When the Chinook blows on Alberta lilacs bloom, bears quit their dens and young men begin writing poetry months ahead of schedule

BARBARA MOON January 1 1953


When the Chinook blows on Alberta lilacs bloom, bears quit their dens and young men begin writing poetry months ahead of schedule

BARBARA MOON January 1 1953


When the Chinook blows on Alberta lilacs bloom, bears quit their dens and young men begin writing poetry months ahead of schedule


THE WEATHER in Alberta, if you can believe all you hear, is not the least improbable commodity in that improbable province.

Albertans, with disarming gusto, claim freeze-up comes so fast that gophers caught in their holes are popped out like peas from a pod; winds are so violent that a calf was once blown against a barn and held there until it starved to death; and Saskatchewan is said to have been founded by Albertans blown clear over the boundary by a gale. Furthermore, they say, the short hot growing season produces turnips that have to be harvested with a car jack and straw that can be dried and used for drainpipes.

On the other hand it’s a matter of record that southern Alberta has seen lilacs and pussywillows budding in January, grain threshed in the fields in February and golf courses open for play every month of the year. All winter, in fact, the province is teased by brief periods of spring so balmy they prod the butterfly untimely from its chrysalis, the bear from his den and the human from his dogged endurance of the knife-edged Alberta cold.

These facts and their counterparts in legend have their basis in a wind—the ardent and hot-breathed chinook.

Chinook is western Canada’s name for the hot dry wind that temperamentally sweeps the Alberta foothills. The same kind of wind is found in the lee of many great mountain ranges of the world; the climatologist calls it a foehn-type wind (foehn is pronounced like “fern” without the “r”). It’s a unique weather phenomenon. As it drops down f he slopes from aloft the wind gains heat mechanically and completely independently of the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere. This mechanical heating, called adiabatic heating,

follows a simple law of physics: as the air

drops it compresses and warms at the rate of five degrees for every thousand feet of fall. A good illustration of the same principle is the heat generated by a hand-operated tire pump.

Foehn-type winds are dry as well as warm. Approaching the mountains at right angles they’re shouldered aloft and any moisture is condensed into rain and snow and dropped on the windward slopes. Then, when t hey’ve passed over the range, they toboggan down, getting hotter and hotter as they go. If they’re strong enough they displace the air at the ground and if that air is cold they’ll come like the blast from a furnace in contrast.

Foehns are not always strong enough to push beyond the immediate foothills. But where there are mountain passes these act as funnels. The wind drops into them, combines forces with the ground currents and jets out from their gut far into the plains.

Crowsnest Pass in the Canadian Rockies is just such a natural spillway and, though the foothills from Montana to beyond fhe Peace River district enjoy chinooks, the main chinook belt in Canada fans east from Crowsnest. It’s shaped roughly like a clenched fist with Claresholm to the north and Waterton to the south, with a stubby finger pointing toward Medicine Hat.

A second factor makes this area chinook-prone. The wind must come from the west across the mountains, and southern Alberta lies right in the path of regular and frequent westerlies. A secondary zone includes Calgary and Swift Current and effects are felt all over the province and into Saskatchewan.

Until recently the main belt could count on the chinook to blow forty percent of the winter, or more than five days out of every fourteen. The benefits have been startling: it has saved farmers

from ruin and whole herds of horses and cattle from starvation. It offers another, subtler, merchandise. When the land is locked in ice the Albertan can hope that a chinook will release it before a fortnight is out. Because of this the chinook has brought esprit, a native habit of optimism.

The Albertan celebrates his chinook in some of his blithest tales, like the famous one usually attributed to Dave McDougall, a trader who came to the country in 1865. McDougall was going from Morley to Calgary by bobsleigh one winter day. With ,^ 'tiifc temperature at forty below he was bundled in a fc coat and hot bricks were tucked in the buy(Falo °bes. He’d reached the place where Cochrane now stands when the wind changed suddenly. The temperature skyrocketed and the snow-packed icy roads began to melt. In a minute the sleigh’s runners would be biting into the bald prairie. The authorized version of the anecdote quotes McDougall thus: “I stood up, whipped

up the horses to the dead run and—would you believe it?—for twenty-five miles we raced the chinook into Calgary, the front hobs in the snow, the back bobs kicking up the dust behind us.”

The variations on this story are as endless as they are cheerful.

One of them reports that the driver of a wagon caught in a similar predicament was able to keep the front end of his wagon ahead of the chinook, but got his feet frozen. However a squaw who was riding in the back got sunstroke. More readily authenticated stories are almost as incredible. In January of 1946 Calgary woke to a temperature of ten above. A forenoon chinook sent it to thirty-six above. In the afternoon a sudden icy north wind drove the temperature down forty-six degrees to ten below. In both Calgary and Lethbridge January has brought

forty below weather and the same month has seen temperatures in the sixties.

The change can come unbelievably quickly. There are recorded mercury jumps of sixty-four degrees in an hour, fifty degrees in fifteen minutes and even forty-two degrees in three minutes. Jumps of forty-five degrees in twelve hours are common.

The chinook is so dry it can evaporate a foot of ice and snow overnight: the snow doesn’t melt; it literally disappears as vapor. For this reason the chinook is also known as the snow eater.

The freak wind comes in summer as well as winter—though much less frequently. Then, though it’s still heated by its plunge down the mountains, it may seem relatively cool if it displaces

a hot wind from another direction. It can start at any time of day or night and last for a few minutes, a few hours, several days or a week.

Its relatives in other mountainous regions include the zonda in Argentina, the harmattan in the Atlas Mountains, the Santa Ana in southern California and the foehn in the Alps. It’s from the European wind that the whole family takes its name.

The Canadian foehn was called chinook after the Chinook Indians, a tall hawk-nosed tribe on the Pacific Coast of the northwestern United States. The name was first applied by early white settlers at Astoria, Ore., to a dry northwesterly wind blowing from the direction of the Chinook villages on the opposite shore of the

Continued on pege 26

The Wind That Brings June in January


Columbia River. Later the prairie wind was christened with the same name and it stuck.

Almost every foothill Indian tribe had its given name for the chinook and its own legend about it. The Stoneys called it Kahdooza and believed it was the little blind daughter of the great southwind who lived in Castle Mountain (now Mount Eisenhower), twenty miles from Banff. Sometimes in winter the little wind stole out of her hiding place and blew through the mountain passes down onto the frozen flatlands, bringing an unseasonable spring.

The meteorologist requires a more prosaic explanation for the location and frequency of the chinook.

He’s found it in the passage of low-pressure centres across the province from west to east. These centres, or “lows” as they’re called, are systems of air circulation like whirlpools. Their low pressure is a warning of storms and bad weather. Around them in a counter-clockwise direction wheel strong winds that split off to stream across the mountains south of the pressure centre.

Regularly during the winter, sporadically during the summer, such lows move in from the Pacific and across the prairies north of Calgary. Always, south of them, a wind uncoils across the Rockies.

When it drops down the eastern slopes the chinook may not be strong enough to push away the air at the ground. Then it may remain locked in the passes or skip aloft and pass ineffectually a few hundred feet overhead. On one occasion at least this phenomenon provided a startling chinook incident.

In January 1950 the captain of a TCA airliner was approaching Calgary at about eleven hundred feet. The thermometer on his instrument panel showed an outside temperature of eight degrees below zero. A slight updraft carried the plane up seventy-five feet. The pilot noticed that the thermometer registered fifty-three above. Startled, he dropped down again. The thermometer plummeted to eight below; he climbed and it rose to fifty-three. He checked twice more and the result was the same: a spread of sixty-one

degrees in only seventy-five feet. He had been flying just under an overpassing chinook.

Sometimes pockets of icy air lie in small valleys while the higher levels are bathed in warmth. These can be a serious driving hazard: at least one

fatal traffic accident has occurred when the windshield of a car suddenly plunging into such a pocket has frosted over completely, blinding the driver.

As the chinook advances eastward it picks up moisture quickly and by the time it’s into Saskatchewan it can no longer be called a true chinook.

Though study and observation have helped the meteorologist lick the problem of predicting chinooks he can still be fooled. Strong ground winds from other directions can dissipate the chinook or shoulder it up to pass overhead. However, the forecaster usually promises a chinook if he sees a low on his weather map heading eastward with a path north of Calgary.

Most amateur weathermen rely on a less certain but more spectacular harbinger: the chinook arch. The arch takes the form of a great bank of clouds just east of the Rockies and parallel to them. The solid underedge curves gently down toward the horizon at

either end and below it shines incredible lens of clear sky.

The cloud bank forms at the height at which the chinook clears the mountains—about two miles up—and all along the front where the stream of air peels abruptly downward. At sunset the arch can be beautiful. The cloud bank closes in toward the west like a quilted vault of smoky blue. The tattered clouds clinging to its leading edge are stippled with rose and the shallow arc of the lower edge is paved with gold. Beyond lies translucent green sky like the daylit backdrop to a gloomy stageset.

It’s a sign that the chinook is already pouring down the mountains into the passes.

Soon, in the night while the frost deepens, a sudden gust of warm wind will toss up a spindrift of powdered snow and set the branches clicking.

Then, like the opening of a sluice, the chinook floods in. On a ranch near Lethbridge a cow throws up her head and bawls; in town hotels travelers toss in their beds. The chinook is heralded by a sudden drop in pressure and newcomers are often bothered by a snapping in their ears. By morning the machinery in Calgary refrigeration plants is slugging full speed to offset the forty degree temperature rise.

If the chinook lasts out the week it will bring out the gophers and rattlesnakes to sun in front of their holes. It even lured a black bear from his den in Waterton Lakes National Park last February. Sparrows start strutting like roosters in the false spring, and the cattle, put out to forage on the newly bared bunch grass, mill for a time and then turn to drift slowly east in front of the wind.

The wind blows steadily. It flattens itself against naked sidings, lifts and frets the overhanging street signs, plucks at flaking scales of paint and throws itself joyously on trash cans, sending them bowling down the street. A healthy chinook is a forty-mile-anhour wind, but an eighty-mile chinook is by no means unusual.

With the chinook as a yardstick the westerner is exacting in his definition of a real wind. An easterner visiting Macleod saw. hanging from a tree, a heavy logging chain with fat iron links. He was told, “That’s how we measure the wind That chain, when she rattles it’s a breeze. When she swings it’s blowing a bit. But when she lays out flat that, sir, is a wind.”

When there’s snow on the ground the chinook can roll it into snowballs, and when the ground’s bare it will scoop up dust and dash it in every direction. A few years ago a car parked on the east side of a graveled area near Lethbridge had half its paint sandblasted off by a sudden chinook. More than one householder has helplessly watched a chinook do an unscheduled stucco job on a freshly painted exterior.

But, points out Dean Smith, the bulky sandy-haired officer in charge of the Dominion Weather Office at Edmonton, such damage is infrequent. The chinook, though a strong wind, is a steady one. It’s not like the hurricane, which can leap in an instant from zero to forty miles an hour. Vicious gusts like that will rip off a roof or flatten an outbuilding with one swipe. So, though the hurricane is a mere seventy-five-mile wind and Smith has clocked chinooks at ninety-seven miles an hour, he claims the chinook isn’t generally destructive.

Smith, together with another Dominion meteorologist, Clarence Thompson, spent eight years at the Lethbridge forecast office studying the chinook and they both speak of it with affection “It’s a tease,” says Thompson. “It’s high-spirited but it isn’t spiteful.”

“Besides,” he adds, “it can’t hlow anything away in Lethbridge. Everything’s either nailed down or blown away long ago.”

Both Smith and Thompson, like many another westerner, have remarked on the curiously unsettling psychological effect of the chinook. A restlessness of mind seems to match the restlessness of the air. It’s not just the noise, though the warm drowning rush of wind is counterpointed by the clamorous beating together of branches and the slap of loose tar paper at the eaves.

When the chinook comes in January or February it brings a distilled spring fever, a kind of sweet unquiet, that plucks at you with more insistence because it comes suddenly and unseasonably.

In Europe, where they are sophisticated about these things, the foehn wind of the Alps the Chinook’s cousin is blamed for everything: laziness,

melancholia, aches and pains, insanity. The University of Munich postpones important examinations if the foehn descends suddenly and the law courts rule leniently. The low barometric pressures affect rheumatics and cardiacs and unsettle mental patients. It is sometimes called an Aspiraiionswind —a wind of longing.

In Alberta, though, the chinook might more properly he called a wind of promise. The farmer and the rancher look for it anxiously for it brings them prosperity and a timely chinook can stave off ruin. It bares thousands of square miles (or winter pasture on the eastern slopes of the Rockies when t he cost of feeding cat t le and horses in the barns would be prohibitive.

The failure of the chinook in the winter of 1906-7 brought starvation to thousands of cattle who were found dead with their faces worn raw from frying to forage for food in the drifts. In 1927 a rancher named C. F. Sykes described another bad winter in Alberta when the temperature went to fifty-two below and stayed there:

Our main bunch of horses were on pasture four miles from home when the blizzard struck. In an ordinary winter they would have been able to forage for themselves and grow fat

. . . When the snow finally cleared, dead horses were to be found, with manes and tails eaten off by their starving companions, lying in every sheltered corner . . . And then almost as suddenly as it had commenced, the siege was raised; the snow vanished like magic, grass coming up green and fresh as fast as it had disappeared. Horses that had seemed about to die fattened overnight.

Chinooks lengthen the Alberta growing season by an average of three weeks a year—making possible the twelvemillion-dollar sugar-beet industry in the south of the province and the half-million-dollar crop of vegetables for canning.

But when the chinook comes in the summer—though it often brings cooler air from the Pacific its dryness can be a bane. In a region where the year’s rainfall is seldom more than twenty inches t he parching west wind can keep it. down to twelve inches or even seven. That's the difference between fort y bushels of wheat to the acre and five or six.

In the summer months the chinook can rip up topsoil until the dust in the air is stifling. In the fall of 1949 nearly two inches of soil were blown off by the wind in some places; and the following April more thousands of acres were piled up in sterile dunes in the fence corners.

Irrigation and scientific farming methodsstrip planting, trash covers for the soil, and shallow plowing—-offer some solution to the problem.

Fortunately chinooks are less frequent in the summer. It’s the regular and spectacular snow eater that Ernie King thinks of when he says, “Yes sir, the Chinook’s a nice thing to have.” King, a retired clothier who came to Alberta sixty-five years ago. likes to sit in the lobby of the Palliser Hotel in Calgary yarning with other oldtimers. Vaguely Dickensian in his neat blue suit, and derby he is. nevertheless, a genuine westerner and he’s currently worried because in the last two or three years the chinooks have been weak, short-lived and irregular. King remembers when Christmas baseball games and road races could be scheduled regularly because of the unfailing chinook. He’s convinced the climate is changing.

It’s true that since the winter of 1949-50 the weather has been unusual. Sub-zero cold snaps have lasted for weeks and brief chinooks have been canceled by blizzards from the north. Last fall freeze-up came so early that a third of Alberta’s grain crop was caught in the fields and section after section of snowy hillocks marked the unharvested stooks all winter.

Even the weathermen are at a loss to explain the change. Dean Smith, the Dominion meteorologist, admits, “We’d be famous if we knew the explanation for the cold weather.” All they can do is hope it won’t last.

If the people of the chinook belt were ever to learn they could no longer count on the snow eater the effect would go deep deeper than economic insecurity. There’d be a subtle fracture in morale and in the lavish zest with which they greet the rigors of the hardest winter and the hottest summer. The chinook means respite, and hope.

The Chinook Indian, who gave his name to the wind, used a patois invented in the nineteenth century by priests and traders who were dealing with the natives. Roughly two parts Indian to one part of French and English, it was based on barely four hundred words combined with the drama and rough poetry of good slang. In Chinook, stars were “buttons,” and American was “a Boston” and truth was “straight talk.” The words for death were “no wind.” ★