I am not telling this story to shock or to brag about what I did that night long ago. I am just telling you what can and what did happen on what was supposed to be a nice outdoors day. I have told this story many times since that Saturday. I can’t remember the exact date, but it was near the time that fish houses had to be removed from the ice in February 1965. I lived in Hibbing at that time and was asked to go and help remove a fish house.
I assumed it would be a quick ride to Pelican Lake in Orr to tip the fish house onto the pickup truck and drive back home. I am not going to mention the names of the other persons involved in this winter tale, even though the two who caused the problems have been dead for years.
I left Hibbing that Saturday morning with the man and his nine-year-old son in a four-wheel drive Dodge Power Wagon. Everything, including the weather, seemed to be OK. All we had to do was drive through Orr, turn west on another road to access the lake, drive across the lake to the west side of Indian Point on Orr Bay to get to the fish house. There wasn’t a plowed road, but the snow on the lake presented no problem. The truck was doing fine.
In the short time between our Hibbing departure and our arrival at the fish house, three things had changed: the wind had increased to 15 or so miles per hour straight out of the west, the snow started falling at an increasingly heavier rate, and the visibility became more and more limited by the minute. The third realization was that the driver had been sneaking drinks from a pint of whiskey he had in his jacket pocket. By the time we arrived at the fish house, he was obviously drunk.
The snow around the fish house was deeper than the truck could easily handle. This in turn, resulted in the truck getting stuck. When I got out of the truck to get the shovel in the pickup bed, I stepped into the deep snow that covered eight or more inches of slush. I found the shovel, but it was only a shovel. It was a common metal flat shovel about 18 inches wide and 18 inches high with no handle. It was all I had, so I started shoveling out the very stuck truck.
I had the kid and his drunken dad stay in the truck while I dug out all four wheels. Of course, this wasn’t bad enough, so the sun, which could barely shine through the snow and clouds, began to set, which made for very dark working conditions. I asked the driver to move so I could drive. “I got this,” he said. He drove forward a few feet and then backed the truck into a bank of snow and got stuck again.
I shoveled, if you can call it shoveling when all you have is a shovel without a handle, and then watched the driver get stuck a second time.
I shoveled the truck out a third time. I still can’t figure out why my feet weren’t soaking wet and why I wasn’t freezing cold with the temperature and wind working against me. Blue jeans, rubber bottom, leather-top, non-insulated boots, and a heavy parka, cap, and probably some long underwear. Then, he got the truck struck again.
After a few minutes of rest, I got back into the truck. I walked approximately one hundred yards to Indian Point to see if I could find a broken tree that I could use to attempt to pry the truck out of the slush. A dead, broken birch was the best I could find. Remember, not only did I not have a shovel, it was night, the snow was blowing horizontally and I did not have a flashlight.
I dragged the birch back to the truck. I tried prying the truck out of the slush while the driver tried driving the truck back and forth. I soon realized that the tree trick only works in the movies and novels. It served to only tire me more than I already was from shoveling. I told the impaired driver to stay with his son and the truck while I walked to Orr to get help.
When I reached Indian Point, the snow had drifted and was waist deep. This alone was difficult enough, but having to walk up and over the point into the very cold, howling wing with one to three inches of ice coating my boots, pants and other parts of my coat and mittens, from dipping them in and out of slush made every step a challenge. Surprisingly, once I was over the point, the wind was totally still because the point blocked it. Also, this side had no slush. The chill and hurt of the wind were gone, as was the roar of the wind. There was only silence.
I had gone into auto-pilot mode while shoveling and dealing with the frustration of the truck getting stuck three times. My thoughts now focused on getting into town, finding some help, and resolving this situation.
Walking wasn’t easy. My ice-covered pants and boots were extra weight. Sinking with each step into loose snow added to the work of the walk. I had no feeling of danger or fear. There would be a solution to this problem. I saw one set of headlights go by on Highway 53. There was no help there.
I arrived at the only open place in town, the Orr Municipal Bar and Liquor Store. When I walked in everyone turned and looked with total silence. Someone finally spoke up and said, “What hap- pened to you?” I had a chance to look at myself in the light, and I was quite a sight with boot laces with ice balls an inch or more in diameter and pants, mittens, and a jacket covered in ice as well.
I said, “We’re stuck in the snow and slush on the west side of Indian Point, and there’s an adult and kid in the truck. I need a wrecker or a truck to pull us out. We’ve been there for over three hours.” I asked the wrecker guy to come and help us. He said his insurance company doesn’t cover going on the ice. I asked the bar, which had about seven or so people in it, if there was anyone who could help me. I have a stuck truck, a guy and a kid out on the ice waiting for me to bring back some help.
“I’ll go,” said a stocky guy sitting at the bar. Good news for me. We got out the door and the guy said to give him 20 bucks for helping. I paid gladly. The volunteer knew where to go. Same road and same trail, or what was left of it, on the lake.
I knew we were in trouble when the driver put his plow down part way to help clear the trail when we neared the stuck truck. The snow and slush clogged the plow and the volunteer’s truck, and then there were two stuck trucks. In case you don’t happen to live in the north, a plow mounted on a pickup has limited clearance under the truck for the necessary frame support.
I shoveled the plow truck with the shovel with no handle, since the new arrival didn’t have a shovel either. I quickly realized I was dealing with another drunk driver who refused my request to drive. There was a feeble moment when the truck was set free and then became stuck again. Shovel again. Stuck again.
My every bit of strength was gone. Shoveling snow and slush for nearly five hours, the long walk to town, and the elements of wind, snow, and cold had finally drained me. Prior to this exhaustion, I had always said and believed, if you find yourself in a situation, find a solution now.
I could not see any solution at this time. I had the responsibility of two drunken adults, a kid, two stuck trucks, plus darkness, raging wind, snow, and no miracle in sight.
While all four of us were sitting in one truck, I said we all have to walk to town because the snow is sealing the undersides of the truck, which means the exhaust fumes will get into the truck, put us to sleep, and kill us. The two said no to that plan and were set to stay the night in the truck. Someone would come in the morning and get all of us out they said. Seems the two had formed quite a bond while I was shoveling.
Not a good plan in my opinion. I told them to stay if they wanted, but I was taking the boy and walking to town. The two didn’t care.
When the boy and I got to the point, I broke trail again, since my first trail was drifted over. I helped the boy through the waist deep snow. Again, when we were over the land crest, total silence became our new norm. The walk to town was slow but steady. The boy seemed to be in a stunned silence. He never spoke the whole time.
For the second time that evening, the Orr Municipal Bar and Liquor Store was my go-to place. Again, there was silence and stares of disbelief directed at me and now towards the boy as well. In answer to their stares, I asked if anyone had a snowmobile and sled, since we now had two trucks hopelessly stuck in the slush and snow and two guys who thought they could spend the night out on the lake.
The wrecker guy spoke up and stated he would get his snowmobile and sled and take me out there to get the other two men.
The small Ski-Doo had a toboggan sled with a box built on it for sitting. This was the solution to the situation at hand. Upon arriving at the stuck vehicles, the snowmobile was able to stay on top of the snow and keep out of the slush. The two w men did not argue or say anything when they were told to get on the sled. When we rounded Indian Point and headed to town, I looked back at the sled I saw two very cold looking men hanging on tightly.
I had no sympathy for their brief discomfort when I thought of what I had been through. I had shoveled two trucks out of the snow and slush five times with a handle-less shovel. I had worked in those conditions for almost five hours and walked to town twice. I am not sure how far that was, but it must have been a mile, plus walking across the point twice. Luckily, my body and mind went on auto pilot adrenaline, and the fact that I was just 22 years old at the time allowed me to do what I had to do.
Thank you again, Mr. Wrecker Man. I don’t know how this story would have ended without your help.
The end result was that we had to wait for two days before the storm passed. Both trucks were frozen in the slush so when they were pulled out, they lost some wV brake lines, exhaust pipes, etc. I did not get involved in any of the recovery operations. I didn’t have much to do with the Hibbing driver after that. His excuse for getting drunk that day was that his wife was a terrible person. I reminded him that he was spending time with me and his son. His drinking that day caused a huge problem. As for the Orr truck driver, I didn’t know him before that evening and never tried to find him after that night.
The best coincidence of that night was as the five of us—Mr. Wrecker Man with snowmobile, two drunk drivers, the boy, and I—were standing in front of the Orr Municipal Liquor Store, I recognized my car as it was passing. My wife and her brother were just driving by. They had no idea where I was or why I was so late, but they came looking for me anyway.
Now I live in International Falls, and when I travel south on Highway 53 and as I approach the curve that reveals Orr Bay and Indian Point, I glance at it, and this frozen night’s story comes to mind. It’s been 55 years since it happened. Done, but not forgotten.
Tom Kantos lives in International Falls, MN.