“Why do we live here?” she says on a frosty morning as she climbs into the passenger seat. It is far below zero outside – about 20 degrees below, in fact – and I have neglected to warm up the car as much as I should have. The leather seats are cold, the windows are frosted over and the teenager is early-morning growly, the perfect trifecta of terror for the start to a cold winter day.
“I have a job here,” I reply, a bit growly myself as the darkness and never-ending bitter cold can gnaw away at you over time as you grow weary of the lack of sunlight and numb fingers.
“Not what I mean,” she snarls as if I am some sort of dunce stunned by the cold temperatures. “Why do PEOPLE live here? I mean who arrived up north and thought it was a good place to live?”
We sit as the car idles, both of us pondering the answer. It is a fair question, as one must think that the first arrivals to the prairies and northern Canada must have come in the summer months and the first winter must have come as a tremendous shock – although perhaps not, because snow and cold temperatures are not exclusive to Canada and are part of the heritage for many of us. Some of us who find our roots in Europe came from places that experience snow and cold and ice, and so our ancestors must have found winter in Canada comforting rather than frightening, a taste of the homeland they left behind.
When I was growing up my favourite books were the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. Her tales of life in the “big woods”, the story of pioneers on the American prairies, captured my imagination. There were stories of farming and fires and plagues of locusts and, yes, winter. I would sit in my warm Prairie house, a blizzard brewing outdoors, and read the words of an American girl who was one of the first to settle the Prairies in North America. I found the courage of her family astonishing, their bravery in the face of the challenges remarkable. I suppose, to some degree, I saw myself and my family, because while we lived in a Prairie city in a modern house instead of a sod hut and had cars instead of wagons and oxen, we too faced challenges like the cold winters. In some ways I felt like we were still pioneers.
As I sit in the car waiting for the windows to defrost I reflect back on the Christmas we spent in London, landing just two hours before they closed Heathrow due to the snow that year. While thousands across England were stranded in airports and train stations in a country not accustomed to such heavy snowfall, we found ourselves to be Canadians in a sort of paradise, a city known for its history and grandeur but this time coated in a blanket of thick white snow. I thought back to the doormen at our hotel on The Strand who would apologize for “the bother” every time we stepped outdoors, their gloved hands making a sweeping gesture towards the snow and our laughter as we replied “But we are Canadians” and their smiles in return, assuring us that in that case they had ordered the snow just so we would feel at home in their country. We watched an entire city become transformed and transfixed by the snow, businessmen in shiny suits and slippery shoes lobbing snow balls at each other in Covent Gardens and snowmen popping up in the centre of busy city streets. London, always magical by nature, became almost mystical as the snow, both a bother and a blessing, drifted down from the heavens above.
I awake from my reverie as we drive towards our final destination. It is still dark when we arrive, although the temperature has begun to mellow. We begin to unload, the two of us burdened down with bags and boots and we trudge towards the bright lights of the building ahead.
She is trailing behind me a bit, skis in one hand and her ski boots in the other. As we arrive at the top of the chair lift at Vista Ridge she drops the skis on the snow and anxiously begins to tug off her Doc Martens, motioning for me to hand over her ski poles.
“I don’t have any idea why we live here,” she says just before she snaps her ski goggles down over her eyes and glides off on her first run of the day, a young adult who began downhill skiing at the age of four and who now tackles double black diamond mountain runs with ease. I watch as she swishes down the hill, her colourful ski jacket slowly disappearing into the softly drifting snow. I know we will be there for hours, me in the ski lodge drinking huge amounts of coffee, watching the snow, writing a bit and waiting for her to drop in for visits, her hair damp with sweat and melted snow and her cheeks bright red.
And while she is out on the gentle slopes of our own ski hill in Wood Buffalo, executing graceful turns as she skis the day away, I will spend my day chuckling quietly at her question about our choice of place to reside. It may not be a tropical paradise and it may spend a good part of every year blanketed in snow and ice – and that is exactly why we live here. It is because we are still pioneers at heart, braving the snow and cold, even if it is from behind our ski goggles and with our ski poles in our gloved hands as we quietly glide down snow covered hills, surrounded by dense boreal forest and under the broad expanse of the northern sky, dotted with twinkling stars in the crisp and cold morning air.