Canada

A Winterlude’s Tale

March 23, 2018

I googled “Winterlude?” exactly like that, with the question mark, at work one afternoon. On a different afternoon in that same office, I was shamed for this question mark habit. I forget what I was googling. Something to do with food probably. “Where can I buy proper bacon in Toronto?” Something like that. Everyone laughed and I did too. It is funny. A question mark creates an inflection. Winterlude? There’s a pleading quality to a question mark search, a raising of shoulders. Help me, Google. Help. Me.

The first search engine I ever used was Ask Jeeves so I’m bound to have strange internet habits. In this context, though, the question mark felt entirely appropriate. I had questions about Winterlude that I didn’t yet have the language for. Would Winterlude help me to overcome my deep hatred for snow? Would Winterlude make winter in Canada feel bearable? And, more importantly, could the sub-zero conditions of Winterlude thaw a chill I was feeling that winter that had nothing to do with the weather at all.

Winterlude, according to the Canadian government’s website, was created to celebrate Canada’s unique northern climate and culture. The festival is held in Ottawa-Gatineau each February. Come to Winterlude, the website implores, and “rediscover the joys of winter.”

 

It wasn’t a rediscovery of the joys of winter I was after as much as a first discovery. I’ve never liked the winter and I’ve never liked snow. So far, winter in Toronto had been a months-long montage of me slipping to my knees on slushy subway floors, lugging laundry down the street with ice-encrusted eyelashes and rubbing cream on painful chilblains on every one of my toes. Ploughed snow, its pristine white tainted with upsetting brown streaks, piled up outside my apartment and I genuinely worried about what would emerge when it finally thawed.

I clicked through Winterlude images during tense phone calls with classical music lovers. That weekend’s performance was already sold out and my relaying of this news was met with cries of desperation that were, I felt, more appropriate to a call to 911 than a box office. So, I kept clicking. Majestic snow sculptures; Canadian Goose wrapped children frolicking in powdery snow. Yes, it is sold out. No, I’m afraid that means there are no seats left. Click, click. Toque-wearing lovers ice-skating on a river, hand in hand; bright winter sun shining through carved ice. Of course, you can speak to my manager. Please hold for one moment. Click click.

I could be one of those toque-wearing lovers, I thought. I could frolick in powdery snow. Hell, I could even ice skate! A trip to Winterlude looked like exactly what I needed to cure my winter blues. And the joy of winter, I discovered, was just a 4 and a half hour train ride away. I compiled a brief itinerary:

1) Rediscover the Joy of Childhood in the Magical Snowflake Kingdom
2) Marvel at the Majestic Ice Sculpture Competition
3) Be One of the Lovers Skating Hand in Hand on the Rideau Canal
4) Eat a Beavertail

On arrival in Ottawa we got on the wrong bus. I had made it a New Year’s Resolution, around 2015, I think, to have more involvement in planning the trips my boyfriend and I take. Clearly, I had failed this resolution spectacularly. I had no idea where we were going. So, I followed a lesson I learned very young: when lost on a bus, get off immediately, cross the road, and get back on the same number bus coming the other way.

Waiting to be saved I tried to admire the sheer quantity of snow. Either side of the narrow path the snow plough had driven the pavement held snow banks taller than my boyfriend, who is very tall. Still the snow fell and I wondered if the snow had ever piled up higher than the houses, burying the snow ploughs along with everything else and if that happened, what would people do?

My clothes felt ridiculous. I couldn’t afford the Sorel boots and down-filled coats that make winter in Canada bearable and thought I’d make do in Ottawa, as I had done in Toronto all winter, with my faux suede thrift store coat and Doc Marten boots. Nope. My toes were already sore from being wet and rubbed together like frozen oven chips in my too-thin socks. Even though I was wearing five layers, I could feel the dry air reaching through to my ribs, gripping me with icy fingers from under my arms down to my waist.

I watched an old lady emerge from her house across the road. Someone had ploughed her front drive. A 4ft-deep layer of hard-packed snow was pushed aside to reveal a slick layer of ice on which it was almost certain a pelvis, an arm, a neck, might be broken. She shuffled down the drive onto the street and away and I admired her resilience. I wouldn’t last two minutes. Why would anyone want to live here, surrounded by this white powdery ice that falls from the sky and can literally kill you? It was going to be a very long weekend.

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Snow sculpture of woman's head t Winterlude 2017

1) Rediscover the Joy of Childhood in the Magical Snowflake Kingdom

We were fighting at the entrance to the Magical Snowflake Kingdom. Loudly. How embarrassing. If anyone was staring, aghast at how two people could pierce the atmosphere of murmuring excitement with angry words, here, in the Magical Snowflake Kingdom of all places, I didn’t notice. I was furious. I forget why. I tried to storm off, a difficult task on hard-packed snow, and entered the Snowflake Kingdom alone.

I put on my sunglasses. Alone, detached, out of place, that was the look I wanted to project and I was doing a spectacular job in my stupid clothes, wiping stupid tears from my cheeks. Deep breaths. I emptied my mind of everything but the impossibly smooth lines of sculpted snow in front of me. Apart from the occasional squeal of children having fun there was no noise, only the low whistle of wind passing my ear. Okay, this is fine, I thought. This is almost…nice.

I wanted a Beavertail but the line up was too long so I settled for a cup of coffee and a maple syrup lolly. Once I had them I just sort of stood there in the sun that was too weak to offer warmth. The lolly hardened in the cold air and I couldn’t bite through it so I just licked at it. Like a cat. A woman next to me corralled four of five kids through crowds of people holding hot drinks with impressive grace and stopped for a second to tell me to be careful, the lolly was pure sugar and would probably give me a stomach ache.

Right on cue he came back, as I hoped he would, just as I was about to throw the lolly away. I gave the lolly to him and we shared the coffee and went back to look at the snow sculptures together.

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2) Marvel at the Majestic Ice Sculpture Competition

Feeling freshly in love and committed to making the trip a success, we moved on to the ice sculpting competition downtown. We held hands but even so, I slipped on the slick snow and jarred my back over and over again. I was trying to be very enthusiastic.

We noticed an ice sculpture of what I think was once Winnie the Pooh but now looked like a half melted ice lolly. An assortment of other nightmarish animal-like shapes were dotted around, disintegrating into the earth beneath them. I took a few photos for posterity, careful not to be negative, not to criticise. We watched a child try to wriggle free of the window of a small ice castle for a few minutes and then drifted to another part of the park, talking about where we might go for lunch.

Here we found a large tent curiously signposted as the Ice Sculpture competition and went inside. Everything we had seen crafted from ice so far now looked ludicrous. Garbage. Total crap. We thought the amateur competition works left outside to melt in the midday sun were the official exhibition. This was not so. It’s amazing how a fragile post-fight atmosphere can deaden your critical edge.

The Ice Sculpture competition pieces were truly spectacular. It moved me to think that although the sculptures would soon melt and disappear forever, the artists had made them anyway for no other reason than that they’re beautiful. Here was a twinkle of the joy I had hoped for. With pure admiration, I took dozens of photographs with the intention of sending them to my mam, but I never did send them. I wanted her to be there looking at them with me and after the fact the photos felt like a poor substitute for the real thing.

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3) Be One of the Lovers Skating Hand in Hand on the Rideau Canal

I have a back problem and my boyfriend has one unusually large foot. We are not ice skaters. Yet, if you go to Winterlude, or to Ottawa at any point during the winter, it becomes clear that someone is going to have to ice skate on the Rideau Canal and that someone might just be you. Mere hours after suppressing the urge to criticise half-destroyed ice sculptures, I found myself strapping on hard plastic boots with sharp knives on their undersides. I tried to stand upright on ice that should have resembled smooth asphalt but after a whole day of skating tourists looked more like a Victorian cobblestone carriageway.

The feeble sun gave up and put the day to rest as I thrashed and sweated. Falling wouldn’t be too much of a problem, it would be the result of a fall that would ruin the trip. My ankles were bending more than I thought they could, like old asparagus. I stepped rather than skated a few dozen feet down the frozen river until I had satisfied myself that I had ‘done’ skating on the Rideau Canal then bee-lined straight for the skate rental. He protested, even though he wasn’t even the one skating, but I insisted. I’m done. It’s done. I gave back the knife-shoes and laced my non-knife-shoes tightly onto my feet.

Now I just have to eat a sodding Beavertail, I thought, and this whole Winterlude thing is done.

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From the grounds of the Canadian Museum of History you get a perfect view of the Canadian Houses of Parliament, sitting pretty up on Parliament Hill. We took photos, even a few selfies, as though we were having a really great time and I think by that point I actually was. Before we left Winterlude, I wanted to give the magical Snowflake Kingdom another shot.

The Snowflake Kingdom was much busier that afternoon than the last, disastrous time we were there. It was the last weekend of the festival and the weather forecast was promising a rise in temperature that would soon turn this kingdom to water. We walked through the snow maze, which, when you’re more than a foot taller than the walls, is less of a maze and more of a zig-zagging path but kind of fun anyway. We ran our hands over the buffalo hides in the mock indigenous village. We watched brave young fools throw themselves down snow hills on plastic mats and zipline above our heads.

As we took one last look at the snow sculptures, waves of people moved around us. Large families played in the snow with an enthusiasm that suggested they were seeing it for the very first time and maybe some of them were. The cold was still gripping my ribs and the sky was dimming to that sad winter evening blue but there was happiness all around.

Every single person swarming around us had chosen to be here. All of these people, all different yet all the same, had chosen to come together in this ridiculous -20 degree weather to do one thing – to rediscover the joy of winter. I considered Winterlude through the eyes of these people and saw it, just for a moment, as I might have seen it as a child, before my bad back and sometimes bad attitude could taint it.

And it was magical and it was joyful and it warmed me, right through to my bones.

Winterlude Girl Snow

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