I recently came across a postcard with a C.M. Russell drawing called, “Waiting for a Chinook.” It showed a bony cow in a snow storm. What is a Chinook and did the painting have a story around it?
The winter of 1886-87 was one of the worst in Montana history. Temperatures slid to 40 and 50 below zero, splitting trees wide open and freezing the ears and tails off cows. Charlie Russell was broke and out of a job, so he holed up on one of the ranches where he’d previously worked. That spring he drew a little watercolor picture of a lone cow standing hunched-up in the snow, half-starved and frozen, surrounded by wolves. He sent it to a cattle owner in Helena as a report on range conditions and titled it, “Waiting for a Chinook.”
Chinook is a Northwest Indian word meaning “snow-eater,” a warm westerly wind that can raise temperatures 50-60 degrees in a matter of hours, melting snow and exposing the grass. Later, the watercolor was widely reproduced as “The Last of the Five Thousand,” and brought early recognition to the young man who would become the greatest of the cowboy artists.