Lenape Winter Count Story: A Lost Seneca Boy
Bye George W. Clever-----5 March 2018
Winter Count Stories are a Lenape Indian tradition. It is a time when family and friends are gathered around close to
the fire. All the people attending are trying to stay warm, fight off hunger, and stay alive until Spring’s sun brings a renewal of spirit and strength. It is difficult in these times to imagine enduring the frigid cold of the Northeast without
indoor furnace heat, hot water, and a refrigerator full of food with occasional short trips to the market. None of these things were available to the Lenape in earlier days.
I walked the cross country ski trails, feet dry in my thermos-pack
boots, warm in my down coat and gloves, filling oil torches to light trails skiers would follow in the evening. It was one of those January thaw days when the creeks feeding Little Conneautee Creek were full of snowmelt water. Fingers of fog crept
through the pine woods in low places. Tracks of grouse, deer, fox and rabbits told their story of a hunger search for any food uncovered by the early snow melt. It was here on these groomed trails night skiers would find a cross country ski adventures,
a challenge worthy of leaving warm houses and television entertainment. As skier’s skied in the semi-darkness, generational memories of winter hardship would be re-visited as they poled along the trails. It was like visiting a Civil War re-enactment
where no one dies. Skiers may ask, “what memories of life do we all possess from our DNA knowledge of generations past when winter comforts were few? Do we retain the mental directional compass needed in the woods when steady falling snow blots
out every landmark and directional memory?”
I filled the kerosene torch containers, pulled the wicks one half inch above each pot, and hurried back to the warmth of the ski lodge. Never did I expect to return to the woods again that evening
until I discovered my young helper from the Seneca Nation did not return from building ski bridges over the swollen streams. Was he was lost? Was he hurt? New falling snow began to erase all trail markers in a veil of white. His dad, Allan,
was waiting in the ski lodge seemingly unconcerned about his son’s absence. I did not want to alarm him, so I quietly gathered up my down feathered jacket, pulled on my snow pack boots, dug my insulated gloves out of the coat pockets, and closed the
lodge door. I was going out for a personal search to find my missing worker. There were four miles of cross country ski tracks to cover as I began my search for the missing young boy. No particular starting place came to mind. It was growing dark as
the sun slipped over Mt. Pleasant leaving dark shadows in its retreat. I would start at the first trail light, and put a flame to the pot wick. Each torch fire sent some light toward the next pot as I followed the ski trails on our Yamaha snowmobile. At each
trail sign, I looked for boot tracks or fresh ski tracks to give me a sign our missing worker had passed in that direction. Nothing was seen or heard at the first arrowhead trail direction sign. I gunned the engine of the snowmobile until blue smoke
billowed and puffed out of the exhaust hoping he might hear the noise. No sign of the missing kid. No call from him came as a response to the roaring snowmobile when I gunned the engine.
The next stop was at the Century Oak Tree with its ancient umbrella
of naked branches spreading wide above a small rise in the old pine forest. My flashlight and snowmobile headlight cast their beams over a dry, snow covered, snake-like creek. The torch I lighted at that stop was full of kerosene. It was reassuring to know
the torch was full. It was a good indication my missing worker had made his ‘filling the torch rounds’, at least to that point. I turned the snowmobile off, and waited as I called the missing boy’s name into the stand of dark, shadowy
trees. Like a warrior ghost from the past, he suddenly appeared at a trail opening next to the Century tree. “I heard the snowmobile” was all he said climbing on to the seat behind me as I keyed the starter on the snow machine.
In the silence of the night woods, the sound of my searching snowmobile saved him from a very cold night alone. All trail markers disappear in a snow, especially at night. I have been lost in the woods twice myself. Both times it was at night and in a snow
storm. Maybe some DNA knowledge has been lost from our gene library. Do we still have the Indian sense to never be lost in the woods? It is a good question to ask before going into the forest.
Painting by George W. Clever