A Story From: Canada
Read Time: 10 to 15 mins.
For Ages: 5 to 10yrs.
Before any humans walked the earth, when the world was the land of the animals, a very long winter set in. The sun did not come out for three years. The air was always dark. Thick clouds hung low and covered the sky. It snowed all the time.The animals were suffering very much from this long winter. The lack of food was alarming enough, and the lack of heat made it all absolutely unbearable. They became greatly frightened.
The animals called for a grand council to be held. All the beasts, birds, and fishes of all sizes and shapes were invited. At the grand gathering, as the animals looked about, they realized that one creature in all the animal world was missing: Bear. Then they realized that no one had seen any bears for three years.
All the animals quickly agreed that the most important thing to do was to find out what had become of the heat, for without heat their sufferings would never end. Yes, the heat must be found! And it must be brought back again. They decided several quick and brave animals would go on a search mission to the upper world. That’s where they suspected the heat had been taken. These are the animals chosen for the mission: Lynx, Fox, Wolf, Wolverine, Mouse, Pike (a freshwater fish), and Dogfish (a kind of small shark–dogfish is a funny name for a shark, isn’t it?). After much traveling far and wide through the air, the group finally found the hidden doorway that opened to the upper world. Excited, they all climbed upward to the world above.
After exploring the upper world for some time, they saw a lake. By the lake burned a campfire with a tipi beside it. By the tipi were two young bears. They asked the cubs where their mother was, and were told she was off hunting. Inside the tipi, a number of big, round bags were hanging up. The animal visitors pointed to the first bag and asked the cubs, “What is in this bag?”
“That,” they said, “is where our mother keeps the rain.”
“And what is in this one?” the animals said, pointing to the second bag.
“That,” the cubs answered, “is the wind.”
“And this one?”
“That is where mother keeps the fog.”
“And what may be in this next bag?” said the animals.
“Oh, we cannot let you know that,” said the cubs, “for our mother told us it was a great secret, and if we tell, she will be very angry and will bop us on our heads when she returns.”
“Oh, don’t be afraid,” said the fox. “You can tell us. She will never know.”
Then the cubs whispered, “That is the bag where she keeps the heat.”
“Aahh …” said the visitors. They glanced at one another, and stammered their good-byes. Outside the tipi, they rushed to a hidden spot and held a quick council. Their first agreement was once, as the mother bear might return at any time. This they did, and found a safer spot to hide. The next topic was more difficult. How to capture the bag with the heat?
“We need to distract the old mother bear somehow,” said Fox.
“I know!” said Lynx. “I’ll change myself into a deer on the other side of the lake.”
“Good idea!” said Wolverine. “The mother bear will see you across the lake and she’ll want to hunt you. She’ll have to paddle her canoe across the lake, and that will give us time to get the bag with the heat.”
“Better yet,” squeaked Mouse, “I’ll chew a deep cut in the bear’s paddle near the blade, so it will take her even longer to canoe across.”
“Yes, yes!” cried the others.
So Lynx went around to the other side of the lake and turned into a deer. Now as a Deer, he wandered near the edge of the lake to attract Bear’s attention. In the meantime, Mouse scrambled into Bear’s canoe and chewed a deep cut in the handle of her paddle close to the blade. The others hid near Bear’s tipi.
When one of the bear cubs saw the supposed deer across the lake he cried out, look at the deer on the opposite shore!” The old mother Bear immediately jumped into her canoe and paddled toward it. Deer walked slowly along the beach pretending not to see the canoe, so as to tempt Bear to paddle up close to him. Then all at once Deer doubled about and ran the opposite way. Old Bear threw her whole weight on the paddle to make it go faster, and the paddle broke suddenly where Mouse had gnawed it. The force of Bear’s weight threw her into the water. The other animals were watching the hunt from the other side, and as soon as they saw the mother Bear floundering in the water, they ran into the tipi and pulled down the bag containing the heat. One at a time, they tugged the bag through the air toward the opening to the lower world from where they had come.
They hurried to get back to the opening as fast as they could, but the bag was very large, and none of them was able to keep up the pace for long. Whenever one tired out, another would take the bag, and in this way they hastened along as quickly as they could, for they knew that the old mother Bear would soon get ashore and return to her tipi, and that when she did she would discover the missing bag. Then she’d be furious and follow their footprints to catch them! Sure enough, the old mother Bear was soon in hot pursuit, and had almost overtaken the animals when they spied just up ahead the opening to the world below. By this time the stronger animals were all so tired, they could hardly move at all. Now Dogfish (the small shark) took the bag and pulled it along a good way, and finally Pike (the freshwater fish) managed to inch it along some more.
At that very moment, Bear lurched toward them. All the animals together pushed the bag until it tipped through the hole to the lower world and they each jumped in after it to safety, just in time. As soon as the bag dropped to the world below, it broke and all the heat crammed inside the bag rushed out. Warmth spread at once to all parts of the world and quickly thawed the ice and snow. Flood waters ran high for many weeks, but then the waters subsided. The trees and bushes and flowers which had been covered by ice grew green leaves once more, and springtime bloomed anew. From that time till now, the world has always seen a warm season returning after a cold one, just as we see it today.
"The Long Winter" is based on a story in an article called "Legends of the Slavey Indians of the MacKenzie River" from the Journal of American Folklore, Volume 14, 1901, pp.26-28.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. © 1998. All rights reserved.
This story is sourced to the Slavey Native Americans, a tribe that still occupies harsh & cold northwestern Canada. This story comes from the area around the MacKenzie River.