Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dear Friends 16

Written: December 13, 2006
Published: December 16, 2006

Dear Friends,

I should by now know better than to wish for things. ‘I’ll let you know what happens when it gets properly cold’ I said last time, thereby attracting the attention of Winter, which promptly let us have it with both barrels. Sorry, Prince George – it was my fault for wanting something to write about.

In recent years, we’re told, winter has waited until mid-December before starting to get serious. Not this year. As I mentioned before, we had the first proper snowfall before the end of October, and Halloween was spent trudging around the local streets in snow boots and warm coats. So I had some time to practice my snow clearing skills before it got more interesting.

Snow clearing is a serious activity here. The first time I realised that was when I was woken one morning by the sound of the neighbours scraping their driveways. The problem is that, even with a small amount of snowfall, if you drive over it you run the risk of packing the snow down and forming ice on the driveway. This in turn can lead to several hours of fruitless scraping later in the day as you try to break up the white stripes which have frozen to your otherwise pristine driveway. You can figure out for yourselves how I know this.

So, up with the lark, on with the snow gear, and out to the front line. The battle against the snow is mostly fought in the driveway, but you need to have the proper tools for the job. I quickly learned not to put on too many layers of snow gear, since this is an intensively aerobic activity, and being extremely hot and sweaty inside several layers of fleece is deeply unpleasant. I went to my local hardware store and bought myself a snow shovel – a long handle attached to a very broad blade, ideal for burning the snow off in minutes. Well, that’s what it said on the label. I, of course, overestimated its capacity, and promptly broke it. It will shift snow, but you really can’t expect it to stand up to the kind of vigorous abuse I subjected it to. The secret, it turns out, for shifting wet snow is to shift small amounts often, rather than one huge shovelful which you can’t even lift when you get to the end of the drive.

Here I must pay tribute to my neighbours. The first Saturday morning of properly thick snow brought us all out, and there was a real community spirit as we battled the elements with, in my case, a broken shovel. One of my neighbours, seeing my plight, brought his snow blower over, and made short work of the unshovelled portion of the driveway, something for which I am still extremely grateful.

A snow blower is a fearsome piece of machinery. It has the kind of engine you might find on smaller motorcycles, a set of revolving blades which would quite possibly demolish entire forests if let loose (although I don’t recommend trying it), and best of all, a great snow exhaust which blows the gathered snow over a wide area. Coming home in the evenings can be quite a spectacular sight, with all these fountains of snow gushing over the neighbourhood accompanied by the low rumble of two-stroke engines.

However tempting it may be, a snow blower is a serious investment, and I’m still in the denial stage – I don’t need one because I’m young and fit (I told you I was in denial), and I have enough time to clear snow during the day if needed.

But remember that this was in the early days of winter – I still didn’t really know what could happen. One Sunday afternoon, we were settling down to our usual routine of electronic diversions, peering out the windows at the snowstorm raging out there, and feeling glad that we weren’t out in it, when all the lights went out. Many of the power cables here are still carried above ground – presumably there are issues with putting them underground when that ground may be frozen solid for half of the year. So all it takes for power to go out is high wind, wet snow and trees with shallow roots, all of which we had in abundance that Sunday afternoon.

I freely admit that we were lucky – we are within walking distance of various amenities, and the outage was highly localised; being without power is more of an inconvenience than anything. Many more remote areas were significantly worse off than us – we could go into town for pizza, for example – yet it still felt like we were somehow at the mercy of the elements. We went out and bought more candles, we took our most highly perishable goods round to friends for safe keeping, and we went into our best approximation of survivalist mode. I called the power company, and was warned that we might be without power for a couple of days, so we all went to bed early and settled in for the long wait.

The power was, of course, back on in the morning, but we’re perhaps a little less blasé about winter as a result – especially since the heating didn’t come back on with everything else. Fortunately, we have gas fires as well as the furnace, so we were in no real danger of freezing up, but it was hugely embarrassing to have to call out an engineer only to find that one of the things we had switched off while the power was off – taking care that we didn’t overload anything when it came back on – was that odd switch at the top of the basement stairs. We had never found out what it was – it certainly didn’t seem to control anything, so we turned it off.

But it does control something – the furnace. Oh how we laughed. Eventually.

Having survived the power outage, we felt we were now able to handle anything the winter could throw at us.

Then it got cold…

To be continued