Entombed Chickens

What would they find when they finally unsealed the door?
Entombed Chickens

Having grown up in the North Country, I am accustomed to winter, but one particular winter became the benchmark against which I have compared all winters since.

Eight inches of new powder means great skiing, snowboarding and tobogganing in places like Vail, Colo., and Big Sky, Mont., but in places like Milnor, N.D., it means blizzards, whiteouts, blocked roads and, in this instance, entombed chickens.

With today's modern snow-moving equipment, a blocked road simply means the inconvenience of a couple of hours' work with your tractor-mounted snowblower.

During the harsh winters of the late 1940s, however, before such perceived extravagances became common, it often meant waiting days, sometimes even weeks, for the township V-plow to bull through and open up the road. If one was unlucky enough to live on a lightly traveled side road, the wait was always longer since you were low on the priority list and were the last to get plowed out.

In those days, the label "snowblower" was more closely associated with an Alberta Clipper than it was with a snow-handling device. The most common snow-handling device on farms then was a number 14 or 16 aluminum shovel that did double duty as a grain handler during harvest.

The ever-present potential of being blocked in and isolated for extended lengths of time made forecasts of approaching storms more than a passing interest for those of us who lived on remote farms. But the weather-forecasting Ouija board was even less accurate then than it is now, and storms often blew in unannounced.

Such was the case in mid-December 1948 when an unanticipated Alberta Clipper howled through the area leaving behind 8 inches of new snow on top of the several feet we already had. It piled in 4-foot-high wind-driven drifts on the roads and was hardened to near cement consistency by sustained 45-mph winds.

It blew all day and all night.

It wasn't until midmorning the next day that Dad felt it was safe enough to go outside to milk the cows and to feed them and the other animals, including the chickens.

Mom was surprised when he came back in half his usual time.

"Lois!" he exclaimed. "The chicken house has disappeared!"

"What?" my mom asked. "The winds weren't that strong."

"Well, the only thing that's left showing is the very top of the roof!" Dad exclaimed. With a twinkle in his eye, he went on to explain that the snow had piled up so high that it had completely covered the chicken house and that the only evidence of its existence was the very top of its single-slant roof peeking through the snowdrifts.

After having a hot cup of coffee to ward off the chill, Dad bundled up again and, with me by his side, set off to dig out the chicken house and free the entombed chickens.

Although the initial discovery and response had been humorous, we knew that they couldn't remain buried too long or they would run out of air or at the very least die of the concentrated ammonia fumes associated with chicken doings.

We knew that it was no use trying to dig out the entire house in snow that hard, so we busied ourselves with locating the door.

Fortunately, we found that the northwest wind had left enough space between the drifts and the south-facing front of the chicken house to allow us to look down and locate the door. Then we proceeded to tunnel down toward it, being careful to carve out steps in the hardened snow on the way, lest we reach the bottom and find ourselves without an escape route.

When we did finally reach the bottom, we looked up to see the top of the snowdrift 8 or more feet above us. We had been careful to make the spiral-shaped staircase large enough so that when we reached the bottom, we had enough room to open the door. Then, not knowing what to expect, we hesitantly cracked the door and looked inside. What we saw were the hens -- all alive, as happy as fleas on a fat dog. There they sat in their own little insulated snow igloo, basking in their nests, in an almost tropical heat.

The ammonia stench almost took our breath away, but it seemed not to bother them at all. Just to make sure, however, we propped the door open to let in fresh air while we went about the business of gathering the eggs and hauling feed and water down the newly formed snow stairs.

As I recall, we ended up using that stairway for a good part of the rest of the winter until the spring melt finally excavated the chicken house.

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