Adapted from “A Land Reclaimed: The Story of Alberta’s Special Areas” by Jack Gorman. Published for the Special Areas Board, 1988
Every season brought its own version of adversity. A rainy summer created clouds of mosquitos. Black flies were ever present. A dry summer brought winds, drought and grasshoppers. The most feared of nature’s caprice was the blizzard. The settlement of Western Canada provides an anthology of tragic tales about the merciless wrath of the winter blizzards. Probably the most famous misadventure in the snow was Lee Brainard’s ordeal moving cattle north to the Hunt ranch near Endiang where there was promise of winter feed.
Brainard had moved his cattle from Montana north to Medicine Hat and straight north across the Red Deer (river) to Richdale. It was 1906 and he had counted on the chinooks clearing away the snow so the herd could forage on the prairie grass. He settled on the flats north of Richdale just out of range of the warming winds.
The chinooks didn’t come and everyday Brainard looked out on a landscape of drifting snow and 30 below temperatures. His cattle were dying before his eyes.
On January 29th, the warm west winds came and Brainard, his son Albert and a hired hand and lifelong companion White, moved the herd northwest toward the Hunt ranch where there was plenty of feed and shelter.
Near the south end of Sullivan Lake, a blizzard struck again, pinning the men to the cover of the wagon while the herd wandered aimlessly. For hours they huddled against the fury of the storm but it was brutal, a drop of 70 degrees from the day before.
The men emerged from the makeshift shelter under the wagon and attempted to move around but White, the hired hand, did not respond. Chilled through to the marrow, he collapsed and died. In a few hours, Brainard junior had lost his will to live and collapsed. Brainard, alone and determined, headed into the storm and eventually struggled his way to the Hunt place.
Fighting valiantly against the storm with the weakening fibre of his strength, he fell against a fence. He could no longer stand but he followed the wire on hands and knees. The fence led him past corrals and to the Hunt brothers’ shack. He stumbled against the door. Jack Hunt, one of the brothers, thinking it was a steer, yelled, “Get to hell out of there!”
Brainard yelled back, “I won’t get out!” and in a few minutes they were dragging in his body and doing their best to thaw out his frozen feet, face and hands with kerosene.
The brothers kept him alive because it was impossible to move him anywhere to a hospital. He eventually lost all of his toes.