Life in the (not so far) North

This is a post from three years ago, before I had many followers. My apologies to those early readers who have already seen it. I thought it was a good wintery post, especially since we are having another cold snap. It’s a bit of reading, but I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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Have you ever had someone ask you, “What was it like in the olden days?” My first impulse is always to say, “How should I know?” but I suppose, to the young people of today, I must seem ancient.

When I was little, I lived in the north. I found out later that Dawson Creek wasn’t all that far north. Still, judging by the winters we endured, I was sure we didn’t live far from the North Pole. So, I’ll tell you what it was like—up there, in the “olden days.” Not easy!

Kids walked to elementary school, some as far as a mile, in -20 or colder, all bundled up like mummies, with only slits of eyes peering through a scarf at the snow that swirled around them. I was lucky, living close to the school, but often I saw my friends arriving late, bawling their eyes out from the pain of the cold. How did parents allow them to walk that far in those bitter cold temperatures? What if the kids had fallen and not gotten up? I know how tempting it was to stay curled up in the snow after falling down in it. The indentation in the snow felt so warm, out of the wind, like a little cave. Luckily, my mother had warned me not to be fooled or I would freeze to death.

“You’ll fall asleep and never wake up,” she said. When I told her about my friend Linda crying when she got to school, she said, “You have to try not to cry when you get cold or your tears will freeze on your face.”

She was probably right. I never tested her theory, but I know that the air was cold enough to sear my lungs when I took that first breath as I stepped out of the house, and I was instantly aware of my eyebrows as they froze in the first few seconds.

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Still, we were pretty tough as kids. We played outside as long as it wasn’t too extreme, making snowforts, throwing snowballs, and building mountains of snow to slide down. Our mittens were soaked in no time and after going through two pairs of wet ones, we used old work socks instead. Every few minutes we came into the porch to ask for another pair of socks. Now as an adult, I can see my mother’s dilemma: keep handing out work socks and let the laundry pile up, or make the kids come in and have them underfoot.

In high school years I had farther to go to school—a couple of miles—and still, car rides to school were a rare thing. In those years, girls were not allowed to wear pants in school so it was an extra cool walk home. In elementary school we often wore pants under our skirts, but in high school, we didn’t always bother. Stupid conventions, looking back on them now; double layers of clothes for the double standards of the day.

A snowy trail packed down to ice by the tread of dozens of feet wound its way through fields that are now housing subdivisions. But back in “the olden days,” this trail was the connector from town to the outlying houses. Walking home from high school, the trick was to stay on the path and not slide off it into the foot and a half of softer snow next to it. Once that snow went inside the boots, forget about keeping warm. All the while, my ribcage ached from being so tensed up from trying to close every pore against the cold.

Crossing the railroad tracks one day, I slipped on the metal rail. I scrambled to get up and hurried home. When I got in the door and took off my snow-filled boots, I noticed a trickle of dried blood on my shin. I had a cut on my knee and didn’t even know it. So I concluded there was something good about the “natural freezing” of this harsh place. Who needs anaesthetic when you’re already numb from the cold?

I’ve frozen my feet so many times that even now, my toes suffer from permafrost. In those early years in Dawson Creek, without the benefit of modern technology to keep feet warm inside of boots, I came in from the cold with feet like icy clubs. I took off my boots and socks and sat near the heater. The pain of thawing my feet was worse than the pain of freezing them.

Now, many years later, living on Vancouver Island, I always marvel at what wusses people are here. They close the schools if there’s a snowfall of a few inches. If that applied in the north, there’d be no school for six or seven months of the year.

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But to be fair, I complain a lot about being cold when it’s raining and well above freezing. Now that I’ve joined the wusses, I wonder how I ever survived northern living.

36 thoughts on “Life in the (not so far) North

  1. I remember those days–walking a mile in the cold to school. But I am such a wuss today. We’re having a “cold spell” in Arizona, and I swore to my husband tonight that I am getting a cold. I never get colds, but I got a whole list of symptoms because I am so cold! I had to wear a sweater! 🙂
    Beautiful photos, Anneli.

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  2. When we have cold fronts move through here I think of similar times when I was a kid living only 80 miles from here. I remember the snow and wind from those times and the thick ice on the ponds and lakes and I know it was cold, but somehow I do not have strong memories of just the cold. Things have changed these days, but it may just be the perceptions that have changed, and indeed not that much has changed in the strictly rural areas. Or perhaps the technological advances of today’s clothing have made up for the acquired “wussiness” that comes from being spoiled.

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  3. Great post Anneli. This line brought back memories: “Still, we were pretty tough as kids. We played outside as long as it wasn’t too extreme, making snowforts, throwing snowballs, and building mountains of snow to slide down. ”

    As to wusses, I agree. And Werner Herzog calls it out:

    I would never trust in a man who has had multiple helmets by the age of five. Wall-to-wall protection is devastating because children are conditioned not to be intrepid; they will never grow up to become scientists who jump across boundaries into the unknown. And every time I walk past a hand sanitiser – those bottles attached to walls everywhere across America these days – I want to tear it down. They are an abomination. I never use antibiotics and have taken maybe ten aspirin in my entire life. Such things will be the death of us all. A civilisation that uses pain relief at every turn is doomed; we can’t know what it is to be truly human without experiencing some level of discomfort and physical challenge. When you read in a travel book that the author has taken a snakebite kit on his journey into the jungle, you know the paperback in your hand is fit only for feeding the campfire. Life knows no security. The only certainty is that we all die despite helmets and life-insurance policies. These days people cut their finger or graze their knee and consider it a life experience.

    ~ Paul Cronin, Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin

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  4. I was thinking how warm Vancouver must feel to you after enduring those years in Dawson Creek. Wow, and I thought Chicago was bad. How did humans endure such treacherous northern weather centuries ago. Keep warm, Miss A. Happy New Year.

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    • It’s amazing how quickly we start to whine about the lower mainland weather too. It’s not the snowy blizzardy northern freeze, but the wet winter wind chills a person to the bone in a different, just as unpleasant way. Happy New Year to you too, Lori.

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  5. Oh, you reminded me of those walks to school “back in the day”! We couldn’t wear pants to school, had to wear them under our skirts or dresses (which was NOT done) and then change once we arrived at the school. I pulled up the knee socks and hustled along the roads, knees blotchy red and stinging from raw cold. I hardly recall a “recess” indoors; we were sent outside in all types of weather. Fortunately the cold snaps never lasted too long.
    x
    Happy New Years!

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  6. I walked to school from first grade to twelfth, unless it truly was blizzarding so badly the parents just couldn’t bring themselves to turn us out into it. (If we got a snow day, it was really something, let me tell you!) And you’re right — in high school, there were no slacks in school for the girls. But we wore tights, and knee high socks, and it was all right. Not always warm, but ok.

    In those days, wool was the go-to fabric, and many coats were of fur. If we didn’t have fur coats, we had fur mittens and ear muffs.We had steam radiators at the school, and we’d lay our mittens on them to dry. I’ll never forget that smell, or the sound of melting snow sizzling away. Wonderful memories, honestly.

    Oh — and the best part was when it got so cold the snow squeaked. Or it melted and refroze, and you could cut out hearts and such from the top layer and carry them around. Fun times!

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  7. I walked about a mile to high school but never walked very far in elementary school. Such great advice, but scary thoughts came to mind, too. Never lie down in the snow… I remember playing until my hands were freezing, but did not realize it until going inside to the warmth. Then, pins and needles were attacking my fingers! I liked the snow and yet, rarely went out if it were as cold as you were out in. I was up at Lake Erie, where it may be cold but if it were below freezing we stayed inside, often school closing for the day. Anneli, this was a well thought out post, it brought many wonderful memories of my brothers and I playing in the snow. I also liked making caves, ice houses and snowmen. You were a brave young girl in that tall, drifting snowy world!

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    • Well, I don’t know about brave, but I certainly put my time in. In hindsight, those years in the cold winters bring to mind the gulags of Siberia. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad for me but I had enough extreme cold weather to last me a lifetime. I never want to spend winters in a place like that again. The spring, summer, and fall aren’t bad at all, but the winters…. No thanks.

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  8. What lovely photographs. I’m not fond of snow and cold, but it’s nice to look at from inside my warm house. I didn’t have to walk a mile to school, but I did walk several blocks. Thought nothing of it. All the kids in the neighborhood walked, until we were in high school and a few had automobiles. Great post. Enjoyed the memoires.

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    • A lot of them, yes, but somehow I still always seemed to have a cold. Maybe from going in and out of the house and at school where we passed the bugs around. But outside, definitely. It would be a hardy virus indeed that could live in -40.

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