coming! Winter is in full force actually, so I thought I would write about it. This post is dedicated to all who read my blog from Brazil. Big shout out to those in Brazil! I’m not jealous of your climate at all! You lucky,lucky………..never mind. The reason I’m highlighting Brazil is because you are third in my reader stats, fellow Canucks make up my largest readership (how’s it goin’ eh?), and the Americans are second.
The topic of winter is interesting, it’s a challenge to explain to people from warmer climes how life enveloping a cold climate can be, it wants you to die. Really, winter tries to kill you, everyday. A typical Canadian winter is like a national disaster that lasts for 5 months straight, every year. The idea of winter is on every Canadian’s mind, even during a July heat wave. Winter is always coming, or your living through it.
Not every Canadian understands winter. If you live an urban Canadian lifestyle, never getting too far from natural gas heated malls and electrically lit, plowed and salted streets (salt is to melt ice); winter is a frosty weasel that bites your a** between the car heater and the pub door. A large number of Canadians are unprepared to meet winter on it’s terms. I see folks in the middle of a snowstorm getting out of cars wearing shorts and running shoes, shivering as bare flesh meets frigid air, totally in denial. I know this is the age of forced air heat, warm transportation, and cell phones; but the cold is a patient killer. Small mistakes can take away fingers and toes, large mistakes can take your life. The small mistakes are caused by frostbite, where flesh freezes solid. The life stealer is hypothermia, where your core temp drops below the organ failure limit; say g’night Gracie.
I will get to a couple of my own stories about frostbite and hypothermia, but I’m mostly wanting to talk about some of the little details about living in the heart of the cold, dark, north. Think about it, how would you live if you knew that a hurricane was going to hit your home on a date within three weeks; every year. Ok, a hurricane is more violent than winter, a gas leak maybe? Something that happens every year, is subtle, very sneakily dangerous, and lasts for 5-6 months. Your life must change for that time; how you think, dress, plan, and even live are hostages to violent weather. A blizzard can shut down everything, winter is usually a speed bump, but a bump that can grow into a mountain range. I will try to explain, but as I carve these ideas into individual thoughts, realize that they blur together in a cold, northern, climate.
WE ALL GO INTO THE DARK
Darkness is a fact of life in a Canadian winter, it’s 5:10 PM right now and its been dark for an hour. It’s not the darkness per se, I’ve been near the equator and experienced dark at 6:00 PM, it’s not the same. When its warm and dark, the darkness caresses you like a lover. Warm breezes ruffling light clothes, the moon over salty waves. The darkness adds mystery to life; a romance if you will. In the north, COLD darkness is like a sociopathic killer, waiting in the shadows, stropping it’s razor collection. The darkness combined with the cold become a phycological gargoyle that haunts; not a mysterious lover that stimulates.
I can only imagine what my ancestors went through, braving a long cold winter with only a cabin, a wood stove and flickering oil lamps to keep the cold and dark at bay. Before the age of the stoves and lamps, think of the mental muscle required by the indigenous peoples of the north. An entire community huddled around an open fire in a spruce bough shelter, surviving on moose meat and pemmican; for many months. In those days death held his bony hands to the same fire, a constant companion to all.
The coal fired plants pumping electric juice through a network of wires, and the pipelines shooting gas energy to all who can pay; makes life livable in a northern climate. Modern building materials and technologies push old man winter out of spaces that become swimming pools and indoor playgrounds. Yes it is artificial, yes it is industrial, and yes it is energy intensive. Any person living in this climate that parrots the anti-industrial mantras of the so called “environmentalists” needs to reboot their reality processor.
The dark can add another unhealthy element, vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is produced in the body when skin is exposed to sunshine, even when one can get out in the sunshine, exposed skin can freeze; not conducive to sunbathing. The lack of light can bring about S.A.D (seasonal affective disorder), listlessness, depression etc. Wide spectrum lights are sold to combat this (another need for that darn electricity)
YEAH…..BUT IT’S A DRY COLD
Yes it is, very very dry. When one thinks of dry weather it brings to mind a deserts; cactus, sand, and the burning sun. The cold, however, can suck the moisture out of the air just as quick as parched sand and burning sun. In a cold climate, all available moisture freezes, and is locked in the frost and snow. Cracked skin and bloody noses are the order of business in extremely cold weather. Wood shrinks and cracks. Static electricity from vehicles and carpets can ad a shocking element to winter. Our northern peoples, the inuit, used to slather themselves in fish oil to combat the extreme dryness of winter.
The blizzard is just a snowstorm; on steroids. High winds and heavy snow, and cold that can steal the breath from the lungs. The snow is so thick you can’t see very far, sometimes just a few feet in front of your face. The snow comes from the sky and the wind picks up lose snow from the ground, the world becomes blindingly white; the whole world. There are stories of men getting lost and dying traversing the familiar distance from their house to their own barn. In more modern times the blizzard can humble all our modern technology. Roads drift shut, power lines come down, even rail service can grind to a halt. Modern cities have been temporarily paralyzed by a bad blizzard.
THE TERRIBLE BEAUTY….AND FUN
I can’t paint the whole picture as bad. There is an extreme beauty to winter, and a lot of fun to be had in the snow. The snow covered hills and hoar frost sparkling like diamonds in the trees looks beautiful, especially through a window, while sitting in front of the fire. The cold air brings a rosy to the cheeks, and an invigorating energy to get the outside chores done quick, so one can get back to blissful warmth. The elements add an extra cozy to the act of cocooning; and cuddling! Skiing, skating, sledding etc all require snow and cold to accomplish, and nothing is comparable to winter sports. The cold is a challenge and a curse, but it has its pleasurable side.
I like living in this country, northern winter is an extreme season, but it gives a definite punctuation to a year. Most outdoor work must be done before winter, the snow covers unfinished projects and shouts “you’re done with this, go in and read a book now”! Most of the worlds pests can’t stand the cold climate, poisonous snakes, nasty big bugs, even big rats; can’t hack it here. It almost compensates for having to shovel snow, at least for the first six snowstorms.
BEING OUT THERE
Ive had the experience of having to work in the bush in extreme cold, it’s not fun, one must be careful. Hurting yourself, getting wet, getting lost; they can all be death sentence in winter. Usually when it is extremely cold, there isn’t a breath of wind, the silence is almost deafening. The only sound is the “squeak-crunch” the snow makes underfoot when it’s bitterly cold. An occasional booming crack echoes through the bush as an odd tree splits from expanding sap in the trunk. The moisture from your breath frosts on your eyelashes and hair tips, and inhaling to big of a breath can hurt, as the frigid air steals warmth from the lungs. It’s best to be out with others, so you can watch your partner’s faces for the waxy white spots that tell of frostbite on the skin.
The worst frostbite Ive seen was on the toes of my son’s friend, after a few hours of outdoor skating on our lake. The boys were having fun, even though it was very cold, and they stayed out too long. By the time they came in his toes rattled on the floor like marbles when he walked, we were worried. At first the lad thought it was funny, after a few minutes soaking his feet in warm water to draw out the frost, the “funny” stopped, he was in extreme pain. Frostbite causes the moisture in the cells to burst and circulation is impeded. Lucky enough, he didn’t lose the toes, just all the skin on the tips, bad enough. Once a person gets frostbite, circulation never returns 100 percent, and one is more susceptible to frostbite next time.
My only encounter with hypothermia happened to a fellow forestry worker who was from Jamaica. I don’t know if his genetic origin had anything to do with his susceptibility to the cold, maybe he just wasn’t dressed good enough, or had skipped breakfast that morning. This didn’t even happen in winter (it was early May), but we were at a high elevation and it was windy and sleeting (mix of snow and rain). At first he was complaining, his oaths barely perceptible through his chattering teeth. I kept telling him to just be tough, we had to get the job done so we could go back to camp, I almost missed it. He stopped complaining, his teeth stopped chattering, and he started acting funny. His words were slurring slightly and he kept dropping things, I suddenly realized what was happening, he was slipping into hypothermia.
I had read about this, and had been trained as to what to do, but we were in a bad spot. we were on a hillside cut-block, no shelter for a long ways, I decided to head for the ATV’s and get back to camp. I made him munch down some granola bar, then helped him down the hill. Thankfully it was only a 5 minute ride back to camp, where I made him get out of his wet duds, then crawl into his sleeping bag. I brought him some hot chocolate and he recovered. I probably didn’t do things absolutely right, maybe we should have found the closest sheltering trees and built a fire, if camp would have been further away I would have. The other thing I’d been taught is to strip down the victim, and yourself, and crawl into a sleeping bag with them, warming the victim with your body heat, I wasn’t going there unless he was half dead!
I could write much more of the curses(and magic) that is winter, from beautiful frost patterns on windows to how tired one gets of having to “bundle up” just to walk out the door, but you get the idea. To get more of the emotion of winter, look up the poetry of Robert Service, he spent much time in the far north; and fell under it’s spell.
……..Talk of your cold! through the parkas fold it stabbed like a driven nail. If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze, till sometimes we couldn’t see; it wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam Mcgee…
Taken from The Cremation of Sam Mcgee, by Robert Service