Saturday, January 10, 2009

Back to Lethbridge, and Winter in Alberta

We left Lethbridge in a week when it was -40, so we really appreciated Hawaii. Unfortunately, the return home was correspondingly traumatic. We went from this:
Sunset at our condo on Maui

to this:
Our patio furniture in Lethbridge

But we quickly discovered that there is no sympathy available for "jet lag climate syndrome".

"You had two weeks in Hawaii?! We were stuck here in 40 below and 3 feet of snow the whole time! I had to shovel for three hours to clear my driveway, and I still couldn't go anywhere because the streets weren't plowed." And so on. One of the worst winters in Lethbridge in a long a good time for us to have been gone.

But we've discovered that our kids don't really understand cold. In my generation (I'm old, so think two generations ago), kids walked to school. (Okay, okay, I lived across the street from my school, but other kids walked up to 15 blocks to school). Today, we drive our kids to school, even though Tigana's school is only two blocks away. And since Mary and I pretty much hate cold and winter sports, we haven't exactly encouraged tobogganing or etc. So my kids don't really get that -40 is not just a number, it's a death sentence if you're out there too long. We found Tigana and Kasia out in the backyard one evening in their pjs. "What the H___ are you doing?!" Mary shouted out at them (having no intention of going out there herself). "What?" Tigana asked innocently enough. "We put on our socks!" There followed a round of hot chocolate and a two hour discussion of what would have happened if Mom hadn't discovered them within 30 seconds of their setting out. "Flesh freezes in 2 minutes at that temperature. People die at that temperature. It's different than 20 below."

It reminded me of my life growing up in Edmonton. At least once each winter, somebody would be found frozen to death because they'd just worn a 'car coat' from their heated house to their heated garage, and the car had broken down on some deserted road before they got to their heated destination. People forget how cold -40 really is, and that you can't take chances in this climate. I know my brother twice saved people's lives because he stopped and picked them up when they got themselves in trouble. One was a native man whose car had broken down on Connor's Hill, and no one would stop for him -- perhaps 'cause they thought he looked menacing, though how menacing is a guy shivering to death? I doubt he would have made it to the top of the hill if Doug hadn't picked him up when he had. Another time we were half way across the High Level Bridge when we saw a guy stumble on the sidewalk. Doug stopped and we pulled him in. He was a grad student I knew vaguely from UofA. He had crossed the bridge dozens of time on the 'short' walk from his apartment to campus during the fall, and hadn't fully appreciated what -40 meant. He'd worn a light fall coat, but being from Nigeria, he thought that was a winter coat. Walking that distance in Nigeria, piece of cake. Walking across the High Level Bridge in the middle of a blizzard -- exposed to the wind blowing full force down the North Saskatchewan -- pretty much suicide.

And my own story: My first Christmas in Lethbridge I was still working on my dissertation, so going into work on campus over Christmas. Winter, I had been told, was much milder in Lethbridge, but it turned out to be a particularly bad one -- worst I can remember until this year. I had been working late, and came out to find that my car had frozen solid. I'd forgotten they'd turned the plug ins off over Christmas holiday, since no one was supposed to be working that day. I tried to go back into my office to phone for a cab or tow truck (this was before cell phones), but the building's outside door was now locked, it being after hours on a day campus was officially closed. So I started the long walk up the hill towards home. About a quarter-way to the main road I knew there was no way I could make it all the way home in this cold. So I changed course for the gas station or the Dairy Queen on the corner -- slightly out of my way, but a lot closer than home. Even getting there was going to be touch and go, but I made a determined, tough Northerner heroic effort. When I finally got close enough to see the buildings through the blizzard, I realized that they were closed -- because of the blizzard. So I turned around and set for home again. There are no houses on that road until I would be almost home, but I'd already decided I would knock on the first door I got to, if I made it that far. I was sure I had lost my feet for good when a car finally drove by -- and fortunately for me -- pulled up and offered me a lift. The guy earned my undying gratitude (I still shop at the store whose logo was on the car) and the moment I got home I immediately put myself in the bath, so in the end, only had mild frostbite. I was very lucky. But another man died that same evening trying to walk across the bridge leading to the road I had been on.

I'd been in full winter regalia at that. So finding the kids had ventured out in night gowns, pretty much blew our minds. "Don't you know how cold this is?!" But how could they? Aside from recess, they're never outside, and they don't go out for recess any more once it hits -20 C. If you've never experienced -20, how can you possibly imagine -40?

We'd tell people in Hawaii that it had been -40 when we left Alberta, and they'd look at you as if you were insane. "What's that in Fahrenheit?" is the inevitable question.
"It's the same -- the scales cross at -40."
"Then why would you -- why would anyone -- live there?"
A question my five year old keeps asking us, and one we're having a hard time answering. I'd move to Hawaii tomorrow if it weren't that (a) we're Canadian and Hawaii is American (why we didn't think to buy it from the British when we had the chance, I'll never know) and (b) the salaries at UofHawaii are about 1/3 what I currently make. (Supply and demand, I guess, and there is pretty much a steady supply of profs wanting to work in Hawaii.)

We like Hawaii so much we thought we might see about going in the off season when it would be cheaper -- only there is no off season. We had assumed that summer would be cheaper, since who wants to leave Canada in the summer? But of course, our summer is exactly when people from Texas and Arizona go to Hawaii to escape the heat....
I hear +40 is hot enough it can kill you if you're not prepared.

No comments: