To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold. Aristotle

Most Canadians spend a good deal of time out in the cold. Almost the entire country is covered in snow for about seven months of the year.

They are gifts from the universe that we cannot refuse. But we can choose what we will contribute to life when each [season] arrives. Gary Zukhav

Those who contribute to life, who not only survive, but thrive, in winter are out in the cold with a purpose – downhill and nordic skiing, snowboarding, skating, snowshoeing, sledding. It makes the cold disappear, and a love of snow is felt down to the bones, and flows like a river in the blood. For many Canadians winter sports activity is an innate part of who they are; it’s the best time of year. The rest just endure.

And then there’s Vancouver and southern Vancouver Island, green oases in a winter-white world.

It don’t snow here
It stays pretty green.
Joni Mitchell

I don’t know where Joni Mitchell was when she wrote that, but it could apply to Vancouver. Except that it does snow here. Occasionally. And within a week the rains come and wash it all away, for which we are all very grateful because most Vancouver drivers haven’t a clue how to drive in the snow, many don’t have winter tires, and the side streets are not plowed. It can be chaos on the roads.

We went to Montreal mid-December for Christmas with family. As expected it had already snowed, the snow was still on the ground, and a little more came down while we were there. Meanwhile Vancouver got a huge dump of snow on Christmas Eve and more on Christmas Day, and the city had a white Christmas for the first time in thirteen years. And before that it had been ten years. We arrived home early on the 28th to a city covered in a soft white duvet.

I look out the window now and Vancouver is its usual green and grey and brown drab winter self again. The rains came last night and washed most of the bright white away. But from December 24 to January 2 there was snow, the kind of snow that buries all the hardships, all the detritus, all the forgotten or lost bits-and-pieces of humanity; the discarded coffee cup, the lost glove, the distresses of life. Ten centimetres of snow makes everything bright white again. There is a kind of mercy in this amount of snow, thick enough to camouflage everything, and the cold becomes something you can almost revel in.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness. John Steinbeck

Not five minutes from our apartment is a four-kilometre forest trail around a golf course that I walk every day. It’s our first day back from Montreal and it’s time to go exploring; I grab my new-to-me winter boots.

I had a pair of winter boots that I always referred to as my Montreal boots – serious boots for serious cold and serious snow. Thanks to the pandemic they had sat at the back of my closet untouched for two years. It was not until I was at the airport that it really became apparent to me in a big way – the soles were in the process of disintegrating, and I was leaving big clumps of black rubber all over the carpeted floor of the airport. Oops. Once in Montreal I picked up another pair at a thrift store. They were in good condition, but were too big for me. I simply didn’t have it in me to go shopping for new boots and figured if I stuffed in enough insoles and thick socks they’d be okay. And they were, though I didn’t like them much. They are serviceable boots, big clodhoppers that get the job done, trying to be something more with their wide swath of fancy purple.

Photo by Suzanne Armstrong

I can’t remember how the whole conversation came about but a couple of days before we left my niece and I swapped boots. She had a spare pair she didn’t like anymore for some reason. I think they have a certain flair even though they’re pretty much what everyone wears. They’re fashionable, and honestly I like them because of that. No more clodhoppers! And there’s a reason they’re fashionable – they’re the best snow boots. She later remarked that she won the boot swap. I asked if she really thought so. Oh yes! she replied. Great, because I think I won the boot swap! Win win.

Photo by Don Read

Back in Vancouver. December 28th. We finally arrive at our freezing apartment at around 3am local time, 6am Montreal time. I get about three hours sleep. Don’t care. It’s a whole beautiful white world out there and I need to go check it out. In my fancy new boots, made just for snow like this:

This is the bottom of Rupert Street where it butts up against the golf course. And this is what it looks like in the spring, a little higher up the street.

The color of springtime is flowers; the color of winter is in our imagination. Terri Guillemets

Winter. According to meteorologists it’s the three calendar months with the lowest temperatures. December, January February in the northern hemisphere. The word winter comes from the old Germanic word meaning time of water and refers to the rain and snow that comes in middle and high latitudes.

So here I am in the wintriest of winter, feeling a little explosion of joy at this unexpected Vancouver treat, and excitement for the journey ahead, an intrepid explorer heading into the deep, not knowing what I’ll find. It’s cold, but not that cold, maybe about -10C. I have the clothing I need, and my hiking poles, and all around me is this gentle dancing grace.

There’s just something beautiful about walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. It makes you believe you’re special. Carol Rifka Brunt

And I’m definitely feeling special as I tromp through the snow, sometimes on the path, which has obviously been packed down a little by those who came before me, and sometimes off to the side into the deep soft snow. It’s special. It’s magical. And it’s all so damn wondrous, shining in the low winter sun.

Gone is the familiar forest trail I walk every day to be replaced by this new world, this silent muffled almost colourless world, this world where everything has ceased to exist. There are no squirrels, no birds flitting in the trees, and almost no people. All have gone into hiding and I have the trail to myself. Time becomes meaningless. Everything is reduced to the sliding crunching underfoot and the beauty around me.

I see footprints, almost certainly dogs, though possibly coyotes, and walk through tunnels created by the weight of snow on branches.

See the runner? He’s the only other person I see and I catch him with the camera just as he disappears from sight. He’s my favourite of all the people I regularly see on the path because his trail etiquette is so perfect. When he’s about ten feet or so behind me he clears his throat, just a tiny cough to let me know he’s there. I step to the side and he says thank you as he runs past, light, so light, on his feet. But for me there is nothing graceful about walking on semi-packed snow. It’s not stable. It’s a bit like walking on sand. With every step the earth moves underfoot as the snow slides this way and that. No matter. I am walking through a dream.

New Year’s Day I’m out again, at Jericho Park with some friends. Here too the landscape is transformed. This is a summer park, a green park, lush and inviting, a park for barbecues and playing on the beach and picnicking in the shade of the big old willows, now drastically rearranged into something ethereal.

Unlike on my forest trail, here there are some people about: walking on a beach washed free of snow by the tides,

walking the dogs,

skating on the frozen pond,

and nearby scraping snow off the pond to create a hockey rink. Others arrive in the park weighted down with hockey gear – skates and sticks and helmets.

This is a rare brief time in Vancouver for icicles, snowmen, snowball fights, and boots sinking up to the top in fresh white powder.

And gnarly old trees gently kissed.

And a landscape reduced to a simple monochrome beauty. These are the hot chocolate days.

People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy. Anton Chekhov

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer. Albert Camus

Even though I relate to this, this internal invincible summer, I still want the real thing. Soon we’ll be off to somewhere warm. It’s time to bake our bones.

Next post: A Christmas that began December 4th in Vancouver and continued through December 25th in Montreal.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.