MOST nights dropped to 20 or 30 below zero; 40 below some nights. Days hadn't been above 20 degrees for two weeks or more, when Jim came up to see us. My wife Laura and I had talked about cutting ice from the river to use for keeping our food cool during the summer. In the barn north of the house is a room where grain used to be stored, when horses were used for most of the work on the ranch. The barn is little used now, and the grain room isn't used at all. The room is sturdily built, with an air space between its floor and the ground, and sunshine never touches it. I had said that it would be an ideal place to store ice. I had gathered sawdust from logs we brought into the corral as part of an order for houselogs, culled in favor of better logs, and cut into firewood lengths. It wasn't nearly enough sawdust, but it was a beginning. I was content with that and prepared to sit around and visit with Jim, maybe play a game of chess.
But Laura wasn't content with that. She had to get containers to freeze ice in, get them to my mother's freezer in Sumpter, pick the ice up when she was in town, and get it into the disabled freezer we used in lieu of a real icebox for our electricity-less house. She didn't feel secure about next summer's ice, and she was ready for action.
She said, ``Jim, would you be willing to help Jon cut ice from the river and store it in the barn?''
``Sure would. My saw's in the pickup, ready to run.''
I said, ``I don't have anywhere near enough sawdust.''
Laura said, ``By the time you get enough sawdust, will there be any ice on the river?''
Jim said, ``We could drive down to Baker and see if they'll give us a pickup load at the mill.''
I could see chess and sitting and visiting were iced out. I didn't know if I was ready, but I decided it was better to go willingly than to be dragged along protesting, so Jim and I visited on the way to Baker and back. They did give us sawdust and even loaded it with a machine. The sawdust was damp, and that isn't the best insulation, but Laura was right. If I waited until everything was ideal, the river would be running warm, and daytime temperatures would be in the 80s and 90s. Damp sawdust beats no sawdust.
We shoveled about a foot of sawdust onto the floor of the grain room and left my pickup, with the rest of the sawdust still in it, there.
The next morning, we cut ice. Scott had two sets of ice tongs that he kept for their antique value, and while Jim drove up to see if he could borrow those, I got my saw ready. He came back with the tongs. I loaded my tools, and we drove down to the river through two feet of snow.
We walked on the ice. I said, ``This is deep through here. If we stay where it's deep, we won't cut gravel and mess up a chain. We need to empty the oil tanks. Water will lubricate the chains enough, and we don't want to put oil in the river.''
Mike walked in the pickup tracks through the snow to the river. ``You guys going to cut some ice?''
``I'll help you if you want me to.''
``The more help the better. We'd appreciate it.''
``Okay. We have to mark the surface. Then we have to build supports for the saws, so the bar goes 90 degrees from the surface. I'll need a straight-edge 8 or 10 feet long and a square.'' Mike had worked with Gene, cutting ice from a pond that Gene built in his yard. Gene is a precision worker in all projects.
I told Mike, ``This is just ice. I'm not going to build anything with it. Precise measurements don't matter in this project. If it bothers you not to have the blocks all exactly the same size, then Jim and I will handle it, and thanks for the offer anyway.''
``They have to be exact. That's the way we have to do it, because....''
Jim and I both yanked cords and the saws started. Jim cut north to south. I started at his starting point and cut west. He came back and cut two more sides. He cut a piece from the edge of the main surface, and I pulled that piece out and pushed it aside, and we had room to get the tongs onto the bigger piece.
When I looked around, there was Mike, the other pair of tongs in hand, moving in toward the floating block. I thought, ``Good man. Even if we won't argue it out, you'll still work.'' I didn't say anything, because Jim was cutting the next block, and his saw was making the only conversation there would be for a while.
It took everything Mike and I had to get that block up onto the surface. Once we did, I tried to lift it. Jim saw the problem and adjusted his cuts, so by the third block, we had them of manageable size, somewhere around 75 pounds.
Jim cut most of the ice. Mike pulled it out of the water and slid it over to me. I loaded it onto the pickup. We tried not to get wet, but we did lug some ice around where water froze on our clothes.
Mike dropped out after the third load and went home with thanks and an invitation for lunch and dinner soon, and Jim and I went back for the last load and put it in the grain room just before dark. We took the roof boards off in the morning and finished putting sawdust around the sides and over the top of the ice.
``Well, Jim said, ``I'd best get on down the road.''
``Thanks Jim. Don't forget to get up here next summer and help us eat some of the food this ice keeps from spoiling.''
And he didn't forget. He did get up there.
I dug ice out of the sawdust all through the hot summer and covered it up again, until I took the last of it in early September. By that time, the 75 pound blocks had melted down to less than 10 pounds, and by that time, I'd found an affordable propane-powered refrigerator to keep our food cool. But even if Laura had to push a little, I wouldn't trade that experience for electric refrigerators for anything.