Features & Stories


Story by Trudy Frisk

Photos by J.W.

Kamloops Lake

Winter unites Canadians. Sure, we have other seasons, but they vary widely; summer may be scorching hot in B.C. but dreary cold in Ontario. Winter cold affects us all. From Bamfield to Bonavista, Cambridge Bay to Cut Bank, regardless of our gender, religion or ethnic origin, winter shapes our attitudes, influences our recreation, snarls our traffic and gives us faint hope that there is natural justice.

Coast to coast we’re faced with the same decision; excavate the white igloo in the driveway or hope that three feet of snow is insulating the car inside it.

And, nothing brings us closer to our pioneer roots than a two day power outage when a friend with a wood heater and a couple of oil lamps is a friend indeed.

Winter gives us a common language. Pineapple Express, Tropical Punch, Blue Norther, Colorado Low, are terms understood by Yukoners and Nova Scotians alike. I once tried to explain to a Florida friend the havoc of an Alberta Clipper then pummeling its way across the country. She was totally perplexed. I wonder if it’s possible to have complete rapport with someone who assumes that a Chinook Arch is just down the street from McDonald’s. Someone who, at the words, "arctic outflow", wouldn’t immediately race outside to check that the car’s block heater was plugged in. Someone who doesn’t automatically shiver at the words "White Juan", or understand "Snirt", a nasty combination of snow and dirt blowing across the prairies.

Winter is serious: avalanches, blizzards, freezing rain, ice pellets, black ice. If it’s not storming yet where you live, it soon will be. Which is why the Weather Network, with its 24/7 local, national, and international weather reports and forecasts, is the most watched TV channel in Canada.

In fact the weather network may be most positive national forum for Canadian togetherness. It offers no political or religious messages, just factual and scientific news of events which drastically affect our lives. Urban or rural, techno-expert or pencil-using Luddite, weather matters. Going to work is a lot longer commute when you have to crawl along dodging foolish drivers with their summer tires. You may have tickets for an important event, but if you have to be driven to it in an ambulance you may choose not to go. And, before setting out to visit Grandma, it’s handy to know that the road over the hills and through the woods is closed because of black ice.

In January 2005 police closed several highways into B.C., rapidly increasing populations in many small communities as hundreds of truckers settled in for the long wait. The entire province of Saskatchewan was closed to traffic for a day.

Trudy, Snowshoes and Campfire

Winter doesn’t play favourites. In fact I think one of the comforts of winter is that, no matter how bad conditions may be for you, there’s always someone across this country’s 3,847,597 miles who has it worse. Mind you, there are annoying anomalies, such as the day it was -17 in Kamloops in central B.C. and -3 in Inuvik, in the far north. "Global warming!" mutter the Inuit, who aren’t pleased about all those polar bears prowling near their settlements instead of out on the ice hunting seals.

But, generally, no Canadian, east or west, can fail to be heartened by the regularity with which storms sweep down on the mighty. A three-day snowstorm blanketing Toronto, that bastion of power and wealth, goes a long way towards softening westerner’s alienated hearts. And, at the other end of the country, nothing can be more cheering to a Haligonian digging out from a blanket of white than the evidence that those latte-lapping lotus-landers in Vancouver have finally gotten their comeuppance – 3 cm of snow-and will be too busy trying to get out of their driveways to phone and brag about their daffodils blooming.

When it’s cold and miserable and the school bus hasn’t run for two days and the horses are cranky, and the cows need lots more hay and he’s trying to get the tractor going so he can haul feed to them before chopping a hole in the ice for water; nothing brightens a rancher’s day like the 8:00 a.m. weather news showing photos of Vancouverites lining up for rock salt and performing the local version of bumper cars as they try to steer on slight inclines. As we less-favoured Canadians watch the mighty and the flighty get thumped by winter, we muse that there may be some sort of justice after all.

There’s no doubt winter influences our attitudes. A country where cautiously crossing an intersection on the green can still result in a slip, a fall and a fracture, is bound to have citizens who mistrust the smooth white surface and look warily for the slick ice beneath.

It contributes to a mingled sense of sympathy and one-upmanship. An example is a conversation among a group of people exiting an elevator one frosty day. They’d obviously been discussing the local weather, -18 with a wind chill of -26 and blowing a blizzard. "I’m from Manitoba", commented a small, wiry, older man. "In Manitoba, this would be summer!"

Winter obsesses us. One January day when I’d finished speaking to an insurance agent in Edmonton, I asked, just before hanging up, "What’s your temperature?" It was -5. I made covetous sounds, ours was -23 and falling. "Don’t be envious", she replied. "It’ll be -25 tomorrow morning. But, did you hear about Regina? It’s -50 in Regina!" We hung up and went back to our snowy worlds both feeling somehow comforted that, out in Regina, Canadians were carrying on despite the temperature, and, if they could, so could we.

It’s safe to say that, during winter in Canada, "What’s your wind chill?" is a far more effective line than the old "What’s your sign?" Leo or Scorpio, we’re all chilly.

Canadians can be cautious about snow. "As you get older, it gets deeper.", grumbled one, shoveling his drive. "Snow is a four letter word!" muttered a Maritimer after the third storm in a week.

Yet the sports at which we excel, the ones to which we’ll drive if we have to use a bulldozer, all involve ice and snow: skating, curling, ice hockey, skiing (downhill, x-country or heli). There’s the biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting. Ski and shoot, sort of a modern version of pioneer winter hunting. It’s as if we asked "What do we have a lot of? Winter? Then let’s made the most of it!"

Even non-competitive sports, snow-shoeing and snowmobiling, involve people taking risks to get into situations where they can strap on their equipment and set off into deep snow to take more chances. Hundreds of snowmobilers travel dangerous roads to the North Thompson valleys where they get suited up, roar up mountains in -30 weather and hope an avalanche doesn’t fall on them. Ever winter one seems to.

Then there’s back-country ski touring. I still remember the time a total stranger put an avalanche beacon around my neck, turned it to ‘transmit’ and told me what to do in case an avalanche thundered down the narrow Illecillewaet Valley up which we were skiing. I took a good look at his face, hoping to recognize him if I next saw him at the end of a rescue shovel.

Perhaps Canadians aren’t cautious. Possibly we just like to choose our own dangers. We’re stubborn individuals, especially when we’re cold.

Which brings me to road warnings. For some reason, the sight of a highway patrolman with his hand on a crumpled car advising people to stay off dangerous roads instantly divides Canadians into two groups; those who heed the warnings and remain safely at home; and those who regard it as a personal challenge, the equivalent of running with the bulls at Pamplona.

The latter are often found in ditches along roads with surprised looks on their faces as they realize that their four-wheel drives and SUVs slide just like lesser vehicles. Usually, before they hit the final ditch, they manage to take out a power pole, thereby impressing entire communities with their skills. Have you ever noticed, that, though a power pole presents a hittable surface about one foot wide, and there are one hundred and fifty feet between poles, the vehicle, in its last, desperate moments, heads straight into the pole? A final impulse to make some impression on the callous world? Or a last message to its driver?

What’s good about winter? Well, there’s ice-wine, of course. Typically Canadian, we now have mid-winter mountain festivals featuring this liquid gold made from grapes picked in below-zero temperature and crushed while still frozen.

And, as I say, it connects us. While waiting to cross a nasty-looking intersection, the sort where semi –plowed snow barely concealed a sinister sheet of ice, I tightened my grip on my shopping bags and turned to smile at my fellow pedestrian. Too late I realized that, from his clothing and regalia, he belonged to a very strict religious denomination. He probably was prohibited from speaking to women of his own group let along a strange female in Sorel boots. I hoped I hadn’t offended him. As the light changed and we set out, a voice spoke from my right. "So, madam, do you think the weather is warmer today than yesterday?" I replied that I thought it was, just a bit. He agreed and offered data on the evening’s forecast. Safely on the other side we parted with mutual good wishes for "a better day tomorrow". All Canadians would agree.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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