Cover Story

Making winter fun

Roy MacGregor January 8 1979
Cover Story

Making winter fun

Roy MacGregor January 8 1979

Making winter fun

Cover Story

Roy MacGregor

But by then it would be winter;

Ain't too much for you to do—Four Strong Winds, Ian Tyson

In Vancouver they cheered its coming. A late diner at Peppi's saw the first plump flakes as they floated into the

cone of an outside light. He told the others, and where once such a messenger might have been shot with contempt, this one was applauded. On the other side of the continent, at Lewis Lake near Halifax, Phil MacDonald saw the Maritimes’ first snow when he woke on a Sunday morning, a soft, powdery fall that thickened the trees and pinched his eyes. Sue, the family dog, was already plowing through it with his nose, tossing the snow, then biting at it while his tail whipped in celebration. Phil decided it was a perfect day for a family picnic, and began to wake the others. Fifteen hundred miles to the south, Mary Horak was sleeping to the hush of the Gulf of Mexico when her phone rang at 7:30 in the morning. It was Toronto calling: snow was falling in Canada. Two hours later Horak was on the first flight north from Fort Myers, destination, Mont Ste Anne, north of Quebec City. Behind her she was leaving a thriving health food business, a 450 SL Mercedes and all hope for a suntan. Ahead lay the chalet she had recently purchased, a new country, a new language, a new life. A few days later she personally witnessed the opening of the Mont Ste Anne chairlift, her toes snug in the first woollen socks she has ever owned.

It seems this place they now call Canada was only half-discovered by Champlain; the white months weren’t claimed until the 1970s. Despite freezing temperatures, the new legitimacy of winter is in full bloom throughout the country. Everywhere, downhill and up, Canadians are skiing. Rinks are booked 24 hours a day, seven

days a week in Halifax. In Regina and Calgary there’s not a spare sheet of curling ice to be had. On the Rideau Canal in Ottawa they’re hooking up wheelchairs to runners. The Montreal

ski-trains, inactive since the ’50s, are back in full business, this time carrying cross-country skiers to isolated trails.

Adventurers are booking in with Ernie Bourque of Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park, the attraction being a dogsled tour of the area he trapped in for 18 years. A bulging market in oversized

garter belts has been created by the remarkable boom in oldtimers’ hockey (see box). Advance bookings at Mont Tremblant Lodge, the largest ski run in Quebec’s Laurentians, are up 30 per

cent. There are lights on the cross-country trails at Ski King, north of Toronto. Snowmobile sales, are in the words of Bombardier, “spectacular!”

What all these hints add up to is a simple truth: Canadians have made their peace with winter. And about time, too. There have been approximately 500 months of it since Confederation, some 40 or more years that have been largely ignored in the hope that they would go away and stay away. But in recent years people have come to believe, as Dave Kilfoyle of Ottawa’s recreation department does, that, “Winter is good weather, too.”

The selling of the winter of 1978-79 goes far beyond the $65 million worth of vitamins, the $75 million worth of cough and cold remedies or even the one million cases of tissues Canadians will go through this season. The winter industry now includes snowmobiles with heaters and AM/FM stereo receivers, $1.5 billion worth of ski equipment and almost $70 million worth of hockey gear.

But the enjoyment of winter is, by no means directly relative to the amount spent. Avril Hill, a Winnipeg senior citizen, is a firm believer that a show of face is the surest way of dealing with the winter bully. Each day, regardless of the weather, she has her walk, and in these walks she has noticed something—the winter landscape is changing into a portrait of people, much the way it was in her youth. “I think that attitude is beginning to come back,” she says. “People have seen enough TV.”

It that is an Leonard unfair Cohen, but telling who once connection wrote “Winter is all wrong for me,” is no longer the influence he once was. The 1970s may well be dull, but they are at least active, and it is another, older writer named Morley Callaghan who now speaks: “Winter happiness in Canada seems to come to those who know how to use the season.”

“The more snow the better,” says Joyce Dickey of Halifax. Joyce, her husband, John (a former member of Parliament), and their six children have discovered a “family obsession” in downhill skiing. Not far from the Dickeys live the MacDonalds of Lewis Lake. Phil MacDonald, who proudly says, “I consider myself a winter person,” doesn’t find the season long enough to fit in the family’s dedication to hockey, skiing and ice boating. Even when he and his wife, Claudine, get an evening free from the four children, they generally spend it on a moonlight ski.

Away from Halifax the story is much the same. The Easleys of Fredericton ski into a cabin where they fire up a cast-iron stove and snuggle in for the night, convinced that they enjoy winter

simply “because we use it.” The Dobells of Ottawa, who cross-country ski on their retreat near Buckingham, Quebec, find it “liberating.” The Korthals of Toronto—Robin, Judy and their three children—are currently planning a winter ski holiday for the entire family. Not an escape from winter, but an assault on it. “Winter is to be enjoyed,” Judy Korthal believes. “You’ve got to get out there and enjoy it or you’ll really be miserable.”

“It has given me a sense of freedom,” Winnipeg broadcaster Anne Putnam says of her decision to stick with crosscountry skiing until she mastered it (first time out she cracked two ribs). “Winter is less of a threat and you soon get rid of any feeling of depression. The other thing I’ve found is that it really brings the family together, especially husband and wife. Before we were all busy doing something, but when you’re skiing there’s togetherness. I think it could help a lot of marriages, frankly.”

As for the regions not readily identifiable with good winters, they also have benefited. In Newfoundland, where the season would be better measured in Valium crystals than snowflakes, business has nevertheless increased more than 400 per cent at St. John’s’Outdoor Hut, the only store on the island that deals solely in outdoor recreational gear. In Prince Edward Island, a Charlottetown store known as the Great Outdoors sold but two pairs of cross-country skis five years ago; this winter, sales may well exceed 1,000 pairs.

The four-member Stafford family is typical of Islanders who have stopped thinking of winter as a conspiracy. “My attitude changed completely since I started skiing about four years ago,” says Bill Stafford, a 34-year-old weather technician in Charlottetown. “Now I look forward to winter as much as summer, and I don’t think I’d like to live in a place that didn’t have both seasons.”

In Saskatchewan, there is finally an alternative to Gordie Howe-certified frozen ponds and corrugated-metal curling rinks. A great many new skiers there have combined their new sport with winter camping, which often contains its own form of strenuous exercising. “All you need is a tent, a warm sleeping bag and a close friend,” says Peter Donitz of Regina.

There are, of course, the diehards. Winter driving has a new hazard in the stubborn jogger, people like P.E.I.’s Ewen Stewart, a middle-aged runner who hasn’t missed a day’s workout in more than two years and isn’t about to let the elements trip him. “I half enjoy it, really,” he claims while chipping off

his sweat. In Vancouver, tennis players can be seen disguised in multiple warmup suits, wearing gloves and carrying brooms as well as rackets as they head out to sweep off outdoor courts. And in Montreal, where winter driving is like a holiday in Iran, Bob Silverman has refused to take his bicycle down to the basement. All it takes, he says seri-

ously, is “a little more caution than usual.” Silverman at one time lived for nothing but downhill skiing, but no longer: “Now it’s my bike with the cold in my face—I really get off on it.”

Most grown-up people, however, are

sticking to activities more in line with the season. And in some instances it has proved most profitable. Though there are some 900,000 minor-league hockey players in Canada, the fact remains that today’s children have only height as a growth potential. Just eight years ago Doublerink, a massive four-rink enterprise north of Toronto, was sinking under the realization that kids’ hockey could be taken care of quite comfortably by the less expensive, communityfunded arenas of the area. Careful thinking by the Doublerink owners arrived at the conclusion that the kids they once profited by had simply grown up, so they set about to create “the largest adult hockey league in the world.” Today there are 232 adult teams playing hockey at Doublerink, all of the players over the age of 19, all of them cheerfully paying out $130 a season for the chance

to visit childhood for 60 minutes a week.

The only solid winter sport that might be seen to be suffering is curling, and only then in a few specific areas. New members are needed in Halifax and Vancouver, but desperately sought in Montreal where the exodus of the anglophones has caused a desperate shortage of red-faced people in tartan and silly crests. Even in Winnipeg there is some difficulty in attracting new members. ‘T have to admit,” says Hal Hooker, manager of the Granite Curling Club, “curling seems to be declining.” Still, the over-all numbers are not down; it has simply become a static sport.

If there is an indoor winter sport that has not suffered, it is most definitely skating. With hockey, figure skating, broomball and ringette all after the same facility, the true competition within arena walls has been over ice time. As for ringette in the Halifax area, the women involved are making a political issue out of it, saying that they’re being treated like “second-class citizens” by being denied practice time.

Much of the arena bottleneck has been solved by the number of outdoor rinks that have been flooded in recent years. Montreal is up to about 275 of them and Ottawa has created one 4.8 miles long on the Rideau Canal that is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest ice-skating surface. Certain mornings it is even possible to catch Flora MacDonald skating to work in a pair of men’s racing skates.

In these outdoor rinks more than anywhere else winter has meant a refreshing return to nearly forgotten memories. The first scent of an arena, it seems, is just as promising to a 40-yearold at 3 a.m. as it once was to a 10-yearold at noon. And pinched nostrils and mouths that don’t work properly are > again considered small prices to pay for | the muffled silence of a pine forest and 5 the dry rasp of skis. There are angels in the snow once again, larger ones, temporary proof that Canadians have indeed grown.

And there are new memories in the works. It is possible now to toboggan under night lights in Ottawa or ski in Toronto. It is possible to spend winter weekends on ranches in Alberta and farms in Nova Scotia. It is is possiblebut not necessarily advisable—to rent helmet, elbow and knee pads, spiked shoes and sled and take a terrifying plunge down Mont Cascades in Quebec’s Gatineaus—the first such ice run in North America.

Winter, it would seem, has not only

been forgiven, but officially embraced. The federal government and the government of British Columbia have recently committed $50 million to turning the Rockies into as attractive a winter holiday as Hawaii, undoubtedly with the hope of attracting wealthy Japanese tourists as well as adventurous Canadians. Fully $9 million will go toward upgrading the Whistler area, which is already regarded as the best.

But if the endorsement of elected officials is not convincing enough, then there is yet a higher source to approach. Next week, some 100 snowmobilers are

destined to gather on the white meadows outside of Ste-Catherine-de-Portneuf, a serene little village 25 miles northwest of Quebec City. They will form a circle around an open fire and melt snow in a large cauldron, and when it is melted Curé Charles Painchaud will approach the cauldron with a branch cut from a nearby spruce. He will make the sign of the cross, dip the branch and then walk about the gathered snowmobiles of the Club de MotosNeige du Lac St-Joseph sprinkling each machine with the melted holy water.

And then there will be no doubt. The season, and all its toys, will be truly blessed.'v?