“Waiting for a Chinook”

A warm wind that blows in from the east and melts all the snow is called a chinook wind. Sunday’s wind was a chinook. In eight hours our foot and a half of snow disappeared. (DH stood at the window watching glumly.)

I have been re-reading a history of cattle ranching in the West. The Montana frontier had been promoted as “40 million acres of free grazing” and in the 1870s cattlemen and speculators rushed to stock it with increasingly huge herds. By the 1880s most ranches ran thousands of cattle. It was the heyday of the cowboy. There were no fences, just miles of open grassland.

In 1886 a twenty-two-year-old named Charlie Russell was working as a ranch hand wrangling cattle on the O-H ranch when Montana was hit by the worst winter in decades. An arctic storm front moved in, keeping temperatures at 20 below zero for weeks. Starving cattle searching for food and water drifted in the blizzards and froze to death. Literally hundreds of thousands of animals perished (the winter would later be called “The Big Die-Up.”)

Hearing of the dreadful conditions the absentee owner of the O-H cabled to his foreman, asking about his herd. Instead of writing a long letter, the foreman sent back a postcard-sized watercolor painted on the bottom of a cardboard box by the young ranch hand. The watercolor showed a lone, starving, hollow-eyed steer, humped in the cold, with wolves circling.

The boy Charlie wrote on it, “Waiting for a Chinook (The Last of the 5000).”

In the future Charles M. Russell would become one of the most famous painters of the West. Meanwhile the hard winter of 1886-87 changed cattle ranching forever. The open range was fenced and cattlemen began farming hay to feed their stock over the winter.

Our chinook wind brought less than a twenty-four-hour break in the cold. It was snowing again by yesterday afternoon.

By this morning we have six inches of new snow and we are due to get three to five inches more today. It is 5° F.

Nevertheless my cattle are reasonably happy. Not only do they have hay and heated water provided, but at night they have a snug barn with room service!

4 Responses to “Waiting for a Chinook”

  1. Rae says:

    That was fascinating! My mom and her guy love this sort of history. I’ll have to share this with them. Fabulous post!

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Thanks so much, Rae. One of my favorite jobs ever was teaching American history. Tell your mom that when the chinook finally arrived in Montana in the spring of 1887, the snow ebbed away to reveal carcasses piled everywhere. That year is still known in Montana history as the Hard Winter.

  2. Susanna says:

    That’s a great picture of Moxie and Duke! What a sweet little cow family.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Thank you! Aren’t they dear? My cow friends have an expression, “Cows are like potato chips,” meaning you can’t have just one. Some folks suffer terribly from CALPC! Luckily I seem to have a mild case. The boys come and go regularly but Moxie is my only real succumbing.

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