by Robert Fyles from Port Hardy, BC
Jul 23, 16
The village of Stewart, British Columbia, sits snugged up against the southern tip of the Alaska panhandle. Stewart proudly proclaims itself to be Canada's northernmost ice-free port. In winter, the storms off the Gulf of Alaska that drench Prince Rupert with record-setting rainfall have calmed somewhat by the time they reach the head of the Portland Canal. The crowding coast mountains calm the winds near sea level, and push the clouds upwards - the rain cools and changes to large snowflakes. This snow, and the resulting avalanches which regularly close the town's only road access, is Stewart's other claim to fame - the town becomes steadily smothered in snow for several months each year.
Despite the best efforts of the federal government and generations of teachers - the snow stubbornly refuses to accumulate in metric.
So it is not unusual for two feet to accumulate overnight. Nor is it unheard of for a steady stream of storms to drop six inches of snow daily for a week.
Most houses in Stewart have steeply pitched metal roofs to shed the snow, but a few uninformed, or perhaps adventurous builders, have tried flat roofs. The owners of these buildings have to keep an eye on the accumulation, for when it creeps towards six feet, arrangements must be made to shovel.
As the new owner of a big rambling home with a large flat-roofed garage, I was aware of this seasonal imperative, but was mildly surprised that my 11-year-old son expressed keen interest in shoveling the roof. So our first winter in the house, when the day came when the roof load had become dangerously deep, up the ladder we both went to start the chore. It quickly became apparent that my son's interest was not so much in shoveling, as in the prospect of being allowed to leap from the roof into the powdery drifts below. And so we took care in dumping the snow off the roof to preserve undisturbed areas for this use.
In the gathering dark I sweated with my shovel while my son climbed and tunneled until the chore was done. Then, we stood side by side on the brink and stared down eight feet to the soft bed below. With a whoop we stepped out into the dark air and hung, suspended with the snowflakes, until we landed with a whoosh – a woosh which drove stinging crystals of ice into every crevice of our clothes and left us laughing, trapped up to our armpits in a prison of now compacted snow. We wallowed, wormed and crawled our way free, ran back up the ladder and did it again before heading in to supper.
The years we lived in Stewart were dismissed as low snow winters by the old timers. Often there was barely a foot of snow on the school field at the start of the track and field season in April. Because of this, the necessity of shoveling the roof never arose again as that eleven year old grew into a teenager. He never lost his sense of fun, but at sixteen, on an October day, we lost him to a motor vehicle accident.
Our last winter living in Stewart was a heavy snow year.
The snow began in November and kept falling until March. The road was closed more than it was open during January and February. And at the beginning of April there was a six-foot deep snow pack in my back yard. We wondered whether it would ever melt. I spent many hours shoveling that winter, sometimes soft and fluffy stuff but often heavy frozen blocks.
The first time the garage roof needed shoveling the snow was still soft. As I climbed up the ladder, alone this time, I was older, sadder and more task-oriented than I had been with my eleven year old, but as I sweated into the darkening evening I took care to preserve a patch of undisturbed snowdrift. When the task was done I stood looking down, and then I stepped out into the dark to join the drifting, drifted and stinging snowflakes - and remembered both laughter and joy.