Winter Amusements - A Winnipeg Ball - Forty Degrees below Zero - New Year's Day - Saskatchewan Taylor - Indian Compliments - A Dog train - Lost in the Snow - Amateur Theatricals - Sir Walter Raleigh's Hat - A Race with the Freshets - The Ice moves - The First Steamer of the Season - Good-bye to Winnipeg.
Snow lay several inches thick on the ground at Christmas, and we had sleigh drives over the smooth white prairie, one great advantage of Manitoban winters being that when once the ground is covered with snow, if only to the depth of five or six inches, it remains, and there is good sleighing until the frost breaks up in March or April. Sleighing parties are varied by skating at the rink and assemblies in the town-hall, where we meet a medley of ball goers and givers, each indulging his or her favourite style of dancing - from the old fashioned "three-step" waltz preferred by the elders, to the breathless "German," the simpledeux temps, and the graceful "Boston" dance, peculiar as yet to Americans and Canadians. The band was composed of trained musicians who had belonged to various regiments, and, on receiving their discharge, remained in Canada. The hall was well lighted, the floor in good condition, and we enjoyed taking a turn upon it, as well as watching the Scotch reels, country dances, and Red River jigs performed by the others.
It was a gay and amusing scene, but the heavy winter dresses - many of them short walking costumes - worn by the Manitoban belles, looked less pretty than the light materials, bright colours, and floating trains of an ordinary ball-room. The absence of carriages and cabs, and the intensity of the cold, compelled ladies to adopt this sombre attire. The mercury averaged from ten to twenty degrees below zero, frequently going as low as thirty-three, and occasionally into the forties; yet the air is so dry and still, that I felt the cold less when it was thirty-three degrees below zero in Winnipeg than when only five degrees below in Ottawa, and did not require any additional wraps.
On New Year's Day the now old-fashioned custom of gentlemen calling was kept up, and we had many visitors, among them the American Consul, Mr. Taylor, known in the Consulate as "Saskatchewan Taylor," from his interest in the North-West and anxiety upon all occasions to bring its capabilities before the public. He came in the evening, and, following the American style, remained more than an hour, so that we were able to get beyond the conventional topics of health and weather, and found him very pleasant and entertaining.
During the afternoon the maid came in, looking rather flurried, and said that visitors in the kitchen wished to see us. Going there, we were greeted by seven Indians and their squaws, come to pay a New Year's visit. As I looked at their brown faces and long, loose hair, memories of stories told by cousins in the Hudson Bay Company's service, of having to kiss all the squaws on New Year's Day, sent the blood with a rush back to my heart; but, happily, this ceremony was dispensed with. Only one of the party could speak English - a handsome, clear-skinned, straight-featured Indian, in blue blanket coat, red sash, leggings, and gaily-decorated hat. He stepped forward and made a little speech, wishing us "A long life of many moons, sunshine, health, and rich possessions, and the smile of the Good Spirit upon the blue-eyed papoose;" finishing by shaking hands all round. The others, with an "Ugh!" of acquiescence, and smiling faces, followed his example. Our hostess was unable to give them wine or whisky, because of the stringent prohibitory laws, but she regaled them on great slices of cake, with which they were much pleased. When Mr. C - - came in from the line with his dog-train - four strong beasts drawing a light cariole or covered tobogan, more like a great shoe than anything else - the blue and red coat of his Indian runner, Tommy Harper, was much admired by our visitors; and he told us afterwards of their admiration for everything they saw in the house. This Tommy was a good-tempered old fellow, but, when not running, was invariably asleep or smoking over the kitchen fire.
About the middle of January (1877) we had a terrible snow-storm, the worst that had been known in Manitoba for years. At five o'clock in the evening the wind rose suddenly, and in half an hour was blowing a gale, sending the snow whirling through the air in such blinding volume, that it was impossible to distinguish anything twenty yards off. As night closed in, which it does early at that season, the storm increased in violence, and although there was then little snow falling, the wind drove in all directions the dry snow lying upon the ground.
Many people lost their way. A shop-boy running home to tea, only round the corner of the block, missed the turning into the gateway, and wandered till daylight on the prairie, knowing it was certain death to lie down. A family crossing the prairie, and seeing the storm approaching, hastened to reach a wayside inn four or five hundred yards distant, but before they could do so lost sight of it. After driving several hours they were obliged to stop; and digging a hole in the snow with their hands, covered themselves with robes and sleigh-rugs, and drawing the sleigh over them as a little protection from the wind, they waited until daylight - to find themselves within a hundred yards of the inn! All next day stories were continually reaching us of narrow escapes, of frozen feet and hands, of lost horses, frozen oxen, and travellers' miseries in general. But this certainly was an exceptional storm, or "blizzard," as the natives say.