#Unearthed: Skate Sailing Down The Skatchawattomie
This month's #Unearthed comes to you from as the result of anecdote shared in Arthur R. Goodfellow's fabulous 1972 book "Wonderful world of skates; seventeen centuries of skating".
The author wrote, "Skates have been life-savers on more than one occasion. There was the 16-year old Canadian girl who skate-sailed twenty miles down the Skatchawattomie River in 20-degree below zero weather to get help for her brother who was in danger of losing his eyesight due to burns received in a cabin fire. With their parents away, there was no one to go for assistance but his sister. Using a home-made skate sail and her brother's long skates, she started the journey as dusk was falling without thought of danger to herself. But ten miles down the river, a pack of howling winter-starved timber wolves gave chase and pursued her all the way to the settlement. It was only by skillfull use of the sail and constant tacking in the moonlight that the heroic girl eluded the gray mass of terror and skated to the safety of barking dogs, running men and the lighted, open doorways of the hamlet - and help for her brother." This harrowing anecdote was certainly reminiscent of the story "Cornelius And The Wolves", which we've already covered on the blog. But was it fact or fiction?
I reached out to Deidre at the University Of Saskatoon who put me through to a retired (and very kind) ninety one year old limnologist. Neither had ever heard of the Skatchawattomie River, but pointed out that it was probably either a name given by the local First Nations people or a river that has long since dried up. I was, however, through some digging able to find out that the source of this story was the January 10, 1910 issue of "The Victoria Daily Colonist". The paper was one of the first daily newspapers on Canada's West Coast and often printed fictionalized accounts of real life stories, so while it's pretty safe to say that this likely did happen, some poetic license was most likely taken to 'make a good story', so do take it with a grain of salt. Now in the public domain but crudely digitized, I was able to largely correct the digitization errors in editing to reveal the original story "Skate Sailing For Life" in its entirety.
"SKATE SAILING FOR LIFE" (C.H. CLAUDY)
"Put on an extra pair of socks, please Fanny. It will be bitter cold tonight. Jack, get me the brown blanket for Jim. He needs it for when I stop at Harrige's."
Mr. Billings spoke quietly, but his heart was in a tumult. It was not easy for him to leave his sixteen-year old daughter and eighteen-year-old son in a trapper's house in middle Canada at the height of an unusual snap of cold. But his partner, in camp forty miles away had been hurt by a falling tree, and had sent word by a neighbour assisting for him, and Mr. Billings had to go.
"And, Jack," he called, as his son came with the horse-blanket. "Take care of Fanny. You're the man here now. And keep off the river. I saw wolf track's this morning."
"Why, father, are you sure?" cried Jack. "It must have been a dog. We have never heard of a wolf this far south since we've been here."
"They were wolf tracks, son," was the answer. "I know a wolf track when I see one... You stay away until I get back. I'll be back before two or three days."
This was all there was to his leave taking. They were not emotional people, these Billings. That father had to go forty miles with the thermometer twenty-five below zero, that they two were to keep house alone, In a place where loneliness stalks bare-faced always, [there] were things to think of, to regret, to sorrow over, if need be, but not to make a fuss about. Frances and John Billings were both children of the wilderness, and something of the stoicism of the men and the women and even of the beasts and the trees that live alone, far from their kind, and weather the rigors of seven months winter was theirs, even at the age when youth and high spirits fight bravely against cold and silence and hard work.
The house was lonely. It was bad enough to have father gone, but to have him away and not to know
whether "Partner Uncle Phil" would ever come again or not, to have empty rooms and empty chairs to face, was more than uncomfortable. The two young people looked at each other gravely across the supper table.
"Don't let's mope, Jack," said Fanny. "Let's clear, up the attic. It needs it, and work is more fun than sitting still."... The girl arose, took a lamp, and went lightly upstairs. In a moment, Jack... joined his sister. Together they dressed as if for outdoors, and then went up to the big, dim, cobwebby attic. It was cold.
"Whew!" said Jack. "Let's begin. Let's start on that pile of junk over there!'' and he stepped toward it as he spoke.
Whether he stumbled and fell or hit her arm by accident, he could not tell, but the next instant he was working madly to extinguish the flames which the oil from a broken lamp was spreading, while Fanny beat at his face and body with a blanket. Luckily they put the flames out. But when all was out save the smoke, Jack was curled up on the floor moaning, his face black and his cry all: "Oh, my eyes - my eyes! Oh, my eyes!"
Very gently, Fanny led him down the stairs, into the warmth and light of the sitting-room. As the warm air struck him, he gasped with pain. "My collar, Fanny; get it off - oh!"
Quickly the girl unbuttoned his collar and opened his shirt at the neck. He was badly burned. Deftly she bathed the tortured face and neck, bound up the burns and oiled the bandages. Then there was nothing to do but sit and watch.
Jack was a man in heart if a boy in years. Beyond his first involuntary cry, he grit his teeth and said nothing. But Fanny knew. Once when she left the room noisily and crept back, she heard him moan, "My eyes! Father, my eyes! "
It was too much for Fanny. She said to herself: "If I were hurt, Jack would never sit still and watch. He'd do something. He needs a doctor. It's only twenty miles, to town by the river. I can make it under the hour with the sail."
Even as she began to get together skates, cloak and gloves, sweater, and the fur, she stopped.
"Wolves!" Father said he saw a wolf track. And father told Jack to stay off the river. If father were only here! If I only had another horse... but I'm not afraid. At least, I'm not much afraid. And he didn't fell me to stay off."
Quietly she made her preparation. There were Jack's skates, longer and sharper than hers, but she knew she could use them., There was the fur, which fits head and neck and shoulders; there were the thin mittens and the thick fur ones to cover them, the sweater, the belt, and the fur cloak. The skate sail she meant to use was in the barn. She had already seen that the wind was pounding the river. Fanny stepped into the sitting- room.
"Jack," she said, "Jack. I'm going to town and get Dr. Perry. He'll be here in a few hours, and I'll come back with him. I can't see you suffer like this, and he may be able to do you a lot of good. No, don't say anything - I'm going."
Either Jack didn't hear, or, hearing, understood, she didn't know. He put out a hand to her, and she grasped it and kissed it an unusual demonstration for her to make and then ran from the room. The tears froze to her lashes as she stepped ouside. It was bitter cold and even in her fur, the north wind's icy knife cut true and sharp.
"This isn't the time for tears; it's the time for me to be a man," she said, half sobbing to herself, nor smiling at the words. She ran to the barn, and took from the wall her brothers' skate sail. Shaped like a big kite, it was nine feet long, five broad, with two crossed spars to hold it taut. She remembered how she and her father had laughed at Jack when he made it, after some plan he had seen in one of their rare magazines, and how he had had the laugh on them and the envy of all the countryside youth when he had carried it and outstripped the fleetest skater of them all. Then she caught her breath
with the thought, "What if I'll never skate again?", shook the dread from her, and tried to .think only of Jack as well and strong. It was with profound gratitude... that she remembered that she had a generous brother who had shared his sport with her and taught her how to use the thing, so graceful when well managed, so cumbersome to the novice."
"I'll make you a lighter one; this is yoo heavy for you," Jack had said. But she was glad she had learned to use the heavy one.
Slipping on her skating gear quickly, Fanny drew the straps tight - tight. "It'll shrink with the cold; mustn't get loose," she thought.
Then, confident, and with fears behind her, she stepped off the little wharf onto the black surface of the Skatchawattomie. She was not cold now, the excitement of adventure had gripped her. A few strokes brought her to the middle of the little river. The skate sail she held horizontal over her head, well knowing that to bring it broadside to the wind before she was ready was to be thrown or have it torn away for her. Then carefully she set her feet, the right one in front, drew in her breath, and with a sudden motion, brought the skate-sail upright along her right side. Before the wind could whip it about, her left hand had caught the horizontal spar which rested on her shoulder, her right grasped the upright, and almost as if shot from a gun, she spun away down the cracking, booming ribbon of
ice which stretched so far. so black, in front of her.
It was an exhilarating sport, this skate-sailing, almost like flying... So swift the motion, so bird-like and so effortless, the body seems without weight. Keen air whips the blood to the face with such a tingle, and the excitement of the possibility of a spill and of the motion and the necessity for alertness in guiding is so great that as a sport, it has few equals. But joyous as Fanny always found skate-sailing, it was not sport tonight. It was business. She had little time for enjoyment... [She had] to get to town and get the doctor back to that poor burned body in the house, already so far behind. Yet it was impossible to keep some feeling of exultation from her herself, even though she cursed herself for it.
Even as she exulted In the swift motion and shook with a little shiver of pleasure at her speed, her face blanched. Seeming an answer to the loud ring of the skates on the brittle ice there came through the air from behind, a soft, high keynote. She had never heard it, but she knew what it was.
"Wolves," she whispered; "wolves!" And then again, "Wolves!" She could not be mistaken.
Well she knew, from many a campfire story, told by the hunter and trapper, as well as from thrilling tales her father had told, what a pack of winter-starved wolves may mean to the unwary traveller. One wolf can be scared away, two or three need but a little vigilance, but a pack is death to one man, be 'he armed' how he may.
For a moment panic gripped her. But always she saw in her imagination the picture of a suffering, dearly loved face, a freckled hand, groping for her... The black ribbon of ice swung steadily and low beneath her feet and there was but little noise, only of the skates as they cut into the cold, cracked surface and an occasional "clang" as she struck with one foot or another a frozen bit of wood or an airhole or a crack. She was thankful for her brother's skates that saved many a tumble and for her strong ankles. With every bend in the river, she must change the position of her feet and sometimes swing the heavy sail over her head and down the other side. Cold she was not. Going with the wind, she felt none; across it, the sail protected her. Only her feet were getting numb, from vibration rather than cold.
Then again she heard it, nearer now and louder, a keen high, cry that was half a howl and half a growl and wholly terrifying. She looked back. There was nothing in sight. But "Horror!" she thought. "Horror! They are coming - coming - and soon I'll see them behind me. Give me strength!
The banks of the river were as black as the surface. Star shine only lighted the path and she prayed... Right behind her, it seemed, came the noise of the pack. In full chase now, and scenting well the flying quarry just ahead. But Fanny, her blood high and her brother's helpless cry still in her ears, forgot to be frightened as she turned and looked back.
"Small pack," she thought, as they swung into sight, eager and lank and swift, pin-points of light for merciless eyes, "but big enough for me."
Then she turned her face to the work in front. She had to change sail several times to make a difficult turn, and she felt she was losing ground. But a flow in the wind took her, just then and instead of easing off as she had been doing to relieve the strain on her ankle and leg, she held it up against the wind. Then the flow fell and her speed dropped. Behind her, closer and closer, she heard the occasional cry of the pack.
"But it isn't far now," she thought. "It can't be far now. It's just around that bend. Hopefully." Fanny did not know the river as Jack did, and the night and the excitement and the wolves had confused her
as to just where she was.
Now she swung Into a long and narrow stretch with the wind dead across it, and she had to tack or lose speed. And as she tacked, looking round, her she could see the black mass of terror sweeping straight down the ice. "It's now or never," she thought, as she reached the bend the river. But it was to be "now".
"There! There it is! There it is!" Fanny's thought was a cry aloud. The lights of the little town were in sight and with the wolf-pack trailing twenty yards behind her, she flung herself at the low wharf, pitched the sail to the pack and while they worried with it, flew - skates at all - into the little store, and gasped out her story to an astounded crowd of men, and then faded quietly into a land where there were neither wolves nor ice nor burned brother Jack.
In the long days of convalescence, when no one knew whether he would ever see again or not, Frances had to talk and to read much to keep from thinking too often of those hours of horror; for Jack, when, blinded and panic-racked, he waited helplessly for the aid which seemed so long in coming; for her when, coupled with the thought of being torn to pieces, was the other terror that, should she fail, her brother might suffer for days before relief, or - the end.
But the terror of these memories grew less with each passing hour, and vanished on the day when Dr. Perry took the bandage from Jack's eyes and he saw again.
"It was that, and a girl's pluck, that saved your eyes, young man,'' he said pointing to the torn sail standing in the corner of the room. But Jack only raised his eyes and took his sister's smiling face between his thin, scarred hands.
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