Wallowing in a winter wonderland

Michael Johansen
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Sometimes strangers look like friends. That is to say, appearances can deceive.

People north of the Strait of Belle Isle are looking out their windows these days and saying, "Finally! We're getting a real Labrador winter."

The weather has dealt mildly with most of the Ungava Peninsula for the last few years, especially when compared to how hard it has walloped regions to the south. Last year and the year before, Newfoundland got hit by storm after storm while Labradorians watched enviously under calm, dry skies, wishing that some of the snow would come their way.

When people depend on snowmobiles to open up the land for travel, warm temperatures and a lack of precipitation not only gets races rerouted or cancelled, but also hinders vital hunting, fishing and wood-gathering expeditions.

A prolonged deep freeze usually starts around the new year and lasts until the beginning of March. It's a time of sunny days and starry nights, when windchill can push the mercury below minus 40 (Fahrenheit and Celsius - it's the same) and minus 20 comes to feel quite warm.

That's not the weather Labrador's been getting.

For the past two or three years, the thermometer has plunged to the minus 30s, but it never stayed down for more than a few days at a time, never long enough for the cold to properly penetrate into earth and water. While some Labradorians might like to see the region become a tropical paradise with warm sunny beaches, for most it will never be a proper winter unless spit freezes in flight and cars get buried whole.

That's what it's like this year, much to the pleasure of many, but (to repeat) looks can be deceiving. This is not the real Labrador winter of yore - that is, of four or five years ago.

The abundant snow has not opened up the waterways and the countryside as expected. It is doing quite the opposite.

Normally a fair but not tremendous amount of snow falls while temperatures are still mild. That snow compacts into a firm base, but not one thick enough to prevent ice from continuing to freeze deeper and deeper when the really frigid temperatures arrive.

In those normal-type winters, it does not tend to snow very much during the deep freeze - the big dumps don't return until spring approaches.

This year it just keeps on snowing, even in the extreme cold. Without the benefit of a thaw, the snow cover has not been doing any compacting on its own. Dig a hole in any spot and you could go two metres to the ground, finding soft snow all the way.

That means anyone on a snowmobile who diverges off a packed trail risks an immediate bogging down. The fluffy layers don't completely prevent travel through the woods and across bogs, but they don't encourage it either.

Those are the conditions on the ground. They're inconvenient and often exhausting, but not hazardous. The hazards are on the ice.

On lakes and larger ponds and all down the shores of Lake Melville out to the coast, the many snowfalls have insulated the ice and stopped it from freezing to a proper thickness. The heavy snow is also weighing the ice down and water is welling up on top, pooling hidden beneath the top layer of snow.

That's slob. It can be a few inches deep, or a few feet. Run a snowmobile into it and it churns into slush. If you stop, you're stuck. If you're stuck in slob, you might have to walk out of it, risking frostbite and leaving your snowmobile to become encased in ice - another good reason to always bring snowshoes.

Slob can be found just about everywhere right now and, combined with the deep snow on the land, it has brought travel in this region to a near standstill. Only a few diehards are going out hunting or wooding, and even fewer are venturing on long trips to cabins down the bay - and they are apparently often coming to regret it.

A real winter is what it looks like, but behind the mask it's not really the old familiar welcomed friend.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.


Geographic location: Labrador, Lake Melville

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