Snow-Time in Canada

Mary Spafford December 1 1912

Snow-Time in Canada

Mary Spafford December 1 1912

Snow-Time in Canada

Mary Spafford

It is becoming increasingly the custom in Canada for people to spend their festive holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Easter—in the country. Especially in this true of the Yuletide celebrations. Particularly timely, therefore, is this article, “Snowtime in Canada,” which describes something of the charm and beauty of Canadian rural life in the winter months. It conveys a new conception of its grandeur and presents new phases of its pleasures.

A CANADIAN country winter begins, to all intents and purposes, when preparation for it becomes necessary. In the purple twilights which mark the forerunners of winter days, one comes in from the outside world intoxicated by the cold, fall air, and conscious mainiy of but two sensations—sleep and hunger. There are lights on the supper table, and the things which taste best then are smoking-hot dishes—baked beans and brown bread; Johnny Cake; baked potatoes; and baked apples with the autumnal blush still vivid on their cheeks.

But some day, as one stacks one’s beans in frowsy heaps in one’s devastated garden, or gathers the last of one’s tomatoes, thrillingly prophetic from the

darkening heights will fall the “honk” of the Canadian wild goose, as with unerring instinct he leads his squadron southward before the first snowstorm. However often the observer may have heard that sound, he stands with quickened pulse to watch the stately wedgeshaped throng wing by; its leader out ahead, instinct with authority—pathetically alone in his high trust.

Fainter and weaker comes back that guiding cry. Dimmer grow the swiftdimishing forms till they merge into a single, wisp-blown speck on the southern horizon, and one finds oneself staring—forsaken and left behind—into the sky where they have been, ■while over the dying summer a sudden, ominous shadow seems to drop, like the first

light folding of a pall. Then one realizes that the air is pregnant with winter, and unfinished tasks are rushed upon, poste-haste.

In the rural districts of Canada the mere making ready for winter is imbued with a sort of portentous excite-

ment, where members of the human family identify their interests with those of the animal and vegetable worlds, in preparing for the great change.

If one is a farmer of modest heritage, one banks one’s little house about with

earth, or fragrant balsalm boughs, as an encourager of winter warmth. The more pretentious farmers, who carry considerable live stock on their farms, get the cattle down from the hill pastures, and, incidentally, experience an enlivening time in capturing the

“'young stuff”-calves born in the

pasture, which are as wild as deer, arid as unapproachable.

If the farmer has a front cellar with an earth or sand floor, he subjects his lately-pulled beets and turnips to a second burial—drawing them forth as re-

quired during the winter, and rejoicing to find them in as firm a state of preservation as when they were interred.

In the late pause before winter snows have fallen, the country housewife performs the last kind services for her garden family. She tenderly detaches the honeysuckle from its trellis support, and covers it with straw; she swathes the half-hardy roses in winter wrappings, and tucks the strawberry bed beneath a blanket of fir boughs. Along the roadsides, or on tree-bordered lawns, where the maples’ gorgeous burden now lies sere and pungent, children are seen frolicking madly amid the rustling leaves, and pressing them into bags to be used as winter bedding in stables and hen houses.

Now, also, the entire family of many a farmer occupies itself with drying apples, destined for mid-winter sauce and pies. The sourest apples are best for this purpose; the variety known as the “Kentish Fillbasket” being especially well suited. The apples are pared, cored, and quartered, then strung by threaded darning needles in long white chains which are hung in loops and festoons about the kitchen stove to dry, or

are laid on trays in an open oven where they warp and shrivel till they are grotesque and leathery shapes, distorted past recognition, but fitted for keeping purposes. And dear to the heart of Canadians is the rare red apple sauce which these dried apples make, when allowed to swell the previous night, and to simmer slowly on the back of the stove for a whole day.

The first white plastering of snow is joyfully hailed by the children as an infallible sign that winter has arrived. But older heads know that between this unstable forerunner, and the Frost King’s reign, come steadfast, penetrating rains, and brutal winds which range the land in a fury, and hubbly frozen roads where the earth temporarily stiffens, and blanches, to meet the first snow flakes; then backslides into mud, again.

The old saying that the snow which lasts must fall in mud, is generally correct. Some night you go to bed with the insistent wash of rain in your ears, and in the morning it is a fairy world. Every branch, and twig, and twiglet, is rimed with soft aerial puffing. The crotches of the trees hold the snowy fluffs awkwardly, as though unused to

such dainty burdens; and the veranda posts wear huge white helmets, piled soft as thistledown. After a time, the sun looks out to ravish the white world with a gold glory, and diamonds thick as dewdrops stud the mighty, spotless blanket of the snow—great brilliant things, shot through with light !

On the edges of the streams, which are not tight-frozen yet, the naked trees shudder in a refined agony of cold, and startling the season from its new-born

lethargy, comes the sound of the first sleigh-bells.

The voices of the sleighbells. They are so instinct with variety, so imbued with associations, and memories. Sometimes they are thick with frost-rime, and ring out hoarsely, as if their tongues were furred beyond action. Sometimes they dash, silvery-clear, across the snow, in an abandonment of glee. On the wood-teams, their tones are deep and solemn, always, as befits their steadying connection with the work-a-day world. Punctuating the monotony of November and December, come the church oyster and chicken pie suppers ; and as Christmas approaches, little cliques of village girls begin to work diligently upon dainty gifts for their friends and relatives—meeting at one another’s houses with their bright work bags, while for two or three hours in the afternoon they sew and chat over the gay Christmas trifles. Sometimes the girl hostess will invite them to a real sitdown supper. Sometimes it will be five o’clock tea, with oyster patties, or cream puffs, as a toothsome innovation.

One of the episodes which we, as country Canadian children, used to associate with the short dark days of December, was “killing the pig.” We would see the respectable porker gradually attain a condition of helpless corpulence. Then, in the dusky closing of some shortlived day, our unsleeping vigilance would discover a squad of men making their way around the corner of the barn, and revealing something in their uncompromising aspect which caused our hearts to flutter with forebodings. Later in the evening, still a-thrill with hor-

ror, we would see from the dining-room window a stark, white figure stretched on a sort of litter in the lee of the barn, and illuminated in a ghastly way by the flare of lanterns, while a smoking caldron stood near by, and the figures of the men flitted busily here and there.

The flashing lanterns, the blood-stained snow, the dark shapes of the men, made a scene which to us, was the embodiment of the weird and the uncanny; quite unconnected with the sausages, souse-meat and juicy roasts, which were names to conjure by in the days that followed.

There seems to be a growing custom for city dwellers to spend their Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter holidays, as well as their summer ones, in the country. Last winter, a jolly party of city boys and girls, known to the writer, and accompanied by a chaperone, spent the week after Christmas in a pictureque village resort which they had never seen before in its winter garb. Each day was dedicated to some out-of-door amusement, and the landlord had no cause to complain of appetites when his guests came trooping in from a. snow-shoe tramp, a run on their skis, or a tobogganing expedition, with cheeks as red as holly berries, and eyes as clear as summer trout pools.

About the middle of February, we of the country expect with philosophic calmness the really pretentious snow storms of the season.

The air seems full of spun glass particles, which wellnigh cut the blood out of one’s face with their relentless lash. Through the white frown of the blizzard a bleareyed sun shines faintly, and across its pallid face go the driftings of the storm—

shredded, phantom-like things, floating ever on and on. Two such storms generally occur in a season; three days comprising their duration, when^ the Frost King yields in clear-flung brightness to the hoarse voice of the little red snow-plow engine, which, brow-beetled with icicles, struggles to the rescue of a trainless, snow-submerged community.

In the country, in Canada, skating constitutes one of the orthodox winter amusements, since a lake, river, or pond, in the vicinity generally affords good

skating at some time during the season, or can be kept cleared by the boys. One memorable Christmas, the lake behind the writer’s house was frozen in a lineless, gleaming sheet from edge to edge, Ah, the rare joy of it! Five miles of 'toques glare ice floor where one’s steel blades

could clip the shimmering mirror mile on mile, in a clangorous embrace. When the very vials of atmospheric purity were unbottled, regardless of economy, and one grew drunk with the air, the wild rhythmic motion, the lust of speed ! The mid-winter work of farmers liv-

ing on isolated farms, consists chiefly in doing the “chores,” and cutting and drawing wood to sell in near-by villages, These slow-crawling wood-teams, driven by weather-bronzed, men in bright and sashes, line the village streets in almost continuous squads on mid-

winter days. The best weather for “teaming” is when the snow holds moisture enough to pack readily, causing the sled runners to slip smoothly and easily, as if on a greased trail./ In dry, cold weather the snow is apt to be what is termed “mealy,” when it packs grud-

gingly, or not at all, and the sledges groan and creak laboriously over it ; the horses white with frost, and enveloped in a mist made by their reeking sides and smoking breath.

When a village borders on a lake or fresh-water pond, cutting and drawing ice, gives employment to a number of men. The ice-vendor lays in a supply for the following summer’s trade, and often private individuals get a stock first-hand for their ice-houses; paying one and one-half cents a cake to the men who, day after day, saw the great greenish squares from the parent bed.

Other men of fluctuating and indefinite trade, constitute themselves winter fishermen, and wage a cold and tedious means of livelihood by fishing from holes cut in the ice. They generally build a little shanty in close proximity to a good fishing-ground, where they store their tools, and retire at intervals to warm their benumbed fingers, and beguile the monotony with soul-refreshing “yarns—keeping, at the same time, a sharp surveillance over their bristling grove of “tip-up” sticks driven slantwise above the ice-holes, and arranged with leather bobs wThich fall when the fish tug the lines attached. The fish (consisting mainly of pickerel and lake trout) are sold to the village at about ten cents a pound. The demand often exceeds the supply, as the flesh of these fish, freshly taken from the ice-chilled water of the lake, is particularly firm and sweet-flavored.

With the Canadian farmers, winter is the social time of the whole year, since then, if ever, they enjoy what is known as a “slack” season. In the villages, too, a varying tide of social life is always kept up. In a certain village known to the writer, each succeeding winter for a number of years, has brought its distinct and favorite amusement. One winter it was evening parties, where guessing contests of every description, were indulged in. Another year, the lot fell upon public dinners, given always for some ostensible reason, when the village folk—ladies, gentlemen and young people—would congre-

gate to enjoy an excellent menu, followed by speeches, toasts drunk in water, and music. It was a simple and pleasant way of bringing people together, and of promoting sociability.

Canadians are accustomed to regard winter as a single climatic condition. In reality, the most varied, and fascinating changes are rung upon the central theme. At times, the sunset colors are boiled to strongest dregs, and smeared in bloody welts, on the low south-west sky. Seen through a filter of dull-black tree trunks, over a stainless waste of snow, they seem to mark the trail of a red and fiery hand.

There are days when the winter world is dressed in the innocent baby colors of blue, and white. Such a ravishing, childish blue on the hills! Such a deepening, tender blue in the radiant sky ! Such a white-swept earth, reaching away and away to the mountains!

There are the hoar-frost mornings, when the trees are fussy with prickly, cob-web stuff, and the snow is graygummed with a dazzling, frozen mesh.

There are the careless, inconsequent little snow storms, hardly caring whethei they snow, or not. There are the fine, sifting storms which unobtrusively, but steadily, pack their tough crust, and drift the roads level. And there are the business-like snow storms, when the flakes come down nearly straight, are fair-sized, and very soft and downy. As one looks up, they appear a pale-gray color, and swarm and swirl in mighty conflict, like a tangle of mammoth mosquitoes. Sometimes a flock of snow flakes falls daintily, and separately, with the sun filtering through them— pale-gold, aerial things which spurn the ground, so lightly do they touch it.

But surpassing all these in magnificence, in wonder, in awesomeness, is the ice storm. It ushers in days that are pitiless and bitter, but beautiful as a dream. The trees stand stiffly, helplessly. in a glittering ice casing; run. as it were, in a mould of transparent sugar syrup which has cooled, and hardened on them. The sun dances cold and bright on their predicament, and a bru-

tal wind sings through them. One who has never heard the sound cannot imagine it. Those who have heard it, will never forget it—that awful singing in those anguished tree tops. Even the horses, as they pass beneath with sledges, look awed and startled at the wild, rasping dirge.

Following the due order of things, come, at last, our Canadian spring mornings—typical, charming, inimitable. There’s nothing like them in the world! They ravish the soul out of your body in ecstacy. The air is a tonic, distilled to intoxication point. The surface layer of snow, slightly thawed by the warmth of the previous day, has frozen during the night, and will bear your weight. Places are open to you on these radiant mornings which will be inaccessible when the ardent sun has again pressed the chaste snow to its yielding; and for a few exhilarating hours you can pass an unceremonious

“time-o’-day” with the tops of apple trees, or cultivate a walking acquaintance with the submerged tips of fence pickets.

And now, if you’re a housewife, with the heart of woman in you, you make “vanity,” and old-fashioned twisted doughnuts, and quivering custards, and lemon pies, for your family’s delectation. And if you’re a man, and a farmer, you watch with growing impatience the brown-backed ridges come through on the hill sides, for the action-inciting influences of seed-time, and spring plowing, have cast their feverish spell upon you.

From the barns the bleat of newborn lambs sounds weak and shrill, and in the blood-cells of the maples the sap is stirring. Already, the “hounds of spring are on Winter’s traces,” and we are trespassing on the precincts of another season.