Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Proud to be Winterpeg

Global warming can never deprive us of our chilly season

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In the subarctic Chinese city of Harbin, a northeastern metropolis not far from the Russian border, the locals have found a way to turn the bitterly cold winters into a tourism draw.

Every January, the city of 10 million hosts the month-long Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, where ice lanterns, buildings and other structures are carved out of blocks of ice from the Songhua River.

Placed at three main festival sites as well as dozens of other locations throughout the city, the sculptures are illuminated by laser and conventional lights in a festival that outdraws summer events in the city, even though the average January highs are about -12 C and the lows average around -24 C.

If those numbers sound familiar, a Harbin winter is very similar to a Winnipeg winter, though northeastern China is a little sunnier and drier than the Canadian Prairies. Harbin draws its identity from its climate, much the same way Winnipeg does -- with what seems to be a lot less embarrassment and insecurity about the cold.

In sum, while Harbin residents probably grumble just as much as Winnipeggers do when their faces get frostbitten or their cars won't start, all that ice and snow also seems to be a source of pride.

In Winnipeg, meanwhile, many of us still seem to think there's something wrong with being Winterpeg, the derogatory term employed by Torontonians, Vancouverites and other Canadians who have never actually been here.

Although the bad, old days of self-deprecation have all but ended in Peg City, we still seem to internalize the silly notion there's something unfortunate about having cold winters. And more importantly, we're still failing to capitalize on actually having ice and snow, especially as North America seems to be getting a little less chilly.

This past week, when the mercury finally dropped to the point of actually feeling like a Winnipeg winter, the return of wind chills below -30 felt like a visit from an old friend. This season's relatively mild temperatures had deprived ourselves of a portion of our identity.

Happily, this city will always be cold during the winter, no matter what happens with climate change, as our mid-continental position all but guarantees extreme weather of all forms in perpetuity. And this presents an opportunity in a not-so-distant future where more temperate North American cities may be deprived of winter altogether.

Contrary to the urban myth, Winnipeg is not the coldest city in the world with more than a few hundred thousand souls. Depending on whether you care more about mid-January weather or the year-round average, that title is contested by several Russian cities and the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator.

Still, Winnipeg usually cracks the top 10 by pretty much any measure and that's not likely to change if the northern hemisphere warms by another degree or so over the next couple of decades.

Since 1970, Festival du Voyageur has served to celebrate aspects of our winter, but the February festival still needs a major overhaul in terms of appealing to the broader populace, as opposed to student groups who visit the Whittier Park site on weekdays.

The snow and ice sculptures, though modest by Harbin standards, may be the only visible sign of Le Festival outside of St. Boniface. With some creativity, the festival could be expanded to celebrate aspects of winter culture that don't fall into the traditional francophone/fur trade theme, without abandoning the historical basis of the festival.

More recently, Paul Jordan and his crew at The Forks have done an admirable job of building up the profile and significance of the annual River Trail, particularly through the wildly successful Warming Huts competition/exhibition, now lauded by design geeks across North America.

There are also more winter adventure races than there used to be, with today's Ice Donkey multi-sport race in Winnipeg and next week's Actif Epica bike race from St. Malo joining long-running cross-country ski and snowmobile events.

And the recent advent of Louis Riel Day has given all Manitobans an excuse to create new midwinter traditions, incorporating everything from the idiosyncratic local passion for curling to our penchant for consuming high-calorie foods.

But the fact remains, many Winnipeggers still see winter as something to endure rather than embrace. Some of us live November through March like wayward astronauts, hurriedly shuffling from heated homes and apartments to heated schools and workplaces as if any exposure to the outside air would fatally suck the breath straight from our lungs.

Apparently, milder winters in recent years have only encouraged us to further forget how to dress for the weather, a skill ingrained in all Manitobans at the toddler level, but now quickly becoming forgotten.

This is inexcusable, as it's never been easier to wear long underwear, thanks to the popularization of comfortable merino-wool and inexpensive synthetic fabrics. Never has it been more fashionable to wear tuques and parkas, thanks to hip-hop artists and leggy European models.

Barring poverty and homelessness, there simply is no reason to be cold in the winter. There's even less of an excuse to whine about it, when it lasts five out of the 12 months in the calendar.

And that's not going to change any time soon, despite the continuing effects of climate change. Even after the oceans acidify from carbon dioxide, freaky weather patterns wreak more destruction and the Arctic loses all its summer ice, Winnipeg is still going to experience winters. It's a simple matter of our latitude and mid-continental position. Even global warming, one of the last effects of climate change, will not get rid of winter.

So whether you love this city or simply live in this place, pry your butt from the couch and go outside. You'll find it's not that scary out there. You'll find you may actually enjoy yourself.

And you won't be surprised when people from much warmer climes grow increasingly fascinated, if not outright envious, about what we take for granted: the stillness of the night air, the crispness of the morning and the reflection of sun off snow-crusted fields in the afternoon.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2012 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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