Our story begins about two hours north of the Montana state line in the hamlet of Pense, Saskatchewan, Canada. Population: 532—unless someone just had a baby.
There’s not much happening in Pense. You’re basically looking at grain elevators, prairie, and farmers. Lots and lots of farmers. Saskatchewan prairieland is the world’s third largest exporter of durum wheat. So if you’ve eaten Wonderbread or Wheaties recently, it probably came from a Saskatchewan farmer.
These are hardy people who are used to dealing with Biblical snows and hellishly freezing temperatures. Last week, for example, the lows got down to negative 29 degrees. That’s negative with an N.
Which is probably why Canadian farmers have all sorts of clever names for these brutal snowstorms.
They have the “Alberta clipper,” a machine-gun blizzard that moves across the prairie like a Messerschmitt. They have the “Manitoba mauler,” which drops about 3 inches of snow in the same amount of time it takes to trim your toenails. There’s the “Canadian cyclone,” the “Ontario scary-oh,” the “Alberta low,” and the “omigod we’re all gonna freaking die.”
And then you have the “Saskatchewan screamer.” A unique storm that comes up quickly and screams like a banshee wind.
A few nights ago, while you were snug on your sofa, a Saskatchewan screamer raked across the prairie of Pense.
And Shannon was out driving in it.
Shannon is a single mom who had just picked up some take-out for her kids and was trying to get home before the big storm hit. She sped toward Pense, her windshield wipers set to high, her hands gripping the wheel tightly.
When pavement turned into gravel, the windspeeds picked up and nearly nudged her car off the road. Visibility was zero. In a few moments, she was driving blind. The snowfall got so bad she had to stop driving and click on her hazards.
This was not good.
She leapt out of her vehicle to get her bearings. The forceful gusts blasted sand and grit into her face, disoriented her, saturated her clothes, and nearly knocked her onto the ground.
No, this was not good at all.
She crawled into her car and called 911. But—and here’s the truly terrifying part—911 was busy.
Shannon was greeted with a recorded message explaining that 911 was experiencing high call volume. (“Thank you for calling 911, your call is very important to us, please stay on the line and our next available representative…”)
“I was parked in the middle, or maybe on the edge of a road in a blizzard…” said Shannon. “Would the gas tank last until morning? What if I was hit by another vehicle? What if I fell asleep and the tailpipe was blocked? What if I didn’t make it home at all?”
So she drove onward through the avalanche until she arrived at a deep ravine. She was hopelessly lost now. The world was covered in sugar-white snow, there were no visible landmarks. It was game over.
I don’t mean to reach for melodrama, but people have died in less trying circumstances.
After crying her mascara off, in a last ditch effort Shannon used her phone to to post her GPS location onto the Pense Facebook community page. She posted that she was stranded.
Enter 80-year-old Andre.
Andre Bouvier is a farmer who was at home nearby, busy doing old-guy stuff. “Piddling,” is what my people would call it. Although the Canadians probably call it something exotically French, such as, “c’est la piddle.”
Andre’s phone rang. Someone told him about Shannon’s post on Facebook. The old man sprang into action. Then again, “sprang” might be a little too peppy of a verb for someone Andre’s age. Let’s say he tottered into action.
The old farmer tried to fire up his tractor, but the battery was dead. So he told his wife he would walk.
“Walk?” his wife said. “Through a storm?”
Andre’s elderly wife was not a fan of this idea. This was a national-newsworthy blizzard. Whereas Andre predates the Battle of Iwo Jima by approximately three years.
His wife begged him to use common sense. But this is a Saskatchewan farmer we’re talking about here. Andre’s ancestors did not make it this far into history by listening to common sense.
He bundled himself tightly, grabbed his lantern, and he walked a quarter mile into the whiteout blizzard.
“The worst part was the wind,” Andre told CBC News. “Halfway there, I had to put my mitts in front of my eyes.”
Andre was looking for Shannon in the gale, but he got more than he bargained for. He found two more stranded vehicles on the frozen tundra.
In a few minutes, the old farmer was leading seven people through the blinding squall to his house where he gave them coffee and applesauce and a place to stay for the night.
“[I] jumped into his arms,” said Shannon, “and gave him a great big bear hug. I was sobbing with gratitude. I was so grateful.”
I’ll end the story here by telling you that Andre refused to accept recognition for his effort, even though he might have saved, not just one, but seven lives.
Andre’s reaction was, Nah. “Everybody would have done the same thing,” he said. “You don’t think about it, you just do it.”
Which is exactly what you’d expect a farmer to say.