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True Winter Tales

Winter at the Sam Waller Museum by Joanna Reid

To celebrate the holidays and give you inspiration for our current creative nonfiction competition, we are presenting seven of our favourite stories from last year's True Winter Tales challenge. 

In today's story, a winter visit to the Sam Waller Museum in The Pas takes a teacher on a journey through time.

Frogs_photo.jpg Image courtesy of the Sam Waller Museum 

Entering The Pas regional airport from the snowy, blustery tarmac, you find in a display case two frogs, dried and stuffed, carrying a third frog on a stretcher. Frog Stretcher Bearers reads the panel, so frank and self-evident that you look around, feeling that you've missed something. The taxidermist's whimsy - his moment of inspiration, his quiet laughter as he assembled the pieces - is not recoverable. But there is a clue; you can still learn something about where you are. The panel reads "Courtesy of the Sam Waller Museum." 

When I moved to The Pas to teach geography, another teacher said that if the unique characters of the town were buildings, Sam Waller would be a skyscraper. An Englishman, a former soldier, Sam moved to The Pas in 1939, where he taught at the Big Eddy school and developed a vast collection of animal species and curios that would become his "Little Museum." Most famous is the two-headed calf, but the children who visit also remember the dressed fleas; under a microscope, the bugs appear in bride and groom outfits.

When it gets cold, I am drawn to the top floor of the Sam Waller Museum, sharing the warm, quiet space with two other women: the museum director and curator. They give me paper towels to mop up the puddles of melted snow from my boots. From a temperature-controlled room, the curator retrieves file boxes: Sam's papers for me to read. The building used to be the town courthouse and in the basement - near a kitchen where the women drink afternoon tea with chocolate biscuits - three jail cells remain.

I read Sam's diaries of Moose Factory, his life before The Pas. In 1925, after a thick frost, the men at the Hudson Bay Company pick potatoes and children glean the leftovers, selling them for three cents a pound. In late October, there is hail and fog. "We had a heavy fall of snow," Sam writes in one entry. "Snow all day," he writes in another. "Very cold and raw." After the bay freezes, mail arrives by sled team. The boys from the school teach Sam to hunt; one cold day, after following fox tracks into the forest, a small boy named Willie shoots five birds with five shots. Sam's face freezes. One afternoon Sam goes to the Company headquarters and sees a tall stack of seal skins just arrived from Whale River. There, too, on the radio, he hears a clock strike - it's Big Ben, far away in London. At home, by the fire, Sam reads David Copperfield.

In my mind, the settlement glows eerily real - jagged sea ice in the bay, small wooden houses, the Company's clapboard offices. Grey light. Fences look like toothpicks in the vast white land. Meanwhile, outside the Sam Waller Museum, the temperature drops with nightfall. I'm living two winters at once. And when my car will not start because of the cold, the curator gives me a ride home.

Find out more about our creative nonfiction competition.

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