THE BLIZZARD OF ‘66

THE CONTRARIAN

Old friend Wilbert Potter dropped in the other day, and in the course of chatting about old times, his old Hus-ski snowmobile came up. Wilbert worked for a while at McKinstry’s at about the time Bill took on a line of snowmobiles called “Hus-ski”.  Being single, and therefore rich, Wilbert thought they were pretty neat, and bought one.

Snowmobiles were still extremely rare at that time, in fact that was the first one we had any experience with or was seen in the Glengoland or even Oxdrift area. The Hus-ski consisted of a tractor unit which rode on a wooden-cleated track, and contained the engine; the driver sat on a sleigh unit close-coupled behind.  Of course there were no trails in those days.  The Hus-ski got around pretty good in deep snow, but when it got stuck it was a bear to get out, it was just a big lump, nothing sticking out to give you a bit of leverage. Its main weakness was the drive chain down to the track, a little skinny R40 quarter-inch bicycle-type chain which would break and fall off at inopportune times, generally resulting in a search for the chain in the snow.  Folks quickly learned to carry a spare – the paper mill had a hard time keeping R40 connecting links in stock.

My favourite snomo story is the time we piled 4 or 5 people on Wilbert’s machine, with all our gear, and trundled off down Ord Lake to the first island for ice fishing. The next summer, I was trolling along that same island, and came up with a fishing line, which turned out to be attached to a little short rod with a red plastic reel on it.  “That looks just like my ice fishing rig”, I exclaimed, and when I got home, sure enough my ice fishing rig was missing.  In all the fuss of hauling all of us and our gear that winter before, we did not notice we had dropped my rod.

What brought this up was this being the 50th anniversary of the blizzard of March 6, 1966, the biggest dump of snow in our area in living memory.  Wilbert related his blizzard story.  He got a phone call from Owen Fenwick on the fateful morning – the Eton Rugby highway was snowed in, end to end, and the ministry wanted Owen to open it up.  He had left his bulldozer in the bush at the far end, and asked Wilbert to take him back to the bulldozer with his Hus-ski.  Which he did.  That was probably 10 miles; it took Owen three days to plow all the way back out.  The sno-mo trip in was quite an adventure in itself, in those early years we would hesitate to go that far off the road unless in a group, or at least two machines, because they weren’t very reliable.  Luckily Wilbert delivered Owen to his dozer with no trouble.

On the way back out, he encountered Gary Mantey, setting out to walk to town for his shift at the mill – Gary worked in the steam plant, probably the most essential service in those circumstances, and felt obligated to make every effort to get to work. Wilbert remembers lots of guys didn’t, so there were lots of double shifts; the mill even rented the entire Central Hotel for those who couldn’t get home.

Anyway, Wilbert said ‘hop on’, but a few miles further  there was another mill worker heading out on foot for his shift, he wasn’t sure, was it Axel Johnson?  Or Bud Robinson?  Anyway, the Hus-ski wouldn’t handle 3 up in deep snow, so Wilbert leap-frogged them, hauling one at a time for a few miles then going back for the other, and eventually got everybody out to highway 17.  He said it was quite a ride back to town, packing 3 big guys with snow gear in with the driver in the narrow cab of the old MTO pickup waiting for him there.

Owen survived that adventure and many more, and is now a healthy 96 year old resident of his own house in town. I will write more in future about this interesting character, one of the last of our pioneers.

 

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