Winter on the prairies. Last year, I moved from downtown Toronto to serve as a United Church of Canada minister in Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan (pop 295). In the city, winter was often “that slushy gap between fall and spring.” Dangerous conditions meant being very, very careful or you’d slip on the sidewalk. Here it’s being very, very careful or you’ll end up putting your car into some backroad ditch where you’ll slowly freeze to death as coyotes gnaw at your earlobes. So, it’s a different kind of thing.
As the temperature plummets, vehicles parked outside our local post office or hockey rink are all left running. Locking your vehicle any time is unusual. Audrey Weir reports that when her aunt died leaving Audrey her car, she parked it on the street and left the keys in, hoping someone would take it away. Did this work? “After a while I finally called a friend and gave it to him,” she said. “I got tired of people coming to my door with keys saying ‘You left these in the car.’”
A crucial strategy to surviving rural winter is daily attendance at what’s called “Coffee Row.” Men gather at the bar, hall or gas station to discuss the important matters of the day. Women get together at the restaurant or library. A restaurant owner in a neighbouring town gets up at 6 AM, unlocks the door, puts on the coffee and then goes back to bed. Patrons just help themselves.
If you ask me, Coffee Rows everywhere should be recognized and funded as official government programs. Coffee Row is community, therapy, support group, judge, jury, town planning and current events updates all in one. There’s no point clergy offering to hear confession out here. By the time anyone reached the priest, the cleric would say, “I heard that at Coffee Row days ago. What else have you got?” What I’ve found is that nothing warms a cold morning like a hot cup of coffee shared with friends.
I’m also beginning to learn about country winter weather. One evening, I was preparing to leave for a meeting when I looked outside to see snow blowing sideways and three foot drifts across the road. I called the committee chair asking, “Is our meeting cancelled?” Her response? “No… why?”
As far as I can make out, there are three levels of what constitutes inclement weather:
Level one: Too bad to go to church.
Level two: Too bad to go to Coffee Row.
Level three: Too bad to get to the hockey arena.
On a few days storms have raged and snow has poured down in buckets and we’ve yet to hit a “Level Three.”
There are many local traditions for predicting the length of winter. So far, I’ve been told that many deer means a long winter, few deer means a long winter, snow by Christmas means a long winter, no snow until New Year means a long winter… I finally asked, “Does anything mean you’ll have a short winter?” The answer: Spending three months in Arizona.
In the city, winter driving is an inconvenience. Here, it’s an extreme sport. Sometimes the sky, fields , ditches and roads are one seamless canvas of white. One man advised, “If you can’t tell where the gravel ends and the ditch starts, look for coyote tracks. Coyotes get from place to place by running on the road.” Does that really work? “Absolutely,” he said. “Unless of course it takes off after a rabbit.”
Some people keep Life Lists of birds they’ve spotted or exotic locales they’ve seen. I’m thinking of starting one of “Ditches I’ve Driven Into.” I used to worry about having the right CDs in my car. Now I worry about having The Kit. The Kit contains everything needed to survive overnight in your car. Staying in your car is the safest bet. Lights from a farmhouse may appear close but, on the prairie, could be miles away. The Kit contains a candle, matches, blanket, power bars and a shovel. The shovel is not for digging out your car. It’s for clearing snow off your exhaust pipe so that the car won’t fill with carbon monoxide. I have to say, I am often left reflecting here on what they didn’t teach me in minister’s school.
So, am I ready to be done with rural winter?
On a day of bright sunshine the prairie becomes a wonderland. Snow ripples like ocean waves. Ice crystals hang in the air, glistening like a thousand tiny stars. A snowy owl dips low in the blue early morning sky. As I drive the back grid roads on clergy visits, the silence is awe-inspiring. It quiets the soul.
I know I’ll be glad when spring returns. But for me, for now, let it snow.