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Freeze-Up in Ottawa

Kathrene and Robert Pinkerton married in 1911. He worked at a newspaper in a big city: long hours, deadlines, and stress. A doctor advised him him to “get out of newspaper offices and out of cities,” if he wanted to preserve his health. He decided he would write fiction — short stories — and sell them. 

When single, Robert had worked as a logger and fur trader in Ottawa’s woods, that vast wilderness that stretched between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay. He and Kathrene decided that they would build a cabin in Canada’s wilderness, and he would write his stories there, a romantic but idealistic thought. 

It was summer when the train dropped them off at the station’s platform, in Antikokan, Ottawa, “the only railroad stop in two hundred miles that had both store and post office.”

The town’s bartender told them, “Never heard of anyone but Indians living in the woods. But there’s no one to keep you folks from trying it.”

That summer they spent their days kneeling in a canoe and gliding across countless lakes and rivers, their nights camping out in a tent, and brushing aside the pesky house flies, deer flies, and mosquitoes. 

Late in the summer they built a cabin eight miles from Antikokan, reached only by canoe in summer and traversing a series of frozen lakes and rivers in winter. 

In the autobiographical book that Kathrene published in 1939, Wilderness Wife, she described their five years living in that log cabin. Robert gave up on fiction though, because his stories did not sell, and instead, he began to write stories of their interactions with bear, moose, skunks, wolves, dogs, cats.

First snow came in September, and another in October. Freeze-up occurred over three weeks in November, when the lake froze solid enough to support Robert and a sled that carried out the furs that Kathrene had trapped and the few supplies they could afford back to the cabin.

Winters in the Canadian woods last a full five months, until April. Webbed snow shoes and heavy coats were a constant necessity. During a “cold spell,” temperatures would plummet. In December, winter began to “settle in,” when they noticed the thermometer read thirty degrees below zero.

Kathrene wrote, “A deeper cold came in January and February, when the temperatures average ten to forty degrees below zero. 

“I would discover that fifty-five below made thirty below seem quite comfortable. Even normal winter temperatures increased our work. Robert spent three afternoons in seven cutting trees in the forest or sawing them at the woodpile. We burned a cord a week in the cold spells.

“Air at low temperature is as dry as desert air, and as hungry for moisture. I noticed that at forty or fifty below zero the clothes were bone dry when I brought them in, and at twenty they were still damp.

“Inside the cabin we were comfortable although we kept the temperature of the room at fifty. A large part of the burden of winter weather is the contrast with a super-heated house.”

Robert’s articles began to sell, enough reimbursement to pay for the postage to mail them off, but as for food the couple took what the land offered. If they wanted, they could have fish at every meal.

In the summer, Kathrene had preserved raspberries and blueberries, grew potatoes, and stored the lot under the cabin’s floor. She learned to make sour dough bread. She sewed trousers, shirts, and parkas.

Robert shot a moose or two, cut it up into steaks and roasts, and kept the meat hanging outdoors, frozen solid. It was a self-sufficient life, yet there lurked a constant element of danger.

She wrote, that, “The threat of freezing cautioned every movement. Any accident or injury was dangerous for we had to keep on our feet and moving.”

Kathrene described the noise the cold produced. “Sap in the trees froze, and the expansion sounded like rifle fire. Ice in the lake was heavy artillery. It boomed and thundered in the cold still nights, and as the ice was split, it produced a loud whine that ended in a vicious snarl. That was an air raid.”

For companionship, they had each other, and a fiercely independent cat they named Bockitay, who had the misfortune of stepping into a trap, a proud dog they named Belle, and a rare visitor.

In April, the ice on the lakes and rivers would break up, and for three weeks they were isolated once again, until they dared bring out their canoes. Floating chunks of ice do not mix well with canoes. 

Wilderness Wife reminds me a little of Robinson Crusoe. Both are outdoor adventure stories, of people who thrive in inhospitable environments. Yet, they are different. Robert and Kathrene Pinkerton chose to live in Ottawa’s woods, but Robinson Crusoe was forced to live on a Caribbean Island.

Still, Kathrene’s story is a good one. One reviewer wrote, “ It is a true story of this family, written by the wife as she chronicled her daily experiences in the wilderness.” I must agree.


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