When the left front tire blew, I was travelling ten or fifteen kilometres per hour faster than I should’ve been, given the conditions. I took my foot off the gas pedal as the van slewed left. Trying to continue forward in a straight line, I wrestled the steering wheel but the soft, deep snow on the shoulder, sucked the vehicle sideways. All I could do was prepare for the impact. I slammed into a huge snowbank and came to an abrupt stop. A spray of snow fanned across the windshield and over the roof. A second or two later, when realized I wasn’t hurt, I dropped the transmission into Reverse and without any great hope, tried backing out of the snowbank. When that didn’t work, I put the van in Park and turned off the ignition. I zipped up my parka and climbed out the passenger door to take stock of the situation.
In February, 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg, the sun drops fast. The only light came from the passenger-side headlight and the reflection off the snow. The van was buried. Even if I had a shovel, there was no chance I’d dig the vehicle out. The closest town was 100 kilometres behind me, my destination 100 in front of me. I had no means of communication and I wasn’t expected for another two or three hours. It was so cold my sinuses froze slightly with every inhalation. Staying warm became my first priority.
Fortunately, I went off the road in the middle of a forest; it could have happened on the ice road, on top of one of the lakes between The Pas and Pukatawagan. Surrounded by trees, there was plenty of fuel for a fire but when I walked off the road to collect it, I sank waist deep into the snow. The only wood available to me was the lower branches of the trees. I didn’t have an axe or chainsaw, so I snapped the green branches and worked them back and forth until they came free. I was in for a long night.
It doesn’t matter where a person lives in Canada, he has to endure crappy winter weather of one kind or another. As I sit here in front of the computer, looking at the red warning icon on the Weather Network, I’d like to laugh at how much I’ve grown to hate winter, but I can’t. I dislike the cold and loathe the snow far too much to laugh, and “loathe” is not a strong enough word.
In the past, I never gave winter much thought. My dislike grew with time. When I was offered my first job out of high-school, the boss explained how harsh northern Ontario winters could be. I was unconcerned. I grew up in the central interior of British Columbia. I wasn’t a stranger to snow and cold. I soon discovered northern Ontario winters were worse than what I was used to—the cold lasts longer and the snow falls deeper. However, I didn’t find the adaptation too difficult to manage; the differences weren’t too extreme.
After northern Ontario, I spent some time in Winnipeg. In those days, overhead walkways and underground tunnels crisscross crossed downtown Winnipeg, connecting shopping areas, parking garages and apartments. I remember venturing out of that ant hill and standing at the infamous intersection of Portage and Main just for the experience, and yeah, it was as cold as legend has it.
Then, I moved to Thompson, Manitoba and for those people who think Hell is all fire and brimstone, I urge you to spend an afternoon loading drill steel into a cargo airplane when the temperature is -36 and the wind is blowing out of the north. Your definition will most likely change. I still roll into a fetal ball and whimper like a little girl when I remember days like that.
When I moved to the arctic, I optimistically told a friend, “It isn’t any colder. It’s just colder longer.” Let me say this: if anyone tries to convince you there’s no difference between -30 and -45, they’ve never lived in Iqaluit in January. A person could walk from one side of town to the other—Iqaluit wasn’t that large—but if she chose that option, she had to dress for it: Sorels with extra thick soles, Canada Goose parka, mitts (never gloves), wind pants, base layers… In Iqaluit, people dressed for warmth, not style. I remember my wife heading off to work one morning when the static air temperature was south of -40 and the wind dropped the temperature another thirty degrees! She wore so many clothes—including ski goggles and a scarf over top of a neoprene ski mask—I’m not entirely sure how she was capable of moving.
The move from northern Ontario to the arctic required a huge adaptation.
When we left the arctic for Ottawa, I may have raised a middle finger in Winter’s direction. I certainly laughed unapologetically in its face. In Ottawa, winter started later, ended earlier, and was nowhere near as cold. After Iqaluit, an Ottawa winter felt like a late fall day…until a funny thing happened. After a couple of years, I grew used to this new, milder winter. Now, Ottawa between October and April, felt every bit as cold as the arctic and worse, it received way more snow. Shovelling three feet (or more), of snow off the roof of my house in March was flat-out ridiculous. After almost twenty years, my patience for this kind of thing had grown paper thin. I started thinking about the kind of winter I wanted to endure.
At some point on this timeline, I flew west to visit my grandmother. When I landed in Victoria, it could have been one of those rainy, gloomy west coast days, but it wasn’t. It was a weekend in which spring peeked hopefully around the corner. The sun shone. The visibility stretched countless miles. The temperature was a comfortable ten degrees. After two decades dealing with typical Canadian winters, my wife and I decided that weekend, the time had come to move west and adapt again.
That night on the temporary road between The Pas and Pukatawagon, a car eventually came by and picked me up. What sticks in my mind thirty-one years later, is being chastised by one of the passengers for lighting my fire in the middle of the road. To this day, I’m not sure where he expected me to light it. Good or bad, experiences like this in Canada’s north were numerous and memorable…
Like, landing a float plane between icebergs on the arctic ocean at three AM,
Or, watching the northern lights flash brighter in the west than the sunrise in the east,
Or, flying a medical evacuation, when the patient’s best hope was the hospital 1000 kilometres south of the community in which he lived,
Or, fishing for walleye off the float of DeHavilland Beaver in September.
I wouldn’t trade away that history for anything but it’s impossible for me to look back on those northern winters with any kind of nostalgia. My wife and I left our home, friends and existence to escape that kind of weather.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the snow has started falling. I have to shut the curtains and crawl into a comfortable spot under the bed while I wait it out. This is my latest adaptation.
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