Manataka American Indian Council





December 2010





The Winter Cabin

Northern Nevada 1954

By Nupah Makah L Cota


With the sleeve of my wool shirt, I wipe away a small opening in the window pane. The light from the oil lamps casts out yellow shadows on the deepening snow.  Finding my old coat, I bind it up with a belt and pull on my brother's oversized boots. My gloves were given to my brother, Jim, so he would not have to ride fence with bare hands. His had been long lost in the travels to the cabin.  I can hear my horse stomping in the barn and calling for his oats.  Snow is falling heavily outside.  I open the door to try to see just how bad it has gotten. 


With lantern held high, I force the door of the cabin open against the heavy snow.  Just the effort brings the cold air deep into my lungs, making it hard to breath. I feel like an icy hand has taken my breath and ripped it out of my chest.


I wrap the scarf once again around my mouth and head to filter out the cold. All I can see, for less than 10 feet ahead of me, is snow and more snow, falling in swirls against the porch.  I keep saying to myself, “Project yourself over this and think of it as over and done.  Think out everything you must do and what can happen out there so you are prepared.”  


My focus is the cabin and the light that glows in the kitchen.  From there I have two focal points set, so I am ready for most anything that can happen.  Just as when we held the vision quest and my father and I kept the fire for the spirit, so I must focus on the lantern I hold in my hands.


I squeeze through the door and feel the impact of the wind against my back, biting into my clothes.  Pushing the door back into its place, keeping the warmth of the cabin in and the cold out, I grab the porch rail and fumble for the rope. My bare hands start to feel the sharp sting of cold as I look hard for the rope that we tied off before the storm started.   Finally I see the knot against the rail and step off the porch into a foot of snow.


Pulling my sleeves down and grabbing the rope with my free hand I make my way to the barn. The cow, five chickens, and three horses occupy the barn.  They all need to be fed and the cow needs to be milked.


Finally I manage to get to the barn doors.  There is a smaller door that pushes inward for people and the bigger barn door is for the cattle and horses. The snow is piled up against the bigger door and there is no way it will be opening soon.


Inside, I hear a soft sound come from the cow and proceed to find the milk bucket.  Hanging the lantern on a peg, I locate the milking stool and start the milking.  Soon the bucket is filled with warm frothy rich milk.  Next, I must rake out some of the stalls then fill them with clean bedding and feed the horses.


Taking one last look around the barn to make sure it is secure for the night, I open the door and head back to the cabin.  As I open the barn door, the full storm with heavy winds pushes the door back at me, making it hard to leave the barn.  The milk splashes up the sides of the bucket, making it difficult to carry. The milk freezes onto my jeans in a few seconds, leaving icy patches where it splashed.


Again I find the rope and am very careful not to drop the bucket.   I inch my way back to the cabin.  At times the snow is up to my waist and I almost lose my footing.


Once I get to the porch I can leave the bucket of milk and load up some firewood to put in the box. I carry several arms-full, enough to see me through the night, into the cabin. The rest I put in the box just outside the door and cover it up to keep it dry.  Several pails for water are sitting near the wash bench so I fill them with snow and carry all of the buckets inside the cabin.


After I had dropped one final armload into the wood box, I take off my coat and hang it on the rack behind the door.  It was heavy with snow packed into the deep wool and fur, frozen by the now fast-growing storm.


The milk is my next object, so off that goes to the kitchen with my old cat following me for her usual treat.  Normally she would have been in the barn for her nightly bowl of milk but the storm has driven her inside the house for the night.  She had been stretched out in front of the fire when I went out and was still there when I came back in.


Then, in its covered pail, I take the milk to the back room and place it down into the wood-lined stream of running water that passes through the cold room.  The water is very cold but not freezing.  I remember coming here in summer and just hiding out, away from the family. I would lie on the slate stone floor and let the cold water pass over my hands. How wonderful that felt on a hot and dry day.


Coming back out from the cold room, I pass rows and rows of preserves and canned fruit and vegetables that brought summer closer to me.  Each jar was labeled as to date and contents, sitting there like some treasure of glistening jewels on the shelves.  I reach into the flour-sack bags that hang on the wall and bring out a piece of deer meat jerky. That, along with some dry fruit, will be my dinner tonight.


There will be no one to cook for tonight as the men are all away, riding fences.  I know that they probably have holed-up in the line shack and it will be days before they get home.  I drag my bedding down by the wood stove and prepare for a long night.


Now, the wind is full force and it finds small cracks to enter the cabin. I can feel the temperature of the room change from warm to cool.  Better go and find another blanket and fill the firebox with some good hardwood.


Finally I can sit down and eat my supper and rest for a while.  I listen to the sounds that come from the storm and they start to sing me to sleep.  All night, the wind howled around the cabin.  My mind, filling with stories and thoughts, finally found some rest.


Morning light seeps in through the wooden shutters and across the floor to where I am sleeping.  Stiff and cold, I get up to stoke the fire and set some water on to boil for coffee.  Soon the cabin is cheery with the crackle of the wood and the smell of coffee brewing.


I do not want to see what has been left overnight by the storm but need to get back to the barn for the cow.  I peek through the crack of the shutters and see the snow is up to the windows. This means that there has to be at last four feet of snow on the ground and ten feet in the drifts.  The barn looks miles away and the rope is buried in the snow drift.


Dressed again, I test the door by trying to open it.  I cannot move it, so I decide to use the window for my door.  I can shovel out the door later on when I get back from the barn.


The shutters fold back and I am out on the porch in a flash, shutting the window behind me.  Now to get myself to the barn, over 100 yards away.  At first I thought I would walk there but the snow is over my head in places.  I take a pole off the porch and test the depth of the snow.  It is firm but not packed so I decide to use the snowshoes instead.


After twenty minutes of snowshoeing, I arrive at the barn only to find the door is deep in a snow drift.  There is no way to unlatch the hook from my height.  Looking up, I see the ladder to the hayloft so I climb that and enter the barn through the loft.


After doing the chores, and collecting some eggs and the big pail of milk, I consider lowering them down from the loft into the snow.   This was a challenge as to how I would manage the milk and the eggs while snowshoeing back to the cabin.  The smaller bear paw snowshoes are not that good in deep snow unless it is packed, so the path ahead of me looked rather bad.


So, by using the hay pick, I manage to retrieve the rope from the barn to the cabin and take the end upstairs to the loft.  I tie off the end, making a long line back to the porch, and put an old wooden pulley on it.  This allows me to send the milk and the eggs in their basket down to the porch ahead of me.  I lose a bit of the milk and crack a few eggs but, all in all, the made-up pulley line works like a charm.


Hooking another rope to the pulley and putting the snowshoes on my back I slip out of the barn loft on a great ride.  I fly through the distance which had taken me much energy to climb, landing in a heap near the cabin steps.  The fall is wonderful and cushioned by many feet of soft, fluffy snow.  I lie there, out of breath and laughing.  The crows laughed with me, cawing in glee at this human being in the snow.


I set several snares beside the shed for rabbits that would come to take the grain.  The sun is out and the mountain looks like a big bowl of ice cream topped with trees.  How beautiful the silent land is with no other human being for miles.  Finally, I go in and start breakfast and enjoy my little conquest of the snow.


It took three days before the men came back from the mountain.  I could see them coming down, snowshoeing and leading the horses through the drifts on the path.  I felt like the three wise men were approaching the cabin and I knew all would be good again.


The men were cold and hungry and worried about me there, all alone in the cabin.  I do not tell them what I had been up to.  I simply feed them and listen to their tales of the snow and ice on the mountain.


Later that day, my snares produce some good-sized rabbits for dinner. That night, my brother asks me why the rope was tied off at the loft and not the barn door. I avoid the answer and he just smiles at me, knowing exactly what I had been up too. He gives me a big hug and said, "You’re always the one to make a party out of a snowstorm."


Our evening is spent talking and relaxing, with full bellies and a happy heart to be safe in the cabin once more.


Love Nupah Makah L Cota

Copyright (C) 2009 by Nupah Makah L Cota  All publications reserved.





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