Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dear Friends 17

Written: December 13 2006
Published: December 21 2006

Dear Friends,

So there we were, all smug because we had survived the worst that winter could throw at us. I went out and bought more snow shovels – it turns out that there is no such thing as too many snow shovels - and with the winter tyres on, we felt we were in control of the situation.

Winter tyres have, of course, been an important consideration. On the first real morning of snow, I stared out of my window in amazement at the traffic going past. No-one appeared to have been slowed down in any way by the fact that the road surface was now under a couple of inches of snow. I thought back to the last time it had snowed in London – my 25-minute journey home from work had taken upwards of 3 hours as everything ground to a halt. The same level of snow here might – and I emphasise might – cause one or two people to slow down a little until they got a feel for the conditions. Then it would be business as usual.

But winter wasn’t finished with us yet, and things were about to get a lot more interesting.

The first we knew of it was when we were advised to plug the cars in overnight, even in the garage. We haven’t gone over to electric vehicles – cars here have what are known as block heaters fitted as a matter of course. The outward sign of this is that, once it gets cold enough, most vehicles have a piece of electrical cable dangling from the front. This is then plugged in, whether at home or, if you have a thoughtful enough employer, at work.

Most houses here have several power sockets on the outside walls, which seems very useful – all sorts of things have been plugged into ours, from Christmas lights to the iron (I occasionally did my ironing on the deck in the heat of summer), but now we see the real reason for them. Most houses now have attractive bright orange power cables dangling from the front, so that the various vehicles can be plugged in.

We plugged in, and went to bed. In the morning, the thermometer on the kitchen window was showing 20 degrees below. We stood and stared at it for a while – I even took a picture of it. Then I went out to clear the driveway.

At first, that kind of temperature doesn’t seem so bad – you are well wrapped up, and it is, as promised, a dry kind of cold – I have honestly felt much colder in England when the temperature was above freezing. Then, as I stepped outside, something odd happened to the middle of my face. It took me a moment to identify it – the inside of my nose had frozen. I hadn’t done anything with it to provoke this – I just breathed in, as I generally do, but there was no mistaking it; I was freezing up from the inside.

It is, I can assure you, a most peculiar sensation. I had a scarf over my mouth, and that was soon encrusted with ice crystals, but to cover my nose as well seemed likely to overheat me. So I just accepted it, and got on with the clearing, which I had by now got down to a fine art. Yes, I was cold afterwards, but not excessively so – I reckoned, once again, that we were on top of this winter thing.

However, 20 degrees below is seriously cold – cold enough that the boys had several days in a row at school as ‘in’ days; no playing outside because of the temperature. I discovered why when waiting for them to come out of school that afternoon – as far as I could tell, the temperature had dropped slightly during the day, and was now nearer 25 below. Standing in the playground while my children went through the daily ritual of putting on layer after layer of protective clothing – it was now, finally, cold enough to persuade even them that they needed to wrap up – left me with a serious appreciation for just how cold it is when you are not doing any kind of activity.

And then it got even colder. I have a photograph of the thermometer showing -30, and that was about as warm as it got that particular day. And still it snowed, and still I cleared it, and still my nose froze.

Then it was over – the cold front passed, and we were back to normal – temperatures no lower than ten degrees below, and the children back to sliding around in the playground. But of course, winter wasn't finished with us (indeed, since it’s only December, it’s only just beginning). As the temperatures rose, the snow came back. Day after day of heavy, wet snow, and finally we began to see that even the locals who are used to it can find it hard. There wasn’t really enough of a break in the snowfall to allow for proper road clearing, and even downtown became a risky place to drive around. I now understand why so many intersections have signs on poles pointing to the stop line – under all that snow, there is no chance of seeing the lines on the road.

One day last week, the overnight fall was particularly heavy – I kept hearing people complaining about 17cm of wet snow – and I needed all the available time just to dig out a path so that Zoë could get to work. The crews out clearing the roads were doing their best, but driving around that day was a particular adventure. I went up to get the boys after school, but had to admit defeat after the car became beached – the thickness of the snow was enough that the underside of the car, rather than the wheels, was stuck in it. Once again, I’d like to acknowledge the various people who kept digging me out, and never once complained about this idiot foreigner.

And now? Well, we have been thawing – the pile of snow at the end of the drive was as tall as me last week; now it is only just big enough for the boys to hide behind. We’re not kidding ourselves that winter is over, but we’re a lot more confident that we can handle it. Just another 4 months or so to go, then.


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