of our flower gardens. To remind us that winter is not over with us yet, though, we knew that the weather forecast was calling for more snow tomorrow. Looking at the colorful crocus near the front walk or watching the robins hopping about looking for a worm, I know the signs of Spring are there. But however the harbingers of Spring lift our spirits, it’s this snow thing that keeps jumping up like the devil laughing at us and threatening us with more discomfort.
Just a few days earlier, Jody and I were walking the dogs in windy weather with temperatures still below thirty degrees. About half-way up the road, I lost it and said I had had enough and wanted to go back home. The cold wind in my face reminded me of a quip I had heard years ago from a theater critic who had had a testy interview with none other than the alluring actress Diana Rigg who was appearing on stage at the time. When I began reading the article, his lead sentence was “Warm as a breeze in February…” The phrase came back to me in an instant, since I felt I had just been slapped by a frozen hand and only wanted to get back inside.
We have gone through a couple of cords of firewood and exceeded any reasonable budget in propane this winter and can’t really say we have been warm. I even acceded to Jody’s wish and turned on the electric heat under the tiles in my “command center” off our bedroom. This room used to be part of our front porch which we converted to a full-season room a few years ago. I know it’s well insulated since I was the one knocking my head against the two by six floor joists as I painstakingly made sure there wasn’t a gap in the R-24 fiberglass rolls I was installing.
To put our discomfort in perspective, I went back to some of our coldest times of this “our winter without end” to read Jack London’s chilling story To Build A Fire. To refresh your memory, the story is set over a hundred years ago and told through the eyes of the dog who is accompanying a man walking cross country along the Yukon trail. The man breaks through the ice at one point and stops to start a fire to dry his wet socks before he freezes. All looks well initially until the snow on the overhanging limbs falls down to extinguish the fire. He then frantically tries to get the fire lit again.
“In his effort to separate one match from the others, the whole bunch fell in the snow. He tried to pick it out of the snow, but failed. The dead fingers could neither touch nor clutch. He was very careful. He drove the thought of his freezing feet, and nose, and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches. He watched, using the sense of vision in place of that of touch, and when he saw his fingers on each side the bunch, he closed them—that is, he willed to close them, for the wires were down, and the fingers did not obey. He pulled the mitten on the right hand, and beat it fiercely against his knee. Then, with both mittened hands, he scooped the bunch of matches, along with much snow, into his lap. Yet he was no better off.”
Then the man desperately tries to lure the dog to his side to kill it and put his nearly immobilized hands inside the dog’s eviscerated gut for warmth.
“The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire. He spoke to the dog, calling it to him; but in his voice was a strange note of fear that frightened the animal, who had never known the man to speak in such way before. Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature sensed danger—it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man.”
My three dogs sat around our fireplace stove as I read the story into the late afternoon that day as the light began to fade, even though it was only around four. They were circled round the stove as was one of our house cats, all maneuvering to get the most from the hot metal and the blazing logs inside. As they lay there occasionally looking up at me to reassure themselves I was still there and that dinner was upcoming, I thought of the man and how he was outside in minus sixty-degree F. weather with wet feet and freezing hands. I looked at the dogs and wondered if I would have been tempted to kill them in order to save myself. There had been reports of how Scott had killed his loyal sled dogs when he ran out of food. I liked to think I wouldn’t have gotten myself into such a fix to even contemplate such a thing. But I don’t know for sure what I would have done.
As the dogs snored on, I read the last of the story:
“Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog’s experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.”
So tomorrow will bring whatever it will. I’m just grateful that if I’m caught outside, I’m won’t end up so cold or wet that I’ll fear for my life. And, even better,the dogs won’t have to worry about the pocket knife I keep in my change purse.