Tall Tales: The Big Freeze

Folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 1967
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2022

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.


  1. Frozen in the Saddle (Germany).

  2. Baron Munchhausen in Poland (England / Germany).

  3. Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Deep Snow (North America).

  4. Keeping Paul Bunyan's Bunk Houses Warm (North America).

  5. The Winter of the Blue Snow (North America).

  6. A Big Snow (Idaho).

  7. The Great Snowfall (Native American -- Alaska / British Columbia).

  8. Link to Tall Tales: Frozen Sounds. Folktales of type 1889F.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Frozen in the Saddle


A locksmith at Cannstatt told how when he was a young journeyman a nobleman had given him a horse that he was to ride to Hohenurach. It was Saint Nicholas' Day [December 6] and bone-chilling cold. Almost no one had ventured out into the frost.

Arriving at Hohenrauch, the locksmith attempted to dismount at the stables, but he was frozen fast in the saddle. He could neither separate himself from the saddle nor step out of the stirrups.

Finally the servants decided to pick up him and the saddle together, carry them inside, and set them behind the stove to thaw out, so that he would be able to return home on foot. He sat in the saddle with his feet in the stirrups behind the stove for more than five hours before he had thawed out. Only then was he able to return to Stuttgart where he related what had happened to him.

Baron Munchausen in Poland

England / Germany

I set off from home on my journey to Russia, in the midst of winter, from a just notion that frost and snow must of course mend the roads, which every traveller had described, as uncommonly bad through the northern parts of Germany, Poland, Courland, and Livonia. I went on horseback, which, provided mare and rider are in order, is the most convenient manner of travelling.

I was but lightly cloathed, of this, I felt the inconvenience, the the more I advanced northeast. What must not a poor old man have suffered in that severe weather and climate, whom I saw on a bleak common, in Poland, lying on the road, helpless, shivering, and hardly having wherewithall to cover his nakedness. I pitied the poor soul. Though I felt exceedingly cold myself, I threw my mantle over him and immediately I heard a voice from the heavens, blessing me for that piece of charity, saying, "I'll be damned my son if I do not reward it in time."

I went on: Night and darkness overtook me. No village was to be seen. The country was covered with snow, and I was unacquainted with the roads.

Tired I alighted at last, and fastened my horse to something of a pointed stump of a tree, which appeared above the snow. For the sake of safety I took my pistols under my arm, and lay down in the snow, not far off, where I slept so soundly, that I did not open my eyes till it was full daylight.

Great was my astonishment now, to find myself in the midst of a village, lying in the church-yard. Nor was my horse to be seen, but I heard him soon after neigh, somewhere above me. On looking upwards I beheld him tied and hanging to the weather-cock of the steeple. Matters were now very plain to me: The village had been covered with snow that night; a sudden change of weather had taken place; I had sunk down to the church-yard whilst asleep, gently, and in the same proportion as the snow had melted away, and what in the dark I had taken to be a stump of a little tree appearing above the snow, to which I had tied my horse, proved to have been the cross or weather-cock of the steeple.

Without long consideration I took one of my pistols, shot off the halter, brought down the horse and proceeded on my journey.

Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Deep Snow

North America

The Winter of the Deep Snow everything was buried. Paul had to dig down to find the tops of the tallest White Pines. He had the snow dug away around them and lowered his sawyers down to the base of the trees. When the tree was cut off he hauled it to the surface with a long parbuckle chain to which Babe, mounted on snowshoes, was hitched. It was impossible to get enough stove pipe to reach to the top of the snow, so Paul had Big Ole make stovepipe by boring out logs with a long six-inch auger.

The year of the Two Winters they had winter all summer and then in the fall it turned colder. One day Big Joe set the boiling coffeepot on the stove and it froze so quick that the ice was hot. That was right after Paul had built the Great Lakes and that winter they froze clear to the bottom. They never would have thawed out if Paul had not chopped out the ice and hauled it out on shore for the sun to melt. He finally got all the ice thawed but he had to put in all new fish.

Keeping Paul Bunyan's Bunk Houses Warm

North America

It was a large and irksome task to keep the bunk houses warm. The main house took 36 cords of wood to heat it for a day. Paul had his efficiency expert, Copper Boilerson, study the problem. One cold night he hit on a plan that saved Paul from worry the rest of the year as far as the heating problem was concerned. He fired up the stoves and got them red hot. Then he froze them that way and thus preserved them red hot for the entire winter.

This new scheme pleased Paul very much. He decided to use it in another way. One night when it was very cold he went out and gave the commands for the spring drive. The words froze as they left his mouth, and when the spring came and it came time for the drive there was no need of giving any commands for the drive. The words that Paul had repeated in the winter were thawed out, and the men heard them as clearly as when Paul gave them himself.

The Winter of the Blue Snow

North America

One of the worst winters I ever put in with Paul -- or anywhere, for that matter -- was the winter of the Blue Snow. It was so cold that winter that the loggers all swore blue streaks, and the snow all turned blue -- came down blue in the first place, and then turned bluer after it touched the ground, too. The women down in the settlements used to use a little of it for blue in their blue-water, and whenever cows happened to get some of it along with the dry grass they was eatin', they gave blue milk.

It was sure a pretty sight too, though you couldn't hardly forget the cold long enough to stop and look at it. Blue, blue everywhere, as far as the eye could see, stretchin' along to the west in the open places, and in the woods around the trees, a little mound around each one with just a little hole in the middle around where the tree was.

The two Joe Murphys -- brothers -- one of 'em named Pete -- had the job of holdin' up the skylines in camp that winter, and I used to help 'em sometimes -- so I seen a good deal of the snow -- more'n my share, likely.

It was a hard job we had, for the snow was so nearly the same color as the sky, that you couldn't hardly tell sometimes where one left off and the other begun -- like the time we was layin' out the ice-road round a big hill in order to get away from the grade. We'd been workin' for about a week or so, and then all of a sudden one mornin' we come out and the hill was all gone, and all it'd been was a big cloud we'd been tryin' to work around. And that way it was hard all right, and walkin' around in it up over our shoes and rubbers every day wasn't what you might call comfortable neither.

And there was the snow-snakes -- that was the worst of it that winter. All over the ground, no matter where you went, there was them snakes crawlin' around, and you couldn't hardly get away from them, for they'd coil up and jump at you if you wasn't careful and a bite was almost always sure death. Freeze to death, naturally -- and then the only thing that could save you was a good drink of whisky if that happened to be handy. Otherwise you was done for and you had to learn to be more careful another time.

And the little pesky frost-biters up in the hills was pretty bad, too, though not quite so bad as the snakes -- but they'd worry you a lot more.

It was sure cold that winter. It was so cold that the words froze in our mouths when we tried to talk and Paul had to send to England for a frozen word interpreter. Some of the combinations that come out that spring when they begun to thaw out -- I tell you, you'd know then what somebody thought of you, all right.

One fellow that talked an awful lot the words froze so thick around him that Paul finally had to get the Blue Ox to haul him out at last. And the green bull-cooks froze in their tracks every time Paul spoke to 'em.

Yes, and it was cold inside, in the cook-shanty and the bunkhouse, too. If I had 'em here, I could get twenty men to swear if I could get one, that the coffee that was served in camp that winter used to be froze stone cold before the flunkies could get half way down the tables with it. Though, for that matter, that wasn't no uncommon thing other winters. And the icicles on the beards used to be pretty near as long some of the other winters, too -- it wasn't so very different in that respect.

One mornin' Paul was goin' to town and he went to make him some hot coffee before he started out, and I'll be blamed if he didn't find the coffee-pot froze solid to the back of the stove, and even Paul couldn't budge it.

Ice froze so fast that winter, it froze warm and was too hot to handle. And Lake Superior froze solid to the bottom. In the spring Paul had to haul the ice all up on the shore to thaw it out, and then he had to re-stock the lake with new fish.

I know myself -- just to show how cold it was -- from actual experience; I was sittin' by the stove one evenin' takin' off my shoes. When I went to get up to hang up my socks, I wasn't able to make it without the bench I had been sittin' on follerin' me stuck tight. And what'd happened was, somebody'd spilled water on it before I sat down, and it had froze solid to the seat of my pants, and stuck there till I could get some of the boys to pry it off of me. That's how cold it was in the bunkhouse actually that winter.

And all that time I'd been sittin' right up close to the stove as close as I could get, and pretty near roastin' on the front of me; for there was a big fire burnin' so the stove-pipe was red up to the roof pretty near.

We had to have a lot of whisky in camp that winter of the Blue Snow, naturally, for, like I said, that was the only remedy that would help in case of a bite from the snow-snakes. And you'd have to get it quick too -- you couldn't stand to stand around and wait for it very long.

And so Paul -- he was pretty nice about anythin' like that and tried to take good care of his men always -- had a big trough put up, and that was kept full all the time, and a dipper hangin' by always handy, but even that wasn't enough. There used to be so many around all the time, and then besides it was hard to get the supply to fill the barrel, and Paul didn't hardly know what to do.

"I don't know where to get any more from," he says.

But then finally something happened one day that helped him out.

You see there was a fellow in camp that time called Sour-Face Murphy. And he was sour -- sour enough to turn anythin'. And one day one of the cookees was peelin' a mess of spuds in the sink.

He was pretty near through and was just goin' to take 'em out, when he seen all of a sudden the whole mess of peelin's turnin' sour. And he looked up to see what had happened, and there was Sour-Face Murphy standin' in the door, and that's what'd done it.

Well, he fished the peelin's all out, and there in the bottom of the sink was twenty gallons of whisky as good as you'd ever want to get. And so Sam, the cook, went and told Paul about it, and Paul, who'd been wantin' to get some whisky from some wheres, and anyway was always lookin' for new and better improvements to use in camp, took Sour-Face off the load gang right away and turned him into camp distillery, and so we had all the whisky we ever wanted or had any kind of use for after that. And then the snow-snake trouble was better too, so there wasn't any more casualties that I know of, the last part of the winter.

One way that the men protected themselves from the cold was by raisin' long beards. Good growths of beard was pretty generally the style in the loggin' camps any time, but that winter of the Blue Snow they was extra long. They was so long that they covered the men pretty near all the way from the chin to the toes. The ends the men tucked in their boots, one half in each felt boot, sittin' generally on the edge of their bunks to do it. Some of 'em got 'em in too tight and then there was danger of makin' themselves humpbacked, but that wasn't dangerous to most, because they was too long, the beards, I mean. Out in the woods the wind used to whistle through 'em, so you couldn't hardly tell whether it was the beards or the tops of the pine trees that made that singin' that you heard.

In the spring when the weather got warm and they didn't need their beards for protection no more, and they was gettin' in the way anyway, the men had 'em all cut off. We used our axes for the first few cuts -- course they had to be sharpened up good -- and that way they could do it for each other -- and then to finish up the job we went at it the reggelar way with razors.

Of course that don't mean Paul. He couldn't never use a common size razor, naturally -- a good sharp scythe is what he always used. The whiskers that was cut off was all stacked up in haystacks, and Paul sent down for somebody to come up and make him a price, and one of the McAdam Mattress Company's men come up and dickered for and bought the whole lot.

I don't know why the whiskers growed so good that winter unless it was the cold. Fur animals always has thicker fur in cold winters than in mild ones. And then the whisky the men drunk might of done somethin' to it -- they naturally always spilled a good deal.

Well, that was the Winter of the Blue Snow, but I mustn't forget the Spring of the Deep Mud that come after it, for where the snow'd been six foot deep that winter, the mud, that spring, was sixty times six foot, like the Good Book says. And the ice-roads stood up twenty foot out of a lake of mud a on each side.

That's the way them ice-roads was, though, generally. Built of solid ice that way and packed down good, they wouldn't melt down near so fast as the snow on the sides, and in the spring pretty near always they'd be standin' up high that way, long after most of the other snow and sleddin' was all gone.

A warm day come about the middle of April that year and the soft snow melted away in just about a single day.

There'd been a crust up on top of it -- a January thaw we'd had, and then a stiff freeze right after it so the crust'd formed, and most of the skiddin' that winter had been done up on that crust. And so when it melted away quick like that in the spring, in the places where the snow'd been deepest, the skid sleds was standin' right up in the treetops the next mornin'.

And then it kept right on thawin' the next few days and I tell you the mud there got to be along that loggin' road was somethin' awful. By one of the crossin's, especially.

One of the teamsters was comin' by there with a load just about dark one evenin' and he slipped in right by the crossin', and it wasn't but a minute or two till he was all covered over way up to the cattle's noses.

Another teamster, about two miles further back on the road, heard their last bellow that they made, and so hurried up to help 'em.

This teamster pried the cattle's head out of the mud and got a chain around one of 'em's horns and hitched onto that and started to haul.

"Hold on there, Ed," he hollered, "I can get you out all right."

But of course you might know what happened was, when he was tryin' to haul crosswise that way, and the road slippery like it was, he slid off into the mud hole on the other side. But that automatically helped the first one out, of course, and he started to haul the other fellow out, but then he slipped in again a second time, naturally, and I don't know how long that would of kept up and they might be goin' yet, see-sawin' back and forth that way, but Brimstone Bill happened to come along just then leadin' the Blue Ox, and he hitched onto the chain halfway between the two other yokes of cattle, and so hauled ' em both down the loggin ' road and into camp.

A Big Snow

USA (Idaho)

There have been deep winters in Idaho. In one, many years ago, some shepherds pitched camp for the night after rounding their sheep into a group, and awoke the next morning to discover that it had snowed foot upon foot. To their consternation the sheep were gone.

"But look," said one, pointing to a thousand small mounds over the landscape.

And so it was: the sheep had all been snowed under and now seemed to be about the size of pillows under the snow.

The Great Snowfall

Native American (Alaska / British Columbia)

Once upon a time a number of families of the wolf clan and of the eagle clan lived in a village at Sqamgō'ns, in Portland Channel. Near by there was a village of grizzly bear men. [These were men. It is not quite clear if they were men of a grizzly bear clan, or if the story happened at the time when all animals were still men.]

They attacked the village, and killed everybody with the exception of one boy and one girl of each of the two clans. They were crying all the time when they saw their relatives killed. Then one of the grizzly bear men went to their hut, and threatened to kill them if they should not stop crying. But one of the boys took his bow and arrow and shot the man in the chest, thus killing him. After this had happened, they dug a deep ditch in their hut, and buried all their relatives who had been killed.

They left the place of these misfortunes and went down the mountains. After some time they reached a house, in which they found an old, old man who had been left by his friends to die alone.

He said to them: "Stay here until I die, my grandchildren, and bury me when I am dead."

They stayed, and he asked them why they had left their country. When they had told him, he asked them to return, because salmon were nowhere as plentiful as in the river on which their house had stood.

He also warned them, saying: "The sky is full of feathers. Take good care to provide yourself with plenty of meat, and build a strong house."

He was a great shaman, and was able to foresee the future.

After two days he died. The young people buried him. Then they started to return to their home in obedience to what the shaman had told them. They followed a river, and when they were near its source they saw an immense herd of mountain goats coming down towards them. They did not stop to shoot them, but ran right up to them and dispatched them, cutting their throats with their knives. Then they went back to the camp in which they had left the girls, taking along only a kid that they had killed. They threw some of its meat and tallow into the fire, as a sacrifice to the dead shaman who had directed them to return home.

On the following day they moved their camp to a hill which was located in the midst of three lakes. There they built a strong hut as directed by the shaman. The two girls went out to fetch the meat of the mountain goats. While they were drying it, the boys strengthened the poles of the house, joined them with stout thongs, and thus prepared for a heavy snowfall. They put the meat into the house.

On the following day the snow began to fall. They lived on the meat of the mountain goats, but they sacrificed as much to the dead shaman as they ate. It continued to snow for two months. They could not go out to gather wood for their fire, but they had to burn the bones and the tallow of the goats. The smoke kept a hole open in the roof of their hut; and, when looking up, they could see no more than a very small speck of light. But after two months they saw the blue sky through this hole. The sun was shining again.

Then they dug a hole towards the surface of the snow and came out. Nothing but snow was to be seen. The rocks of the mountains and the trees were all covered. Gradually the snow began to melt a little, and the tops of the trees reappeared.

One day they saw a bear near the top of a tree. When they approached, it crawled back to its lair at the foot of the tree. Now they started on their way to their old home. After a long and difficult march, they reached it just at the time when the olachen were coming. They caught a plentiful supply and were well provided with provisions. In summer there were salmon in the river. They caught them and dried and split them. They married and had many children. They were the only people who were saved from the heavy snow, and from them descended the present generations of people.

They multiplied very rapidly, for they married very young, as dogs do. At the end of the first summer, only a small part of the snow had melted. A few rocks appeared in the mountains, but in the fall new snow began to fall. In the spring of the following year it began to melt again. The trees were gradually freed from snow, but some of it has always remained on the mountains, where it forms the glaciers.

The two couples who had been saved from the snow grew to be very old. Their hair was white, and they were bent with old age. One day the young men climbed the mountains to hunt mountain goat. One of the old men accompanied them, but he was left behind, as he could not walk as fast as the young men did.

When he had reached a meadow high up the side of the mountain he heard a voice from the interior of the rocks saying: "Here is the man who killed all our friends."

When he looked up he saw a number of mountain goats above. He did not know how to reach them, since his legs were weak. He took two sticks and tied one to each of his legs in order to steady and to strengthen them. Thus he was enabled to climb. He reached the mountain goats and cut their necks. He killed thirty. Among these was a kid. He took out its tallow and put it on his head; he cut off its head and took it under his arm to carry it home.

He had stayed away so long that his friends had given him up for lost. He told them of his adventure. He roasted the kid's head and ate it. On the following morning he was dead.

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Revised May 29, 2022.