Pa was shaking his head. “We’re going to have a hard winter,” he said, not liking the prospect.
“Why, how do you know?” Laura asked in surprise.
“The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses,” Pa told her. “I never saw a heavier-built muskrats’ house than that one.”
Laura looked at it again. It was very solid and big. But the sun was blazing, burning on her shoulders through the faded, thin calico and the hot wind was blowing, and stronger than the damp-mud smell of the slough was the ripening smell of grasses parching in the heat. Laura could hardly think of ice and snow and cruel cold.
“Pa, how can the muskrats know?” she asked.
“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”
“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” Laura wanted to know.
“Because,” said Pa, “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”
The Long Winter, Chapter 1: Make Hay While the Sun Shines
In the Long Winter, Pa and Laura look at a muskrat house and Pa reveals that it will be a hard winter because the muskrat house walls are so thick. It was remarkable enough that Pa went to have a closer look when they spotted it when Laura confused it for a haycock while she was helping him with the hay cutting.
That, combined with the warning in the chapter Indian Warning, helped Pa get them better prepared for winter. But how accurate is it?
In Laura’s original Pioneer Girl manuscript, she makes no mention of the muskrat house, but she does write about that the elder Indian that came into De Smet to warn the town about the upcoming severe winter.
As for muskrats, the Farmer’s Almanac does list it has a possible sign of an upcoming colder winter. However, some consider this to be folklore or an old wives tale. However, outside of the Farmer’s Almanac, and of course, the mention in The Long Winter, there does not seem to be any kind of scientific proof that correlates the thickness of the walls of muskrat houses to the severity of winter.