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Issue 38

Winter In The Rockies

By Naomi Huzovicova

Most people think I'm crazy that I love winter, a proper winter with lots of snow and crisp temperatures. But such winters are the memories of coziness, freshness, and the joy of childhood.

Our family lived in the sticks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, outside a small town called Valemount. In the winter the blanket of snow brightened up days short on daylight, decorating the conifers and glinting in the winter sun. On clear nights with a large moon, the snow was so bright you could see in the dark.

As we lived on the side of a mountain, sledding was a daily occurrence. In fact, we rode down the hill five days a week to catch the school bus. We could fit up to three of us on one GT (imagine a seat with two runners on each side and a steering wheel with a short ski on the front), two squished on the seat and a third standing on the runners at the back, ready to push musher style if needed. When conditions were right, we could ride the whole kilometre downhill without stopping (although we had to walk another kilometre to the bus). Spills were common though, and now I wonder if my teachers ever shook their heads at our wet pants.

Daylight hours are short in a Canadian winter and in the cold season we left for school before dawn. But that had its perks too – on our way to the bus the surrounding mountains would be bathed in the pink preceding the rising sun. I often stood for a moment at the top of a mountain meadow to drink in the beauty of the morning: fresh snow, pink snow-covered mountains, utter silence, air so clean and fresh I would pay for it now. And then I had to run, as I was late again.

Despite our daily sledding, however, racing downhill on a slippery apparatus never got old. Sledding parties were always a source of fun for those young at heart and there was no shortage of places to toboggan, with reassuring names like 'Blind Hill'. Friends gathered, toques on and snowpants a-swishing. We'd keep ourselves warm with a mix of adrenaline and trudging uphill. Then we'd tumble inside with rosy cheeks and cold noses, shedding our outer garments in a wet, melting pile at the door to drink hot spiced apple juice and consume cookies in a shorter amount of time than it took to bake them.

The best sledding parties were the ones when a kind adult or two consented to participate in the fun. An old unused road in the woods was prime for tobogganing down, but awfully long to hike back up. So when we could, us kids would sled down the road and pile into the back of a truck at the bottom for a ride up, our steeds tethered like a train of packhorses behind us.

Skating was another popular winter activity, though considerably colder on the toes. Besides little outdoor rinks in backyards, the marsh was a local gathering place to enjoy the ice. After the central open area, skating in the canals among the cattails was like finding your way in a labyrinth. Toes get cold quickly in figure skates, and sometimes there would be a thermos of hot chocolate to warm up with. Despite skating from a young age, I was always a terrible skater until I joined a girls' hockey team. The padding let me relax from fear of falling and hurting myself and I discovered that hockey skates are, in my opinion, much more suitable to skating than figure skates.

And boy, could it get cold. As bus kids, we rejoiced when the mercury hit -30ºC because we were excused from school. When it reached -40ºC, the rest of the kids at school got a holiday too. When it gets that cold, the moisture in the air freezes into little ice crystals, making the stars clear and sharp.

We had a cast iron bathtub outside that we would use Japanese style, as our father taught us, that was perfect for stargazing. This is how to do it: fill the tub with water from a hose and light a fire underneath to heat it up. Dash outside covered only by a winter jacket and too-big winter boots that you can slip on or off (fortunately, the nearest neighbours are at least a kilometer away). Shed the little protection against the cold that you have and stand on a pallet out of the snow. Dip a basin in the hot bath water and dump it on yourself. Soap up, shampoo up, rinse yourself off, and only then gingerly lower yourself into the hot water, making sure to sit on the piece of wood or risk burning your bottom. Take a deep breath (occasionally marred by wood smoke) of crisp night air and star gaze.

The ability to bathe outside is definitely an advantage when there is no electricity for three months in the winter. My parents have their own hydroelectric generator and one year a pipe broke under the frozen ground and couldn’t be fixed until the spring thaw. We certainly went to bed earlier when that happened. What I missed the most, by far, was hot running water from a tap. What a luxury! Even wiping a greasy counter becomes a chore when you have to heat up the water, never mind washing the dishes.

Winter brings Christmas, and Christmas brings its own bundle of memories. As we grew older, finding the Christmas tree became the job for us four siblings. We'd head out into the woods around us, toboggan in tow and axe or saw at the ready, fighting for what we thought was the best Christmas tree. I think I had the worst judgment of the lot. One year we picked a full bushy tree that looked lovely, except that it was a very prickly spruce and decorating it was a hazardous job. Another year we choose a tree that was too tall with one long spindly top, so I lopped off the top. Even decorations couldn't hide its sad disfigurement.

Some years came with a special treat. My mother's cousin would come visit and invite a number of relatives to come and make gingerbread houses. Now, to a kid whose mother never bought sugar or candy, this was akin to walking into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. I don't remember if I gorged on candy or not, but I do remember painstakingly decorating these perfectly made gingerbread houses. How she made them, I know not, but when I try to recreate the experience for my kids, the houses look like a scary version of a Pinterest Fail.

And, like most holidays, Christmas meant a large family gathering. On Boxing Day, my mother's family would congregate at my grandparents’ house. Food would be piled up potluck style in the kitchen, adults would sit around talking about whatever they talked about, and us gaggle of cousins would separate off into our own little groups, sometimes being regrettably mean to one another. The big girls, of whom I was one, would sit in an upstairs guest room and discuss such important topics like whether the man they married could be shorter than them or not. In the evening, the music started, a banjo and fiddle, piano and accordion, turning out Scottish jigs and old timey tunes while we hummed and danced along. And, of course, we all went tobogganing.

Winter, of course, has its dangers as well. Roads are icy and plummeting temperatures are dangerous. Winter also brought out the cougars. The mountain lion is around all year but, being a shy creature, it's not usually evident in the warmer months. Lack of food makes them a little more daring and snow leaves tracks; when fresh tracks cross the sledding path to the school bus, it makes a parent pause. Cougars are beautiful, lethal, and crazy smart.

They can step in each other's tracks so carefully that it looks like there is only one cougar, until the tracks fan out and you discover you are following a mom with two cubs. They can climb trees and hop tree to tree so tracking dogs can't follow them. They can jump over a barbed wire fence with a calf carcass slung over their backs. I promise these are not tall tales, but really happened.

We knew when a cougar was hanging around the barn when the horses would eat together. Normally, to avoid bickering, they each had to have their own separate pile of hay, but when a cougar was around they were suddenly best of friends at feeding time. One time, my intrepid grandfather followed the tracks that disappeared under the ramp to the haybarn door. Waist high at the highest point, it was rather like a dark ominous cave, but that didn't stop him. Poking around with a broom handle, he was going to get that thing out, while my grandmother worried at him to leave such a dangerous animal alone. No animal came charging out to attack him, however. Turns out, a cougar can back up in its tracks so that the tracks lead one way and stop, but the cougar has long since left.

And so, when people think I'm crazy for loving a proper winter, I figure they just don't have my warm and fuzzy memories. But there is a little sadness in recalling such times as well. I now live in a place where I count myself lucky if it snows during the winter or gets as cold as -5ºC and I can't pass these same experiences on to my children. The best I can do is tell 'when mama was little' bedtime stories, and hope that I can pass on my love of winter.

Naomi Huzovicova is a Canadian transplanted to Slovakia. She writes about and photographs traditions, food, and life in Slovakia at Almost Bananas, while cooking strange food and wrangling her children.

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