Before television, cell phones and video games came to the Cariboo, young people had nothing to do for fun in the winter, except to get outdoors and get at it. You couldn’t wait to be out there where there were no adults and no rules other than, “Be home for supper.”
There was always something to do. You could skate on a pond or a lake, even if you had your brother’s old skates that you wore with two pairs of wool socks to make them fit. Maybe you had a pair of snowshoes, inherited from some ancestor, that had lost their bindings so you tied them on and tried to make them work.
Hockey equipment was easy to come by. Except for sticks. You could carve your own from a bent branch or much better, get one for Christmas from the Eatons catalogue. By February it would be held together with black tape.
Pucks were often donated by horses and goalie pads were old cushions or pieces from a worn-out quilt that your mom cut up. Stones and boards made a good enough goal, even if there was always someone who tripped and got a bloody lip.
You never talked about such minor injuries. What happened with kids, stayed with kids. A mitt-full of snow was first aid enough.
You could work together to make a track down a steep hill for body sledding, where you could show off by going down headfirst. A piece of cardboard was great for zipping down the track. You never knew where you would end up, turned over with your face in the snow and pinned down by some overgrown but goodhearted dog standing on the edge the cardboard.
Maybe some kid had a toboggan that everyone piled onto. You could get hurt if it ran over the foot that you couldn’t fit on the toboggan but, oh well.
When it was getting into sunset and dinnertime, you’d stumble home on half-frozen feet. You’d take off your boots and sometimes cry a bit from the pain when your toes began to thaw, and your mother would fret about frostbite and being out there too long. The next day you’d do it over again.
Sleighing parties were much-anticipated events. A bobsleigh pulled by strong horses, with breath steaming and strips of brass bells jingling would pull up to the church or school. Everyone scrambled on and the sled would glide off down a road sparkling in the sunlight.
Hay would be mounded almost to the tops of the hay ricks. It was supposed to provide comfort and warmth but everyone knew it was there for stuffing down another guy’s collar or to throw at the girls.
A singalong was part of every hayride but usually faded out after about two songs. By then, all pretence of riding nicely along would have disappeared. Girls squealed as handfuls of hay were rubbed into their hair. Yells filled the air and a full-fledged hay fight would break out.
Inevitably some of the more daring boys would hop off the sleigh, grab the end board and hunker down on their heels to hitch a ride, hoping to impress the girls who really weren’t watching anyway.
By the time the sleigh ride was over merrymaking would have worn thin. Hay itched and mittens were soaked. But there would be hot chocolate and cookies inside. There would be talk about when the next hayride would be, when you’d do exactly the same things all over again.
No matter what the outdoor activity was, there would be a bonfire nearby. One as big as possible, from a pile of twigs and wood pilfered from the family woodpile, to a monster that roared and crackled and spit sparks that showed up later as small round holes in your new snow pants.
Through the years, no matter where it is or how big the bonfire, everyone does the traditional Cariboo bonfire dance. You roast one side, turn around and heat up the other. You move to another spot, trying to get away from the smoke that always follows you, and get back into the dance.
Choking on smoke, boot edges smouldering, dodging sparks while one side freezes and the other steams…it doesn’t get any better.