February 21, 2016

Winter Camping and the "Hundred-Mile Stare."

The view from my tent
Winter camping

It's the third day, and my hands are already looking wrinkled and cracked. It's so easy to get dehydrated.

Last night I kept zipping up my oversize Big Agnes sleeping bag more and more as drafts snuck down my back. And sometimes my feet slipped off the closed-cell foam pad, so with only some snug socks and two layers of nylon between them and the snow, they got cold.

It must have been colder than the previous night. My confact lenses froze in their case, but if I slip them in the pocket of my nylon cargo pants, they will warm up quickly.

I sit up, slip on a jacket, and pull the Nalgene water bottle out of the sleeping bag, where I put it so it would not freeze.

I pour some in a pan, click a cigarette lighter under the stove, and whoosh. Soon I will have a mug of tea to clear my head. The view from the tent door is a perfect Colorado winter day.

This is winter camping too

Your name is Sarah Graves Fosdick. You are 22 years old. Eight months ago, you married a man named Jay Fosdick, age 23. You thought that he was Mr. Right. You were happy together as the wagons crossed the Kansas prairie in the summer of 1846.

Now, just a few feet away from where you sit in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains, someone is roasting his heart on a stick over a campfire. You don't mind. You took the one usable item of clothing from his frozen body — a black silk scarf he had wound around his neck — everything else is rags — and you turned your back. In fact, you told the others, "You cannot hurt him now."

For reading, I had tucked into my pulk* a copy of The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party.



Sarah Graves Fosdick (undated)
I thought that I knew something of their story, but Brown gives it greater depth, and he goes into "rabbit trails" on such topics as the celebration of Christmas in the 1840s, the physiology of starvation, and how 19th-century people had no concept of "post-traumatic stress disorder." 

Many people perhaps assume that the Donner Party, about eighty people, after taking bad advice about a "cut-off" south of the Great Salt Lake, were snowed-in and forgotten at Truckee Lake, now called Donner Lake.

Not so. Their companions who had taken the longer, less-risky route missed them and wondered why they had not come over the mountains on time. Were they camped for the winter at Truckee Meadows (site of Reno, Nevada today)?

Actually, two members of the party had already crossed the mountains to get provisions at Sutter's Fort and take them back to the main group.

When the heavy snow of that El Niño winter came early, the Anglo pioneers already living in this area near today's Sacramento organized several relief expeditions, but initially found it impossible to bring horses and mules through four then six then eight feet of snow. Rescuers had to travel by snowshoe.

Relief parties did reach the stranded pioneers, although for some it was too late. Men carried small children for days on their backs, and some of those children lived well into the 20th century.

Sarah's father, Franklin Graves, age about 57, was a frontier farmer. He was a skillful man, and he knew about snowshoes from his boyhood in Vermont. He split the wooden wagon bows to make snowshoe frames, and the women cut strips from the hides of the oxen they had eaten and wove the webbing and made harnesses — fifteen pairs in all.

The "snowshoe party" was one of several breakout attempts from the famished camp on the eastern slope. It was successful, sort of.

Fifteen of the fittest people, including Sarah, Franklin, and Jay, started out. (Two of them were Miwok Indians who worked for John Sutter of Gold Rush fame, whom he had sent east to meet the travelers earlier, along with supplies.) There were nine men, five women, and a boy.

They left the lake on December 16th, struggling with unfamiliar gear in fresh powder snow. They were slammed with more bad weather as they topped the range. The sun shone on the alpine landscape, and they had no protection against snow blindness. Progress was slower then they had planned, and their provisions ran out.

Their guide — one of the two emigrants who had already crossed over and come back — was suffering snowblindness and exhaustion. Eventually he sat down to smoke his pipe and refused to get up. They went on without him. (His bones were found later, at the spot where he smoked his last tobacco.)

They missed the route — the wagon tracks were buried under snow — ending up in the canyon of the North Fork of the American River.

Out of their home country, the two Miwoks were as lost as the others. Antonio, one of Sutter's vacqueros who had been sent to aid them, was also lost.

Franklin Graves died during a storm, urging Sarah and her sister to push on for the sake of their mother and siblings back at the camp. Another of the party, an Irishman named Patrick Dolan, died the next day, as did Antonio, followed soon by the 13-year-old boy.

The cannibalism began. Carrying more flesh for provisions, they pushed on. Eventually they could travel without snowshoes, but they had to fight through manzanita brush and mud.

One man killed a deer, but it was not enough. Jay Fosdick, weak and falling behind, heard the gunshot but was too feeble to catch up. Sarah stayed with him as he died during the night.

It was mid-January when the survivors (two men, five women) came to a settlement, and mid-February before the "First [Successful] Relief Party" in turn reached the camps at Truckee Lake. And the saga was far from over.

People talk about combat soldiers displaying the "thousand-yard stare." Not to say anything against them, but I think that Sarah and her companions in the "snowshoe party" must have had "hundred-mile stares."

A young Engishwoman living in California met Sarah and the other snowshoe survivors and wrote, "I shall never forget the looks of those people, for the most part of them was crazy & their eyes danced & sparkled in their heads like stars."

Yet they carried on.


• • •
Brown's writing is restrained. He lets the Donner Party speak for themselves, but diary entries and letters are often so terse that it is hard to say whether their style reflects hunger and fatigue or just a controlled habit of mind. What he offers is not speculation but context for their suffering.**

The Indifferent Stars Above is meticulously documented, and Brown traveled much of the party's route from Illinois to Bear Valley, California. Oddly, it lacks maps, but you can find those online.

If, like me, you thought you knew the general story of the Donner Party, you will get much more from reading it.

 * Pulk: a human-drawn transport sled, from the Finnish pulkka.

** As the emigrants struggled in the snows, Sir John Franklin's two doomed ships were icebound looking for the Northwest Passage. No one was expecting him to return until at least 1848, however, so they were not yet a subject for concern.

2 comments:

Galen Geer said...

Excellent blog entry, really excellent.

Thomas Venney said...

Thanks