First Canadian Winter

Driving in Ice Fog

Driving in Ice Fog

Whenever I speak to immigrants – even Rom – they are always very animated when describing their first winter in Canada. Shock and awe! For those unfamiliar with our climate, I will do a run-down of what we experience.

I pity anyone who arrives in Canada between January 1 and April 15. With no option to acclimate gradually, it will be a miserable and overwhelming few months. Adding insult to injury, our spring slowly defrosts us between April 15 and June 30, including 4 to 8 weeks of cool rain. If I were planning to land in Canada, I’d pick Canada Day (July 1) so I could enjoy the best of the year, and see the good in the place, before ever facing a January!

There are four big things to fear about our winters:

  1. Feeling perpetually cold
  2. Getting sick
  3. Being isolated at home
  4. Being afraid to drive or walk anywhere
Harsh Landscape

Harsh Landscape

Feeling Cold

Everyone from a tropical climate says they never “really” get used to the cold. They tolerate it better, but usually don’t take it for granted. There is a way that most Canadians adapt as the weather gets colder, but it may be too hardcore for newcomers. That is to spend some time outdoors each day, allowing us to “harden off” like garden plants, and to wear the minimum needed to be comfortable. I wear my fall jacket until it gets down to about 5, then wear a light winter jacket until it gets below 0, then switch to a heavyweight parka or wool coat only for the “Arctic” season. I can tolerate down to -20 pretty well as long as I keep moving, whether it is walking to work or shovelling snow or skating. But I have stopped attending winter festivals where you just stand around and watch, like New Year’s fireworks.

What newcomers to cold climates may not realize is that in the winter, many of us always feel cold – not just when we’re outdoors. Heating homes is so expensive that hardly anyone sets the temperature above 20. You would think that if it were -5 outside, 20 would feel toasty, but it doesn’t. I think of it this way – it is 20 outdoors on a nice June day. It is pleasant in the sun, but I’d need a jacket in the shade, and I’d get cold quickly in an ocean breeze. So in the winter, I can’t just wear a T-shirt and jeans in my house; I need several layers. If I am lazing around reading, I cover myself with a “TV blanket” and drink cup after cup of tea. For me, that is the reality of winter. Brrr.

Getting Sick

There are two schools of thought. Either we get sick because we’re indoors all the time and we trade germs with our co-workers and kids, or the cold/wet weather wears down our immunity and makes us susceptible. No matter which, we’re exposed to one cold and virus and flu after another. We can’t control what others do, such as coming to work infected and coughing over everyone. But we can control what we do, such as eating well and getting enough sleep. Personally, I get a flu shot – and watch my Vitamin D.

An even greater problem is depression caused by short days, low light, tiresome routines, and restricted activity. It takes a lot of personal effort to rise above it. Again, the two usual camps are: Go with it. Hibernate, watch TV, eat chocolate. Or, go against it. Ski, ice fish, geocache. My own approach is a mixture: I read and blog a lot, but I also walk outdoors every day and get lots of light and (very) fresh air.

Sunny Snowy Day

Sunny Snowy Day

Being Stuck Indoors

Everyone spends more time inside because of the snow, wind and ice. We say we get “cabin fever” or we need a “spring break” (in February!) If you know what it’s like to spend day after day with young kids and no adult company, you get the idea. But sometimes you’re cooped up with your spouse or your co-workers. Everybody gets on everybody else’s nerves because you spend so much time together and your options seem so limited. You get all these urges – to buy ingredients for a new recipe, or find a book at the library, or meet a friend for coffee – and they are all squashed because of the driving or walking conditions. You start to feel that you have even fewer options than you actually do. And you and your main squeeze have to stay in and watch movies and have sex yet again. Sigh 🙂

The neighbourhood after an ice storm

The neighbourhood after an ice storm

Being Afraid to Drive or Even Walk

It’s not too often that we have to walk in deep snow, but we all have to walk across driveways and sidewalks and parking lots that are slick with packed snow or ice. We use copious amount of road salt to melt it, but it is unavoidably treacherous. There are two choices, really. Dress for fashion and be helpless, or dress for conditions. That means boots which are not just warm, but have monster treads. You can even add strap-on cleats! And it requires an extra level of attentiveness as you try to spot ice patches under snow with your x-ray eyes. After a few falls, lots of people give up and stay inside, especially frail seniors. But most of us have no choice about where we have to be. This is where newcomers are at a disadvantage. I’ve walked on ice my whole life and I rarely think twice about it, but otherwise, it is a skill to learn, and fear can be incapacitating (like learning to swim or ride a bike as an adult).

Soft Ice on the Lake

Soft Ice on the Lake

Rom had two big revelations about Canadian winters. He was surprised by all the sunny days with brilliant blue skies. And he realized that the weather can kill you. Accidents abound, whether slipping on the sidewalk or falling through the ice on a lake. You have to learn the difference between cold, tingly, slightly numb fingers and real frostbite. You have to learn how to steer out of a skid with your car, and to always carry a blanket and extra (dry) clothing in the trunk.

I am in Nova Scotia which has moderate, coastal wet winters. Someone from Central Canada, the Prairies or the North can give you better advice.

Have you ever moved from one climate extreme to another? As for myself, I don’t think I could ever get used to summers with temperatures in the 30s or higher for months on end: I can barely manage our two weeks a year of it!

Blizzard Fun!

Blizzard Fun!

48 comments

  1. jamielredmond

    I’ve had so much fun reading this post.

    Until 12 months ago we lived in a hot, dry, Australian climate. Summers where the night time temperature doesn’t get below 30C for weeks on end, and days of 40-45C.

    We now live in Australia’s “alpine region”. While it isn’t as extreme as your weather, -5 to 8C is a normal range for winter. And I’m learning how to drive on icy, snowy roads. We were lucky last year. We made 8-9 trips up the mountain to the ski fields, but planned all of our trips for sunny days. The roads were always clear, but I always felt on high alert! You never knew how the weather would turn and what you would be driving home in! This year we have season passes to the slopes (trying to make the most of it while we live here). I’m thinking I might get more experience driving in unpleasant conditions this year!

    When we moved here I wasn’t so worried about my husband and I, as we grew up in a similar climate (though with no snow. Just cold!) But I was worried about our children, as they had all been born while we were living in the hot climate. They took to it well, though. I think the excitement of their first year of snow helped. Let’s see if they complain this year, now it is all ‘old hat’!

    • Thanks for telling me about your winters! -5 to 8 sounds like Rom’s winters in Southeast England. You have hit on a key point, which is that a fun winter activity to look forward to makes all the difference. I’m glad you’re all not minding the cold too much. You know, we are much the same when it comes to winter driving – whenever we go somewhere, we are always a bit anxious about the weather turning for the return drive.

  2. Great critique of your winter, Dar! I would be so worried about slipping on ice. And I’d hate the constant indoors time. And I think I would miss the dressing for fashion that needing to be warm and not slip would make me have to give up. So how long is the warm season? The one that Aussies could enjoy?

    • I would have to know first what you find comfortable? The average temperature in June and September is barely 20. July and August are our summer. So you might be able to tolerate 4 months, unless you really like skiing!

  3. EcoCatLady

    Well, Denver has crazy weather with huge temperature swings – it can get really cold in the winter (down to around -30C) and also really hot in the summer (up to around 40C). And in the winter we get downsloping winds off the mountains that can create freaky almost summer-like warm weather right before a big storm hits. So temperature swings of 30 degrees C (or more) within a 24 hour period are not unheard of. For newcomers that takes some getting used to! But the one constant here is the sunshine – we average 245 days of sunshine per year (some partly sunny, some full sun). During the times when I’ve lived elsewhere (upstate NY and Norway) what I missed the most was the sun. I also had a hard time with the lack of variety in the weather – I mean in NY the gray days of blah just went on FOREVER!

    Norway was wild because of the darkness. I was near Trondheim, so for a month or so around the solstice the sun never really came up, it was just dusk for a few hours each day. I actually found it to be somewhat fun since the Norwegians don’t let it stop them from being outside every day. I’d never gotten to spend so much time outside at night before! And surprisingly enough, Trondheim was actually much warmer in the winter than Denver because it’s on the ocean. I think the coldest it ever got the year I was there was around -6C.

    But from the way you’ve described it, I think the hardest thing for me to deal with in your climate would be the freezing rain and damp cold. We generally have either snow or sun in the winter – so you don’t have to deal with being wet & cold at the same time, which is the worst!

    • That reminds me, when I lived in Saskatchewan, it was often -40 but they would say, “It’s a dry cold!” It didn’t snow much because all the moisture was sucked out of the air. I would have a hard time with your summers! The way you describe Trondheim makes me want to move there!

  4. Fiona

    I loved reading this, Dar. I’d love to experienc a Canadian winter one day because it’s so hard for me to imagine temps like -20C. I know I’d love the ruggedness and beauty of it.

    I spent my teen years in Tasmania – an island state to the south of Australia. It got to about -6C at night there sometimes. We had no powered heating (just a fireplace) so the cold was always a hardship in winter. I think I had chillblains for most of our time in Tas – and once it snowed on the beach there!

    Melbourne is mid-way between Sydney and Tas. It can get hot, but we get quick relief as it’s highly variable. It can be 43C one day and 18C a few days later. We usually have the relief of a sudden drop in temp at night (up to 20C drop) + low humidity (a very dry heat, which I think is more bearable.) Winters are cool but I never really feel cold.

    A friend of ours has never in his life seen snow (aged 46.) We’ve promised him we’re taking him to the snowfields this winter!

    • How far is it to the snow from Melbourne, Fiona? I can’t imagine suffering through below-zero nights without central heating. The thought of it gives me the horrors! I didn’t know your area had low humidity in the summer, which would help.

      A coworker of mine is travelling to AUS soon – going Halifax to Vancouver to Auckland to Adelaide. I’m jealous!

      • Fiona

        The closest snow areas are about 2 hours drive away.

        Adelaide is an interesting choice of destination – not usually our main point of call for international visitors. It is quite a small place compared to many of the main cities (dare I whisper ‘boring’…but someone reading is bound to be from there!) But it’s a good spot to start from for Outback trips, like Uluru.

      • Yes, of course my coworker is from there!

      • Mmmm, Adelaide! Whispering boring too! Although I have never been there. I might one day to launch into the Barossa Valley.

  5. I would strangely love to experience this type of winter, where we are in the south west of England we generally only get wind and rain.I totally get the sickness thing, even here its depressing with short days and limited outdoor activity.great post.

    • Thanks. I think most people are OK with 4-6 weeks of this kind of winter. But January 1 to March 31 is a long, long stretch. Despite the greyness of all my photos, it really is sunny here for most of the winter, and the snow on the trees is gorgeous.

  6. Reading this made me miss Canadian winters… not! This is the first winter I’m spending out of Canada and I love it! I only brought my ‘light winter jacket’ over to England and only recently have I been able to wear it outside without getting warm. It’s funny to hear English people complain about the cold when it’s still above 0° 😛

    I do miss the sunny days with blue skies and sparkling snow, as it’s often grey and dreary here. And everything looks so bleak and dirty without the snow to cover it up! Also my brain/body get so confused whenever I go outside because my brain knows it’s the middle of winter but my body thinks it’s late fall/early spring.

    • You summed it up perfectly! I find it more depressing from Nov 1 – Dec 15 because it is just cool and grey with no snow. I think April is the worst because the melting snow is filthy!

      • Early spring is definitely not much fun! I’m not a huge fan of snow but snowmelt is even worse because it just leaves puddles everywhere.

  7. Good description!
    When I grew up in Erie, we had neighbors who actually wintered from Canada, because they considered it warm to be in a place where the nights were occasionally above -20!

    • That’s funny! I would expect Erie to be stormy because of lake-effect snow?

      • Erie is exceptionally snowy. It is not a good month of snow if there is less than 100 inches. The idea of someone wintering there is ludicrous.
        The way that I remember it is that these people ran a hunting camp, one hundred miles from the nearest paved road. So, Erie was the tropics to them. 😀

  8. Megyn

    Oh goodness, I think I’d die in a Canadian winter lol! I feel like coming from central Arizona to central Texas was enough of a temperature/climate change. My hubby says I have reptilian blood as I constantly need to be in warm areas. To me, 80F/27C is just perfect. I find it funny that so many in Austin complain about the heat, but coming from AZ, their summers are gorgeous 🙂

  9. I moved from rainy Seattle to sunny Las Vegas and I think moving back there (and especially moving to Canada) would kill me! I don’t like the cold at all anymore!

  10. I live south of you, so our winters aren’t as harsh, and I’m glad I live by the coast which moderates our temperatures too. We get by with a combo of both attitudes that you mention. I enjoy holing up at home during/after a big storm, but I also try to bundle up and get out into the sunshine as often as possible. This past December was one of the worst I can remember – cold, rainy, gray, and just dreary for 3 weeks straight. At least once snow is on the ground, it reflects the sun and makes it seem brighter outside.

  11. HollyH

    I live in Milwaukee, WI. We have similar seasons to yours, just a little colder in winter and typically hotter for longer in summer. I harden off for winter the same as you do, wearing my fall coats as long as tolerable. I was in NYC in early December for a quick weekend trip, and my son who lives there now was shocked I was wearing such a light coat in the freezing rain. Ha! How soon they forget. 🙂

    • HollyH

      Oh, and I laugh too at the notion of wearing short sleeves indoors in winter. I wear layers, though I do have my limits of how much I will endure. I keep my heat at around 21C when I am sitting around in the evenings and when I am asleep it is around 18C. My upstairs is lucky to register over 15 because of poor design. But even at work, in a very nice brand new office building on a university campus, they keep it around 21C (don’t you love how I am doing this all in Celsius?) but it is nevery really warm, just like shade on a cool early fall day. I wear long sleeves and a topper of some kind every day at the office, and often a scarf too. My neck gets cold, haha. I moved here when I was 24 and I cannot fathom now why I didn’t choose somewhere more temperate.

      • It’s the same at our house. I keep it at 21 when I’m home, but I tested with thermometers and several areas only get to 18-19. It’s exactly the same for me at work! They keep it at 21 and I always wear 2 layers but my hands get cold when I spend too long at the computer! This is my hometown; I lived on the Prairies for 7 years and and in New England for 8 years, so I’ve never lived anywhere warmer (although I did love the Spring in NE – they had Spring in April, and it was full-tilt summer by May 15!)

    • Ha ha! Hope you enjoyed your trip. Yes, I imagine Wisconsin as having more extremes than here!

  12. So fascinating! I’m interested to hear you always feel cold, I can’t help watching TV shows of American sin winter inside with summer weight clothing in. It makes the greenie in me furious to consider how much fuel it takes to get it to that level of warmth, but at the same time, I know I’d wish to be like them if it was cold and snowy!

    It shouldn’t have felt like a revelation, but it was weird to mind to reconcile that you’d grown up in Canada. I’m not sure why that was, but a little part of me also thought “poor you” in light of all the tales of cold! It is nice to see you get sunshine with the snow, I know the stereotypical English winters with greyness and it does not appeal to me at all. Actually we were lucky with our jan trip to the us to only be on the west coast,and to skip much rain. It was positively delightful to travel with crisp days and warming sun!!

    Lastly, you walking to work makes me realise there must be a lot of people who could in fact walk more in cooler parts of the us, even though they claim it’d be impossible. What are your thoughts? Lastly, do you ever wonder why people settled parts of Canada given the winter weather? I certainly wonder that knowing sydney was “found” in the height of a blazing summer, which must have been hard going for the English!

    • Curious what the temperatures were in SF. When I was there, it was 65-70 every day, starting with cool damp air and fog in the morning, and turning sunny by mid-day. Some locals said it was like that year-round?

      The Canadian Prairies attracted white settlers because of the fur trade, and later free land grants – with incredibly fertile soil – despite the brutal winters. The Far North has never had settlers, only indigenous people, except during the gold rush in the 1890s. So basically all white settlement has been driven by commerce and resources.

      It’s very rare to live close enough to work to walk. And, cities and towns are sprawling and designed for car travel. Only 5 cities in Canada have rapid transit, and the bus systems leave a lot to be desired. In the larger cities, like yours, most people can’t afford to live near downtown workplaces. The other issue is the extreme cold and wind chills. In Central and Prairie areas, the winter temps AVERAGE -20 and regularly go down to -40. It is downright dangerous to walk because of hypothermia and frostbite.

      • I think it was about 40-60F most days of our travels, cooler end of the spectrum whilst in Portland, OR than in SF. It was pleasant, and I would travel again in those weather conditions, particularly with the minimal rain.

        Thanks for the info about settlement.

        I know so many people can’t afford to live downtown, same here in Sydney, which is why I’m so incredibly frustrated to work on the outskirts of Sydney! The commute is so counter intuitive! On transit options, I loved SF and Portland for these too. But the weather is pretty mild compared to what you mention. I just read an article on a guy who walks 23 miles per day for work, in Detroit, since he’s car went the way of the wall. INCREDIBLE and largely due to patchy and intermittent bus transit systems, which he also uses to compliment his walk.

      • Lisa

        If you dress appropriately, it is not dangerous to walk below -20. In fact, Yellowknife, NT is ranked only 2nd for places where people do walk to work all year round (1st is mild Victoria, BC according to MoneySense), and they have more than 104 days annually below -20C. When I lived in Yellowknife, it was far easier and warmer to walk in -40C than it was to try and drive a frozen car!

      • You are probably right, Lisa. It’s been 20 years since I lived in Saskatchewan; so soon we forget 🙂 As long as you dress appropriately and cover your face, I bet it’s fine.

  13. Interesting! I moved into my motorhome at the worst of time when it’s dark and cold and easy to feel cooped up. I thought that it was the best time of year to do it as it will only get better.

  14. Gam kau

    Brrr, this post made me feel cold. I actually like the gloominess of winter. If I had to choose, I would opt for cold weather over tropical weather year round. My overall preference is for changing seasons though.

    • I like cool weather but not shivering around the clock! I am not accustomed to the gloom in the UK…but wouldn’t want to live in a tropical or desert hot climate either. I would like alternating Spring and Fall seasons, though!

  15. Terri

    I positively loved reading this post and comments. So wonderful to learn about other areas first hand from those who live there or those who have lived in other places. Dar, your description of NS winters is awesome! I loved reading about how you navigate winters. I felt like I was experiencing it as I read.

    Here in South Carolina, USA we have an average day time high temperature of 50 to 55 degrees (10-12C) in winter. Very little snow, sometimes we get a little ice. School closes just before a storm is getting close. No busses travel if there is a tiny hint there might be snow or ice. Period. Occasionally, we get a freak winter storm that plunges the temperatures and brings us snow or ice. We love it because most everything stops! I love how quiet it gets. But people here seem to get cabin fever quickly and attempt to get out for a drive as soon as the roads get a little traveled in spite of being told to stay home. Main roads are plowed and some salt is scattered around. Our snows do not last long most of the time. It would be quite an adjustment for anyone acclimated to the climate here to go to Canada for instance.

    We usually have a fair number of cloudy and overcast winter days, my least favorite part of winter here. But this year, we’ve had an abundant of bright sunny days! Winter is my favorite season here. Trees have lost leaves and I can see the sky is the best part. Parks are quiet so it is my favorite time to get out in the woods.

    I’ve contemplated relocation many times over the past years, but surely I wouldn’t adjust well to a more harsh winter climate now that I’m older. Yet I would like to leave the east because there are so many people here, noise, pollution and all.

    • Thanks, Terri. 50 to 55 degrees would be our Spring/Fall temperatures (April and October). It’s understandable that everything would come to a halt if snow and ice are rare. I’m surprised that municipalities would even have snow plows and salt trucks. I haven’t considered relocation because I am already in the warmest part of Canada except for the lower West Coast (Vancouver area) which is, in my opinion, completely waterlogged – constant rain – and not affordable, either!

  16. Well, this is a timely post! I am someone who is always cold, and I blame the 3 years I spent in Africa. I now live in Nova Scotia, which has warm winters compared to my natal Quebec. I guess everything is relative. My goal is to try and enjoy winter for what it is… even if I sometimes struggle (plus, right now, I am sick!) Nice post.

  17. Toronto’s pretty moderate in winters usually. (Well, compared to every where else in Canada – we’re pretty down south & the lake keeps us warm.) That being said, I generally prefer winter over summer as well. Winter time I can layer on clothes or stay inside. In the summer, I can only take off so many layers of clothing before I’m fined as indecent. ^__^;

  18. Lisa

    Despite my disagreement with you above, I liked your synopsis of winter. 🙂 I like parts of winter, e.g., snow for Christmas and snowshoeing etc., but given the opportunity, I would leave it behind for more tropical-like weather all year round! I enjoyed my 8 months in Australia. I loved living in coastal BC, but the rains do get a bit depressing after a while – however, Spring in February is lovely. My time in Yellowknife made me hardier to our winters, and I still get to chuckle at Ontarians who complain when it gets colder than -10C. I don’t miss the darkness or length of a Yellowknife winter, but I do miss the sunny, crisp days. Ontario’s winter, where I am, is shorter and warmer, but there are a lot of gloomy, overcast days.

    IMHO, the key to surviving a Canadian winter is to GET OUTSIDE!

    • Completely agree about getting outside! I have only been to two hot places – DisneyWorld and Washington DC – so I don’t have enough positive experiences in hot weather to know if I would enjoy it permanently!

  19. You probably know I hate the cold, but once in a warm car I love to drive on the worst of winter’s roads. 🙂 I blame it on my grandfather who insisted if I were going to drive I needed to learn and pass my test during the worst weather we had. Once I had the chance to drive in nice weather there was no challenge to it and I missed the slippery roads.

    As for indoor temperatures. Even if I could afford to keep my heat at 70 degrees, in the winter I still need to add extra layers. There’s something about the dryer air, or something else that makes the temperature in winter feel much different than the same temperatures in the warmer months.

    As for getting sick both my son’s had the same third grade teacher who kept the windows in her classroom open all winter no matter how cold. She believed the children wouldn’t get sick if there was fresh air in the room. Many parents complained but that was the one year neither of my boys ever got sick. She had the best attendance of all the classrooms in the district during the winter months too.

    • I am glad I have lots of experience with winter driving. The roads right now are the worst ever! I agree about the same indoor temperature at different times of the year. Maybe it is draftiness? I hate feeling any air flow on me indoors in the winter! I couldn’t have tolerated being a student in that class but it was probably effective for germ warfare!

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