How did the pioneers do it?

It’s another cold day across Saskatchewan with temperatures plummeting to -32 overnight with a -44 windchill. As the day progresses today we’ll warm up to about -26, which keeps the bugs away I guess. It begs the question, how did our early Saskatchewan pioneers do it in this weather?

The record low on this day happened during pioneering time in 1888 at -43.3 Celsius and I think we all know they did not have the houses, or housing technology, that we have today.  How the heck did they survive? I’m reminded of my great-grandfather who arrived in the Northwest Territories in the spring of 1903 (Saskatchewan wasn’t formed until 1905), got off the train in Broadview, and headed to the prospective community of Windthorst. There are many questions that come to mind for me here if I were in his dusty boots and tattered pants. Where is south and how do I get to that home quarter? Where do I get food and supplies? What are the winters like? How do I survive a prairie winter I know nothing about?

Recently, that last question is the one that makes me scratch my head. Pioneers coming to Manitoba and Saskatchewan had no idea how cold it would get and it goes to show the determination our ancestors had not only to survive in weather like this, but it speaks to the hope and passion of building a new and better life for themselves despite the hardships along the way. I would be remiss not to mention how many pioneers also learned life on the land from the First Nations of Saskatchewan.

We were tucked away warm and cozy in our homes last night, perhaps curled up in a blanket on our couch, watching TV before retiring to our memory foam mattress beds for the night. Imagine, for a just a second, living in a poorly built shelter (but, shelter nonetheless), on a wooden plank with old blankets, a fire warm enough to heat just one room, and hoping you’ll have enough wood to get you through the deepfreeze…or winter as a whole! Imagine waking up in a drafty, makeshift shelter with a raging blizzard outside knowing you can’t order Skip the Dishes and that the animals need tending to. If you thought Saskatchewan has few trees now, imagine how it must have looked in the late 1800’s! A shelter in the wide open with a stiff, cold wind, does not sound appealing at all, but they made it work somehow.

How did those pioneers do it?  It is easy to say “I just couldn’t do it, I’d freeze,” but until you’re pushed to survive it’s amazing what the human spirit can really do. I believe it was that human spirit that forced our prairie homesteaders to endure the cold and to press on when things looked impossible, and I’m eternally grateful for the province they helped build today.

Today, in -26 with a -38 windchill, I’ll raise my hot cup of coffee to the pioneers of this great land.

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