A Kootenay Winter
Arriving at the ranch in mid-winter, however much we steel ourselves ahead of time, is always a bit of a jaw-dropper.
The silence and the remoteness at this time of year always impress, but it is the sheer volume of snow in our small mountain valley that never fails to take our breath away.
When we first moved in – six years ago this month – we stared speechlessly at the towering mounds of white that threatened to overwhelm us as we inched down the narrow driveway.
We had only ever seen the ranch during the salad days of summer and the russet-browns of autumn when the verdant grassy lawn stretches voluptuously down to the beautiful turquoise river.
That was how our wilderness dream was etched in our minds when we gave up our former lives, prised a mortgage from a reluctant bank, and headed into the bush on a wing and a prayer.
When we finally arrived on that cold February day the palace of our dreams was as barren as Baffin Island.
Even the gentle tinkling of the water was gone, muffled by the unforgiving snow. Our spirits sank as we surveyed the entrance to our new home, separated from us by a barrier of ice.
Of course during the intervening years we have got used to the Kootenay winter.
We are no longer wilderness newbies and even neighbours that had predicted that we would be gone by the end of that first summer accept now that we are probably here to stay.
Even so, as we once again inched down our driveway earlier this month after a short holiday in Europe, we couldn’t help but stare at the huge, white lozenge-shaped slabs that silently embraced us.
Crucially Ollie, our septuagenarian neighbour who lives alone a few miles away, had been there first with his orange 4WD tractor, and cut a slender track to our front door.
We always knew that if there was a decent dump of snow while we were away our broken-down plough truck and consumer model snow-blower wouldn’t be man enough for the job.
But even though we had only been away two weeks, there was a full four feet of fresh snow that greeted us on our return. “It’s been snowing non-stop since you left,” said Sunny, our neighbour, looking exhausted. “I haven’t stopped shovelling once.”
Needless to say, days of fine boozy meals with friends and family had softened us up a little.
Air Canada had upgraded us (thanks to my myriad flights with them last year) and sipping on champagne and nibbling at rack of lamb at 39,000 feet was hardly the best preparation for the wintry tribulations ahead.
The first of many was that our main water supply had frozen solid. Then we discovered that the box where we store our firewood was under eight feet of ice, leaving it unreachable.
More worryingly we noticed that one or two of our buildings, weighed down by tons of frozen snow, were tilting ominously to one side or another, threatening to give up the structural ghost.
And so, with a long sigh on my part and a matter-of-fact Scandinavian shrug from Kristin, we set to work.
(Kristin’s Estonian heritage and hard-working forefathers have left her better genetically prepared for dealing with adversity than me with my work-shy and sybaritic crew.)
Kristin cleared a path to the woodshed, brought in fresh wood and set a fire. I made a fuss out of playing with the settings on the pressure tank in the well house to try and get the water flowing, a task I managed to stretch out until dark.
By the next morning, however, I really had run out of excuses. And so, strapping my red hiking crampons onto my wellies, I clambered up on to roofs and began to dig.
My poor body, soft and fat around the edges after the easy living and over-eating of Europe, protested horribly. I groaned theatrically whenever I thought Kristin was nearby.
Inch by painful inch, building by snowbound building, I slowly cleared the roofs. First the Sunny cabin, then the little outside storage shed and finally, half of the stable block. (The other half, I told myself, had a stronger supporting beam in it and would surely bear the weight.)
The dogs, enjoying their all-time favourite pastime, hollered, howled and yelped down below as they fought to see who could take the chunks of snow and ice falling my shovel full in the face.
The building that needed my ministrations most of all was the garage where we keep our 4x4s. Asymetric and poorly designed, it was listing like a ship in high winds threatening to capsize.
I did try some desultory digging around the edges. But there was, I reasoned to myself, simply too much snow. And anyway, climbing on the roof of the tilting giant was surely far too perilous.
Instead I took the cars out and parked them in the yard – two crushed Land Cruisers would have been a sore, possibly fatal, blow to our wilderness existence – and left the fate of the building in the lap of the Gods of Winter.
I cautioned Kristin not to go too near it. I worried the dogs away if they got too close. I pointed its lean out to (admittedly rare) visitors. Despite the fuss I was making, however, after two or three days of watching carefully, the garage was still standing.
And then, while studying the long slope from the apex of the roof to its base where the boat trailer was buried under several feet of snow, I had a brainwave. The slope would actually make an excellent sledding run.
“Ah, it won’t come down,” I ventured to Kristin in a remarkable U-turn. “Looks fine to me,”" she countered. Through such unfounded mutual reinforcement are great ideas born.
And so, tossing the shovels aside and giggling like schoolgirls, we gleefully scrambled up onto the garage roof and careened down its snowy side, again and again.
Yesterday while visiting the nearest town, we even upgraded our rudimentary sleds – little more than a circles of plastic with a handle – for sleeker more aerodynamic models.
And today we tried them out. Faster, much faster, we came hurtling down the roof of the garage past the amazed dogs, before crashing into the icy bank of the woodshed.
I lay there dazed for a moment, my head spinning and my tongue hurting where I had bit into it while coming over a particularly brutal bump, in total happiness.
I don’t think I’ll ever totally get used to living cheek-by-jowl with General Winter in the Canadian bush, but it certainly has its compensations.