In 1970, as a personal centennial project, I decided to look through early letters, diaries and journals to see what the writers had to say about the territory which became the Province of Manitoba. In doing this I tried to make a distinction between straight factual reporting and literature.
Good factual reporting can certainly be good writing when it communicates basic information clearly and concisely. It becomes literature when the facts are illumined and interpreted through personal opinion and comment; through the judicious use of adjectives and adverbs; and through twists of phrase which give lively and vivid insight into human behavior.
The outcome of this exercise was a mass of material on many different subjects from many different sources. In this article one element only is dealt with - an element which perhaps more than other has shaped the character and destiny of Manitobans - the weather.
Every letter writer and diarist was passionately concerned about the weather. We are concerned about it today, and the currency of the issue was brought home to me recently when a newcomer to the province voiced her astonishment about our impassioned discussions about the weather, as though it were a personal antagonist.
Here are a few observations about the weather which contain little gems of language in which the distinguishing marks of the writers are clearly seen. Not all of the writing will please the literary purist, but where there are lapses we must surely greet them with charity and echo the sentiments of Roy St. George Stubbs on Manitoba's first poet: "We shall not sit in judgement on the quality of Kelsey's poetry, but rather sit in wonder that the Muse should woo him at all."
Peter Fidler's weather record, Cumberland House, 1790, contains notes on the growth in his garden as well as daily temperature readings. Right: Thomas Hutchins' meteorological journal, York Factory, 1772, has a sketch of a parhelic ring around the sun.
(Reproduction courtesy of Hudson's Bay Company)
"Thanks to the Lord, I have escaped, Sir, the most dreadful country in the world. I do not think they will catch me here again." - Ibid.
"... the Reader will almost freeze as the writer does; for that Country is so prodigiously cold that Nature is never impregnated by the sun; or rather her barren womb produces nothing for the subsistence of man." - John Oldmixon, York Factory, 1708.
"The interior walls of the House were covered with rime to the thickness of four inches, pieces of which broke off, to prevent which we wetted the whole extent and made it a coat of ice, after which it remained firm and added to the warmth of the house, for the cold is so intense that everything in a manner is shivered by it. Continually the rocks are split with a sound like the report of a gun." - David Thompson, Churchill, 1784.
"As for the future of this country [Red River], it is as inevitable as tomorrow's sunrise. The climate is delightful. The weather just now, and there is no appearance of change, is clear, cloudless, bland, and inspiriting; and the thermometer has not sunk below 30 for a week. In deep winter there are short spells of severe weather, but they are short." - Charles Mair, Toronto Globe, January 4, 1869.
"The encampment is made by clearing away snow off a piece of ground, and laying pine brush taken from the trees neatly upon it, building walls around it about two feet high also of brush. There is a large fire in the middle and when the storm rages, the Thermometer is 50 Below, but you will not perceive anyone suffering from the inclemency of the weather altho seated in the open air." - William McTavish, Norway House, July 16, 1834.
"In western Canada ... the winter was a succession of snows and thaws and frosts and miserable changes, but in Red River there was nothing of that sort. The mercury sometimes falls to 30 or 35 degrees below zero, but it was not thought anything of, for it was a steady dry cold and was preferable to the climate at Toronto." - John Christian Schultz, Toronto Globe, April 7, 1870.
"Nine months of winter varied by three of rain and mosquitoes." - (York Factory) - from the Letters of Letitia Hargrave.
"During the winter the water in the washstand jug regularly freezes each night by the stove and when the North blast blows, the candle blaze by the bed sends steam off horizontally like a fiery pennant." - Ibid.
"It certainly tries the stamina of a man more than an equable and temperate climate, but no Scot who has made a bed among the heather with no cover but his plaid and no shelter but the lee side of a hill need fear a [Hudson Bay] coast fog more than a Scotch one." - Ibid.
"The climate of Red River is found to be remarkably healthy. We know of no epidemic, nor is a cough scarcely heard. The only cry of affliction, in breathing a sharp, pure air, creating a keen appetite is Je n'ai rien pour manager; and death has rarely taken place, except by accident and extreme old age." - Reverend John West, December, 1822.
"The trees are breaking into leaves ... but this almost sudden and pleasing change has brought with it an unceasing torment. Night and day you are perpetually tormented with mosquitoes that afford you no rest but in the annoying respiration of a smoky room." - Ibid.
"This day it blowed hard. At four a Clock ye wind dullered." - Henry Kelsey, York Factory, 1694.
"One cold day we killed a Doe, our hands were freezing, we opened her up and put our hands in the blood to warm them, but the heat of the blood was like scalding water which we could not bear." - David Thompson.
"A brilliant light ... rose over the lake ... it was a Meteor of a globular form and appeared larger than the Moon, which was then high; it seemed to come direct to us, lowering as it came, when within 300 yards of us it struck the River ice with a sound like a mass of jelly, was dashed into innumerable pieces and instantly expired ... I was at a loss what to think of it, its stroke gave sound and therefore must have had substance." - Ibid.
"The effects which nature produces in these climes are worthy of admiration. There will arise of a sudden in the night, when everything is serene, clouds whiter than alabaster, and although at the time there is not a breath of wind, they fly so rapidly that they assume all kinds of figures in a moment. There appears through these clouds a beautiful dazzling light that supplies them, so to speak, with a spring that sets everything in motion. They extend like comets, then contract and vanish in a moment. It seems like a heavenly glory. The darker the nights the more marvellous the effects, and, without exaggeration, you can easily read by the light of these phenomena." - Documents Relating to the Early History of Hudson Bay, Champlain Society, XVIII.