Slice of Life: Cold? Don’t talk to me about cold

TOM HASHAGEN

TOM HASHAGEN

Remember the report a couple of weeks ago about the cars frozen to the ground in Canada? Well, that’s where we were for the Christmas break, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where it was colder than Mars.
As the jetway pulled up while we waited to de-plane, the temperature outside was 18 below zero, Fahrenheit, almost 80 degrees colder than when we had left La Guardia only five hours before. Happily, our car was not one of the three dozen or so that were in hubcap-deep ice in the apartment carpark. Oh, and it was due to a burst water main, something the news reports chose to leave out.

Why, why, why had we decided to spend our vacation in the frozen tundra? Why hadn’t we planned a flight to a sunny Caribbean island instead? It was because we wanted to spend some quality time with our grandchildren, the newest of whom was only one week old. We would have gone to the North Pole if necessary.

It probably would have been warmer.

On the way to our daughter’s house we passed a giant white hill, approximately the height of a five-story building, covering perhaps a square kilometer. There was a bulldozer slowly climbing it, with its bucket filled with … snow? “What is that?” I asked my son-in-law. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s our local snow pile, collected from all the roads. Sometimes it doesn’t melt until the middle of summer.”
I wondered how much time would elapse between the end of one pile and the start of another. Maybe a month?

The daytime temperatures slowly began to rise and by Friday, the temperature had rocketed to a relatively balmy 30 degrees above zero, enabling me to take an afternoon skate at the local outdoor rink. Hockey, as you might imagine, is life and breath for most Canadians, as I was reminded that night when I went to a Winnipeg Jets game. By game’s end, the temperature was back down to 10 degrees and falling fast.

Snow began to fall and continued into the next afternoon as the mercury dropped to minus 20, for what would turn out to be the high temperature of the day. In fact, it did not get above minus 15 for the next five days, prompting a cold weather warning from local officials, something Winnipegers said they couldn’t ever remember happening this early in the season.

The quick freeze following a snowfall on top of what had been, for just a few hours, a Slurpee-textured muddy slush, created a nightmare for the Winnipeg Department of Transportation. By Sunday, most of the local highways had been turned into frozen slot-car racing tracks. Even seasoned winter veterans had trouble negotiating simple maneuvers like changing lanes, and there were spin-outs everywhere. Some more adventurous SUV drivers found themselves perched precariously atop piles of snow, deposited on highway medians from the previous 20 or so snowfalls.

Interestingly, all accidents in Manitoba are “no-fault,” with each driver paying into a fund called Manitoba Public Insurance, via licensing fees. The worse the driver, the higher the fees. So cars go around smashing into each other and the government pays for it. Litigation is almost non-existent. You can file for damages outside of the system, but there are strict limits on awards.

On New Year’s Eve, there was even talk of cancelling the local fireworks display because no family in its right mind wanted to sit outside at nearly 30 below zero to watch them. The official temperature that night was 29 below, cold even by Manitoba standards. In fact, according to official government record-keeping, December 2013 has been the coldest since 1895. One local pundit cheerfully observed that NASA’s Mars Rover had been sending back data indicating a surface temperature of minus 28, so it was colder in Winnipeg than on an uninhabited planet 140 million miles from Earth.

Now make no mistake. Canadians are a hardy bunch. Outdoor sports, including ice-fishing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing are just normal winter activities, even at sub-zero temperatures. Judging by the crowds at the local shopping malls it was going to take something a lot worse than Martian weather to keep them from going out. Every car has an engine block heater with a handy plug that absolutely must be connected every night if one is to have a hope at all of starting the car the next morning. But walking into a local grocery and hearing conversation about the cold indicated that we were smack in the middle of an historically frigid winter grip.

New Year’s Day, a local farm was offering sleigh rides in the snow. But at minus 15 all we could muster was getting the family to a local restaurant for lunch. Upon our return my wife declared she was “going to get some vitamin D” and went out for a walk. She was back in 10 minutes, her cheeks the color of Christmas ornaments and frost on her eyebrows. So much for the health walk.

Returning to New York right after a so-called “blizzard,” we basked in the spring-like 15 degree temperatures and then watched, incredibly, as most East End school districts called a two-hour delayed opening because it was cold. Slackers.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Winnipeg did cancel school one day last week when the temperature, plus the wind chill, equaled something like 50 below. First time it’s happened in nearly 50 years.

Good thing there are no schools on Mars.

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