It is a cold January morning in 1995 and I am getting up for another day of work. I am not an early riser but it feels like five in the morning when it is only actually nine. I look through the layers of frosted ice on my window. There is not a cloud in the sky. That is little comfort because I know it is very cold today. I can feel the cold seeping into the house and wafting through the gaps in the wood, on the tiled floor and through the insulated walls. There is also a dead silence outside. Not even the birds or the hardy ravens are making a sound today. The bitter cold is freezing any remnants of moisture in the air and it is creating a misty haze over the land.
I get out of bed fast and into my clothes. I put on my winter work uniform. It is a well-organized system of long underwear, socks, t-shirts and sweaters that I wear in layers. Even though I have layered myself in warm clothes, I am not ready to venture outside just yet. I warm myself with a quick breakfast and then another layer of jackets, snow pants, heavy boots, gloves, mitts, hat and finally a thick parka.
When I open the door, I feel like I am heading out into space. The cold rushes past the open door and flash freezes the humid indoor air into a misty cloud as I walk out onto steps. The air is bitter and takes my breathe away. I have to cover up my mouth to keep away the sting of the dry cold. I can hear my boots squeaking on the frozen ice and snow as I head out to our makeshift garage near our home.
Winter is hard on your body up here in Attawapiskat. The cold seeps through the layers of clothes and works its way down onto your skin. If you stay out long enough it will seep down further to try to get at your very core. If you leave anything out in the cold long enough, it will freeze down to the very centre. Every form of matter is affected by the cold. Soft objects turn hard, hard objects turn brittle, gases become liquids and liquids become solids.
With all this in mind, I am not looking forward to finding out if the tractor will start or not. The tractor is our main vehicle we use to do much of our contract work around the community. At the very least this rugged machine is protected from the immediate cold inside an enclosed building. I walk into a back doorway into the unheated garage. All our equipment, tools, spare parts and work area is covered over in a thin white layer of ice. It looks as if some small people had come in the night to drape our dark oiled and dirty tools in a blanket of fine lace or fancy embroidery. Near the open cracks and crevices in the walls, small mounds of fine white snow have accumulated in perfectly formed oblong shapes and pillars on the floor.
I look in towards our tractor in a separate partition. The brand new Ford New Holland is sitting in the dark. Rays of light stream out from underneath the machine. If one did not have the inside information you would think this might be a spaceship. The night before, we placed a bright and hot halogen lamp under the oil pan to keep it from freezing. This precaution is in addition to plugging in the block heater for the engine. I pull back cardboard, canvas and tarp that kept any heat in place to feel the bottom of the oil pan. The cold steel bites back at my hand.
Before turning the engine over, I spray a generous amount of volatile starting fluid into the air intake. I know I only have one chance at starting the engine. The batteries are frozen as well, so there will be a small window of opportunity to fire this machine to life. I lower myself gently onto the driver’s seat as it is as hard as a block of ice.
The moment of truth. I turn the key and give it some gas. The engine laboriously whirls at the gears, pistons and crankshaft. I can imagine the frozen steel parts of the motor trying to push through the frozen engine oil. A piston fires and knocks at the engine. I am surprised and hopeful that it will do it again. I am not looking forward to trying to thaw out this iron monster. The whirling begins to slow as the batteries quickly lose energy. It fires and knocks again and this time the vapours of the starting fluid catch and the engine roars to life. That’s a good thing. However, even if the beast had not come to life I would have been happy. It would have been a day off. Everybody needs one of those once in a while.