Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This winter proves nature is amazing

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We know William Shakespeare never set foot in Canada, but one of his most famous lines surely captures the way millions of this country's bone-chilled citizens feel today.

"Now is the winter of our discontent."

It is indeed -- down from the Arctic Ocean and stretching its frigid grip from our Pacific to Atlantic shores. Barely two weeks after the season began, and with spring more than two months away, this is destined to go down as one of the worst winters in anyone's memory. It's bad in the United States, too, where Midwesterners are being warned of life-threatening temperatures, and some comic unofficially renamed Chicago as "Chiberia."

It all happened so fast. Steady snow through December softened us up, the way a shrewd heavyweight boxer wears down an opponent. An ice storm the weekend before Christmas staggered us, even as it robbed 600,000 southern Ontario hydro customers of power. Before we had a chance to recover, a deep-freeze slugged us with some of the coldest temperatures ever registered in parts of the continent. And then, across much of North America, came Sunday's knockout -- a day of snow falling, accumulating and tormenting relentlessly.

Wind-chill warnings. Snow squalls. Blizzards. This is not a treat, unless you're a groundhog and can hibernate in a hole.

But further reflection should lead to the realization that this is Canada, this is a Canadian winter and for all its faults it can be a fantastic experience. Who knew that part of our problem right here in Waterloo Region is due to a "polar vortex," which is a gigantic whirlpool of cold air that has spun down from the Arctic through Manitoba and Saskatchewan? (Someone aptly dubbed this weather pattern the "polar pig.") Or who in southern Ontario had, until recently, heard of "frost quakes," a large boom that comes from the ground after rain and ice seep into the soil and then freeze?

Nature is amazing. And if it can be hard, it can also bring us together. This is the kind of winter when neighbours daily join forces in clearing their driveways. The stranger down the street becomes an instant hero when he -- or she -- arrives with a snowblower to clear your walk, or takes out a hose to flood a rink for the local kids. Cars stuck in snowdrifts usually get the push they need. At times like this, human warmth goes a long way to compensating for the lack of heat outdoors.

Meanwhile, winter's adversity can be a mother of innovation. Just think of Bob Osemlak, the retired Toronto engineer who during the ice storm powered his furnace, lights, refrigerator and TV using only his Toyota Prius -- a potentially hazardous feat he warns others not to try emulating.

Besides finding ways to cope, we can also find ways to enjoy. The season is frequently gorgeous. A snowfall can magically transform a dull landscape of leafless trees and dormant lawns. An ice storm turns trees into shining sculptures. A walk, ski or skate outdoors these days can be tickets to a wonderland illuminated by sunshine streaming through the ice crystals suspended in the air.

We should, when we can, try to slow down and appreciate winter's offerings. And for those of us in this part of Ontario, let's remember we inhabit one of the most southerly parts of the "true north," a frequently mild part of the country that grows grapes for wine and tomatoes for salads. The temperatures and snowfalls that seem so tough on us are routine in so much of Canada. Yes, temperatures in Waterloo Region were supposed to bottom out at -25 C before sunrise today. A few days ago in the northern Ontario community of Trout Lake, it went down to nearly -37 C.

Winter -- bring it on. And think how much fun it will be to look back on all this in the summer's first heat wave.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2014 0

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