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At home in winter

Tom Gordon’s Nunatsiavut diary

“Land-locked" komatiks, waiting for snow.

CBC’s weather idol sported a designer parka to deliver the cataclysmic news of St. John’s two-centimetre snowfall the morning of Nov. 23. Removing the hood and with a quick check to make sure his gel-job was undisturbed, our meteorological prophet-of-groom unburdened himself of the tragedies of fender benders and the negligence of the city snow removal crews. (Did St. John’s Director of Public Works really say “there were no problems until people started driving on it?”). Egged on by the self-pitying hyperbole of apocalyptic wind chill indices, our rock star weather prognosticator bemoaned the misery of winter now firmly begun.

Only a week later, still reeling from the devastation of the first downfall, the city was crippled by yet another four centimetres. The Outer Ring Road was portrayed as the scene of a natural disaster rivalling Igor. The CBC despatched its crack investigative team to the King’s Bridge Service Station for their annual analysis of the critical state of belated tire changes. The snow blower tune-up on the To Do list, last year’s dented shovels still unreplaced, snow tires gathering dust in the garage – where did I put that window scraper? – from this distance, winter’s tepid arrival in St. John’s seems a catalogue of silly inconveniences aggrandized into outright tragedies. It’s as though winter had never happened before and its unanticipated arrival is a personal affront to each and every one of us.

Cut to Nain where all eyes scan the horizons, looking eagerly for the next storm front and where every degree above zero is to be regretted. Today (Dec. 5) the ground is still bare. Yesterday’s windless and sunny plus-7 temperatures made it feel like a fine day in September should. The snow visible on the mountain tops to the North taunts us.

Sure . . . we’ve had the odd dusting of snow so far (two centimetres here; four centimetres there). Each time it arrives, the town seems as though it is coming out of mourning – preparing to start life anew. In the north, the first snowfall carries the emotional weight of the arrival of spring in the rest of Canada. The morning of a snowfall all the window blinds are open, all the shades are up. The “fine day” greetings exchanged by one and all along the road are definitely more enthusiastic – heartfelt, really. Snow brings with it the freedom to move on the land. Freeze-up is a release from the dust and artificiality of life in town. In a complete reversal of the urban paradigm, snow and ice are the superhighway of the North.

The North is only at home in winter. Gilles Vigneault may have claimed it for Québec (Mon pays, c’est l’hiver), but in truth it is here, beyond the reach of pavement, where shipping seasons end in mid-November and air transportation lives by the daily maxim of “weather permitting.” Snow and ice grant the freedom to hunt. The freedom to cut wood. The freedom to trap. The pleasure of a boil up at a lone grove of black spruce alongside a frozen lake. The power to live on the land and with the modern world at the same time.

On the eve of the first Sunday of Advent, I watched three families hitch up their boat trailers to drag their speed boats back down to the harbour. Tradition here is to go out into the hills to cut an “Advent tree” on this day. The tree is set up and decorated that evening in the homes of grandparents, godparents and midwives awaiting a bounty of stockings which the appropriate children bring by to be filled with goodies and treats. There was no snow route to the hills this year so people went out to find their trees by boat. It was an odd sight later that afternoon to witness the boats return with a cargo of cut fir trees while the komatiks stand in “dry dock” at houses everywhere in the community.

In other news, yet another group of scientists -- social and otherwise -- arrived in town this week to conduct a research on the effects of climate change. There were no questions on the survey about Advent trees.

Dr. Tom Gordon, is a professor and former director in the School of Music. He is spending part of his administrative leave on Labrador's north coast and will regularly check in with Gazette readers.