We have a love-hate relationship with winter

Paul Sparkes
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“The mail plane landed on the harbour not far off shore from where we lived … I walked to the plane, climbed aboard and made myself comfortable on a pile of mail bags. We covered the distance between Englee and Big Harbour Deep in about 20 minutes. I was the one and only passenger on that short trip. I did enjoy it immensely and told of my experience several times the next day at Little Harbour Deep. I had travelled the French Shore as no other minister had done — by plane! The mail plane landed in North East Bight of Big Harbour Deep and from there to South West Bight, I walked the three-mile distance on the bay ice in company with the mailmen.”
— from “Down on the French Shore in the 1940s” by Aubrey Malcolm Tizzard

Wintertime on Military Road, St. John’s, in the 1920s. Note the roof of Colonial Building. Snow may have been a bigger challenge than it is today, but snowclearers seems have been up to the challenge. Note the sheer cut of the drift by which people are walking. — City of St. John’s Archives

It has often been said, in one way or another, that it takes a special breed to live in Newfoundland and Labrador. One of the characteristics of that breed, it seems to me, is the ability to use every euphemism conceivable to deny that the weather here makes this place barely suitable to creatures of the sea and air, much less mankind. Hence our climate is “challenging,” “bracing” and “healthy,” or “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Rev. Mr. Tizzard, in that little book of his published by Harry Cuff Publications in 1982, did not always harbour-hop by ski-plane. He recounts trekking through snowy woods from one outport to another, on snowshoes —  often following the more experienced outport man or the mailman. At other times he would have the gift of harbour ice to provide a level surface and a shortcut. Tizzard and his wife would think nothing of walking the nine miles between Roddickton and Englee on snowshoes.

Other people, of course, have had more challenging experiences. We have died in snow storms on floe ice while hunting for seals; we have been storm-bound in trains dwarfed by drifts in the Gaff Topsails; we have anchored our houses with cables in order to defy the winds that, since we were permitted to build houses here, have been fighting to reclaim the island.

And no matter if one weather-forecasting source is at odds with another, or one “old hand” proclaim something at variance with the groundhog, we listen to it all. We can access two — three — forecasts in a workday morning and give equal credence to any and all, blindly ignoring the contradictions.

We have had reason, of course, to be sensitive about our climate, invariably branding the education of the outside critic as sadly lacking. We are not exclusively a land of ice and snow; we are not above the tree line. As a learned agronomist wrote in “The Book of Newfoundland,” 1937:  “The climate naturally varies in different parts of the Island, but on the whole it is not as cold and severe as is generally supposed by those living outside of the Colony.”

The other day I was on an email conversation with a person in Nova Scotia.

“We are having glitter right now,” I happened to write as an after-thought. She was taken with the word. She had not heard it before and, I believe, considered it poetic. I said something to the effect that we need to be poetic here in Newfoundland, and to prove my point, I pointed out that “glitter” is part of our every winter’s day lexicon.

However, “glitter” is nothing compared with the verbiage we can expound when, resting on our shovels after clearing the driveway, we spy the municipal plow sweeping up the road with a bone in its teeth upon which is written our civic address.

On a quiet Sunday with ice pellets (glitter) clinking on the window and rain turning the snow layer into a soaked, immovable mass, I flipped idly through a number of books to get some sort of picture of how winter grasps our psyche.

I turned over some of the chapters in Norman Duncan’s 1907 novel “The Cruise of the Shining Light,” which is placed here. I don’t think there is a chapter where he does not mention the weather. It is probably essential for a writer building the environment of a particular scene, but it also portrays us well, I think. We are rather like weather vanes, after all:

“I looked out: Whisper Cove, low between the black barriers, was churned white; and beyond — concealed by the night — the sea ran tumultuously. ‘Twas a big screaming wind, blowing in from the sea, unopposed by tree or hill. The cottage trembled to the gusts; the timbers complained; the lamp fluttered in the draught.”

I pulled down a book that has been in the family for something like 115 years. It is one of those “essentials” of bygone days, designed to help the average household solve every problem from properly boiling an egg to shoeing horses for winter sleigh-pulling,

Winter preparations (1897): “Floors that are open and cold may be improved by covering with old newspapers or thick brown wrapping paper, the thicker the layers, the better; over this put a good supply of straw and then the carpet; doors that fit loosely should have strips of list or other thick, soft cloth fastened round the inside of the casing; these must be only thick enough to fill the crack, allowing the door to shut easily; sometimes a very small open space at the bottom of a door will keep the feet cold and aching all day, whether one be sitting or going about; an old carpet folded in several thicknesses may be fastened on the outside threshold in such a way that when the door is shut, it will lie close against the crack; this is not as elegant as a weather-strip, but keeps out the cold, besides possessing the advantage of being something that can be attached at pleasure.”

The same book contains a very curious paragraph intended as an easy memory piece to understand the varying strength of ice outdoors. While the Boer Wars would have been fresh in the minds of most people at about the time this book was popular, we doubt that there was much ice to worry the combatants in South Africa. So, it seems the handy little paragraph reflects a people with a warrior’s mindset:

“Ice, strength of: Ice 2 in. thick will bear infantry. Ice 4 in. thick will bear cavalry or light guns. Ice 6 in. thick will bear heavy field guns. Ice 8 in. thick will bear 24-pounder guns on sledges; weight not over 1,000 lb. to a square foot.”

I can imagine my wife’s grandmother tapping her buttoned boot on Burton’s Pond and deciding it could hold a Blenheim 20-pounder.

It is surely a measure of our adaptability to our climate that we can write poetry about our winters while yet we anticipate their end. We can claim with each dawning day from January through to June that the days are getting lighter, which, so they say, is always a good sign of something. We dismiss March as too near to spring to bring truly serious weather threats; and April is a spring-time month in many parts of the world — while May is for trouting and for reintroducing us to our friends the black fly, the mosquito and the biting stout.  

“The Old Farmer’s Almanac” says that it predicts weather by using a secret formula devised by its founder in 1792 —- aided and abetted today by state-of-the-art technology and scientific calculations. With all of that, they claim 80 per cent accuracy. Well and good.

I like Environment Canada’s approach. I visit their website every morning.

It is in the harmless habit of informing the windiest place on Earth (well, almost) that there is a wind warning out. On those blah days for which we are so well known from, say, late March to Caplin Scull time in mid-June, they cover their (ahh) bases by a polyglot of symbols — part cloud, part sun, part precipitation, all tied up nicely with a red ribbon proclaiming wind.

I heard someone on CBC radio the other day commenting on the new Canadian term, “Arctic vortex.” He asked his audience, “whatever happened to the word ‘winter?’”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Environment Canada, CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Roddickton, Iceland Nova Scotia South Africa Arctic

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