Warm at heart on a dark winter’s night

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In my backyard, where the columbine grows bushy and fat in June, now sits a solid cone of snow as tall as an apple sapling. It’s not yet mid-January, and the top of my neighbor’s five-foot-high fence has already begun to submerge under white.

What’s going on here?

Those who dismiss global warming as a scientific hoax are having the time of their lives issuing their standard “gotchas” and “I-told-you-sos”. Meteorologists, of course, remind them that climate change manifests itself in extreme weather over time – not in the occurrence of a single hard winter.

But is this shaping up to be a particularly hard winter for this corner of Canada? It sure feels that way.

The season roared in well before Christmas with successive storms, each dumping at least 20 centimeters of snow on southeastern New Brunswick. By January 1, there was at least 120 cms of the stuff on the ground. Then came the freezing rain, followed by the tooth-snapping cold.

All of which made mincemeat of the official forecasts issued by Environment Canada, which had predicted a far less eventful holiday season. Curiously enough, the Old Farmer’s Almanac came closer to the mark with its declaration that “temperatures, precipitation, and snowfall will all be above normal this winter” and the “the coldest periods will occur in early and late December.”

Despite the snow, cold, rain and power outages in the eastern part of the country, however, those who actually follow the weather for a living insist that, so far, there’s nothing particularly unusual – longitudinally speaking – about this start to winter in the Great White North. It’s just that in recent years, especially mild conditions have pampered us into forgetting our own history, and not for the fist time.

Consider a few excerpts from David Phillips’ Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar.

On January 7, 1911, “A dispatch from central New Brunswick said ‘Raining again today, our fields are as bare as mid-summer, cattle are not grazing.’ Owing to the absence of snow, lumbermen complained that yarded lumber could not be hauled out. In Fredericton, the opening hockey game featuring arch rival Marysville had to be rescheduled because the balmy weather made it impossible for the teams to get into shape.”

In the other extreme, on January 13, 1975, “a major storm in Atlantic Canada, with winds gusting to 130 km/h, snapped ice-laden power lines, leaving hundreds without warmth in -30 celsius weather. In New Brunswick, a utility lineman was killed when winds upended the bucket on his cherry picker and he fell 10 meters.”

Then, there was the infamous gale of January 31, 1992, which covered the Moncton area in snow that was literally yards deep (so deep, in fact, that my sister, who was living in the city at the time, entered and exited her second-floor apartment through a window under which a drift had conveniently formed).

In fact, though, as I grow older I mind harsh (or even normal) winters far less than I once did. As a younger man, visions of warm beaches in tropical locales and golf courses in desert resorts of the American southwest, kept my cabin fever at bay.

Now, I’m inclined to perceive our winter for what it is: a months-long opportunity to reacquaint myself with the inexorable cycle of life, which, to my four-year-old grandson simply means building a snow fort.

And so, with his dad, that’s what we did on the night before New Years Eve, after dark, with flashlights and sturdy garden spades in hand. The youngster and his grandmother crafted a cardboard sign, which read “Sno Mou” (that would have been “Snow Mountain”, but they ran out of room), and affixed it to the fort’s roof.

As every architect who works in snow knows, the fate of every fort is assured by the builder’s obsessive need to tweak and carve and dig until the thing possesses the structural integrity of a wad of tissue paper.

Still, my grandson seemed eminently pleased with himself, post collapse. And as he headed into the house, he grinned at the solid cone of snow as tall as an apple sapling that was, only minutes before, “Sno Mou”.

Maybe, I thought, we’d build another some time this winter before the columbine grows bushy and fat in June.

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