When people talk about Canada, it's often about hockey and snow. As someone who grew up in Canada, I'm familiar with the schtick. But as someone who has spent most of my life in the lower Fraser Valley of BC, aka Metro Vancouver, the whole Great White North thing is not a lived experience. But I've had a taste of it this past week in Winnipeg and Beausejour, Manitoba. This has been the snowiest, coldest winter on record since sometime in the 1940s.
Winter, I realize, is actually a culture. The ability to survive in such extremes of weather really does shape people. It's not just remembering to plug in the block heater before you take the car out, it's also the skill of driving in snow, both snow on the road and in the air. There's something shared by people who survive months of winter, like people who went to the same university or fought forest fires together.
Simply to go outside to walk to the market requires a level of preparation akin to packing for a weekend at the lake. Careful layers of clothing are the only thing between you and frostbite. There is no just tossing a jacket on to run to the corner. When it's -30 before the windchill, that's enough to kill you. This winter Winnipeg has seen temperatures plummeting to -50. Even my die-hard, winter-loving friends hung up the snow shoes and stayed inside.
This week was more like -25. That's still cold enough to feel the crackle in your nose when you step outside and to appreciate the wooly mittens over the gloves. But I loved the moment of stepping out and really feeling the cold on my skin. It felt like a reminder that I am alive. It felt like God calling me back to myself.
People who live in winter appreciate the spring. I was here in Winnipeg early in June last year as the weather warmed up (and before the notorious mosquitoes) and everyone, everyone was outside, walking, cycling, sitting in cafes, working in the yard. When you've been either housebound, or wearing so many layers that it was like walking in a cocoon, you're happy to stretch your wings and feel the warm air on your skin.
I have travelled to Winnipeg several times a year for several years, but only one other time in the heart of winter. It is stunningly beautiful when the sun shines, which is often. One complaint that people often have about the mild Vancouver winter is the lack of light, the greyness and rain. It's mostly true. Here, the sun on the snow and the big sky fill the day with light, as if to make up for the shortness of the day.
Winter can be a spiritual practice. This week has been like a retreat for me. Indeed I spent 5 days in circle at the Sandy Saulteaux Spiritual Centre. It was that, and also the early morning walks through snow, the deep quiet of the snow-buffered land, the beauty of the landscape and surprise of seed pods and rabbit footprints. Winter, by its nature, slows down the world. You can't walk quickly through the snow, nor drive too fast. It's a good time for slow food and long books. Days are short and the dark nights invite early bedtimes.
While my time here was relatively short, I am grateful for this Canadian winter experience. I feel a bit of solidarity with Canadians outside of south west BC. And I feel closer to our Creator, in awe of the vastness and diversity of the Creation in which we live and of which we are a part. I am whelmed. Thanks be to God.
Photo: Late afternoon walk on the Assiniboine River, Winnipeg.
Kimiko Karpoff, 2014
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