He spat upon the snow, a favorite northland trick,
and the sharp crackle of the instantly congealed
spittle startled him. The spirit thermometer at
Calumet had registered sixty below when he left,
but he was certain it had grown much colder, how
much colder he could not imagine . . .
After an hour he rounded a bend, where the
creek ran close to the mountainside, and came upon
one of the most insignificant-appearing but most
formidable dangers in northern travel.
The creek itself was frozen solid to its rocky
bottom, but from the mountain came the outflow
of several springs. These springs never froze, and
the only effect of the severest cold snaps was to
lessen their discharge. Protected from the frost
by the blanket of snow, the water of these springs
seeped down into the creek and, on top of the creek
ice, formed shallow pools.
The surface of these pools, in turn, took on a skin
of ice which grew thicker and thicker, until the water overran, and so formed a second ice-skinned
pool above the first.
Thus at the bottom was the solid creek ice, then
probably six to eight inches of water, then the thin
ice-skin, then another six inches of water and another
ice-skin. And on top of this last skin was about an
inch of recent snow to make the trap complete.
To Tom Vincent’s eye the unbroken snow surface
gave no warning of the lurking danger. As the crust
was thicker at the edge, he was well toward the
middle before he broke through
In itself it was a very insignificant mishap—a
man does not drown in twelve inches of water—but
in its consequences as serious an accident as could
possibly befall him.
At the instant he broke through he felt the cold
water strike his feet and ankles, and with half a
dozen lunges he made the bank. He was quite cool
and collected. The thing to do, and the only thing
to do, was to build a fire. For another precept of
the north runs: Travel with wet socks down to twenty
below zero; after that build a fire. And it was three
times twenty below and colder, and he knew it.