Winter, we hardly knew ye

Winter has changed here in eastern Ontario, a place where I grew up and now am raising my own family. Winter is changing in many places, but let me tell you what I see here.

I remember these things about winter very strongly from when I was a girl; they seem like simple truths somehow lost.

1. Winter was long and cold, cold and long, no two ways about it.

2. We kids got outside into that cold, as that’s just what you did; I spent hours upon hours at the little skating rink at our local park and when I came home my hands were so cold and numb that I’d have to place them under my mum’s armpits to warm them up.

3. Winter was almost always here in full force before Christmas. Holiday weather was often fierce and even hazardous; I remember a number of years when we were hit with ice storms and ‘skating’ on foot for a family walk down Elgin Street in Ottawa on Christmas Eve (after a wonderful meal at my aunt and uncle’s in Centretown).

4. For me, the taste of almost-frozen marshmallows and raisins is inextricably bound with family skiing outings. My parents had me on cross-country skis from the age of three and we had many an outing to local ski trails as I was growing up. The year my Dad took a funny spill and cracked his ski in half on a tree stands out – I’ve always worried about breaking a ski since then, though I’ve never seen that happen again.

5. Winter was a tease, a flirt who could never just bring herself to go at the end of the season. After a big melt and the first signs of spring had appeared, we knew we’d be walloped again by another storm, another few weeks of winter. We knew to expect a bit of a long, drawn-out dance as winter finally retreated for another year.

I took a brief respite from winter when I lived in England and started my family there. The huge ice storm of 1998 that battered the part of Canada that I’m from was reported to me by family and friends and received through a blissful fog of impending motherhood. I know people who finally bought a generator after that storm, but they haven’t really had much need of it since then, as winter has been changing so very much.

We moved back to Canada just as our older boy was turning two, in February of 2000. Oh, did he love that winter. It snowed so much that we ended up with a mammoth snow hill in our tiny back garden, which he scaled and conquered. We put him on skis nice and early, and then did the same with our younger son when his turn came (he’s five years younger). But by then winter was already becoming milder. Around the time my youngest, now almost nine, started skiing we had a special winter getaway in January to a cottage, also here in eastern Ontario. We all have extremely vivid memories of sitting outside in the hot tub, marvelling at the strangely mild weather. That’s the year that I remember when winter didn’t start until well into January; we were on this weird hiatus and didn’t know when it would end and winter would finally begin. Since then, too, it seems it’s been the exception for winter to get properly underway before Christmas.

Each winter in my children’s lives has been different from the last, but the amount of snow we’ve got seems to have lessened pretty considerably overall, the season has contracted and become shorter, and the whole experience has just become odd and hard to predict. Winter has changed from something that I feel I knew and could define in many ways, and now…who knows?

It’s March 24th today, and I’ve already been cycling to run errands and get around town every day for a week. My kids have been in shorts and t-shirts. A couple of days ago I trudged across our fields and up the hill to our house and thought ‘holy hell, it feels like July’. I had summer clothes on, my hat to shield my eyes and face from the sun, and I was perspiring. My body felt the way it does when it’s infused with summer heat.

Winter is changing, of that much I am certain. And it’s changing how we experience it. I’m very aware of how few opportunities we had to ski this year, something we love to do as a family. We don’t go to groomed trails where there will always be reasonably good conditions, even in unpredictable weather (as long as there is indeed some kind of snow cover, some kind of cold), so we really notice the change in conditions. My kids grab opportunities to go sledding, as they can’t be sure when they’ll next get to do it. I planted my seeds last weekend to grow indoors until they are ready to go outside later in the spring, but it isn’t even winter outside. Winter is teasing us again, but it’s different this time.


My older son took most of these photos when we went for a winter ramble in February at a lovely conservation area near our home. He was still convalescing from his bout with mono and a gentle walk was just the thing. I’m struck looking at these pictures again now at how little snow we had for February, the month when we normally should be in the thick of things.

Family casting long winter shadows

Eastern Ontario woods at sunset

Farmer's field in winter at sunset in eastern Ontario

Young teen in winter

Young boy playing in the woods at sunset

Tree stump in winter with fungi

Brothers walking a winter trail at sunset

I’d love to how you are experiencing winter where you are and how it has changed.

9 thoughts on “Winter, we hardly knew ye

  1. Great pictures – it’s always great to get out no matter what the temperatures. I miss not having a really consistent and below freezing winter! I want to get out and ski more and not have it icy!!

    1. Yes, I guess the winter stories will just keep changing if the weather continues to evolve! I feel like a highly adaptable person, but I think that as my attempts to farm are coinciding with what seem to be pretty big shifts in known, recorded weather patterns for my region (as others have for their regions), the intensity of change is being thrown into sharp relief for me.

  2. Your pictures look like what much of winter looks like here. We tend to get a couple of storms a year and have light cover the rest of the summer. A couple of years ago we had a walloping 5 feet in the course of a week. This year we had two “storms” that didn’t even pass 2 inches. I think one of them was in October. Other than that, nada. It’s been nearly 80 for the last couple of weeks. Everyone seems to be reveling in it, and I guess I understand the sheer joy of the first truly warm days, but I sort of feel like I ought to be looking over my shoulder. The sleds will go away untouched, the snow pants worn one, the mittens, etc. got about 2 weeks of wear. I wish I’d known enough and planted peas in January.

    1. That’s the thing, isn’t it, most people are thrilled to have warmer weather sooner, and it’s hard to say ‘but this doesn’t seem right’ or ‘I’m not sure I want this’. I was talking to one of my older son’s teachers and sharing that we both were feeling cold when we were at home, even though the temperature has spiked so much and so fast, and he reminded me that our hemoglobin isn’t prepared for this type of record-time warm-up. So it isn’t just nature that’s confused (and boy our wildlife is so out of synch, it’s crazy), it is humans too, if ‘only’ at a biological level! Thanks so much for taking time to comment.

  3. Been a very strange year here in Denver. We had a long hot fall, then a bunch of snow, then a very warm January – so warm that the iris started coming up, then one of the snowiest Februaries on record, then ZERO precipitation in March, which is usually our snowiest month. It’s been in the 70’s for several straight weeks, and I’ve actually turned the furnace completely off. We’re having red flag (wildfire) warnings virtually every day, and the wind has been absolutely incredible.

    The crocus have already come and gone. I planted the peas 2 weeks early and the spinach (which I over-wintered) is on the verge of bolting. Went for a bike ride today, as it was in the 70’s, and they’re saying it’s gonna be 80 degrees tomorrow.

    I know weather is not climate… but it’s hard to remember that at times like this. It just feels wrong

    1. It was really interesting reading about your winter in Denver. As you say, it’s the fact that it just feels wrong, and I think there is something in that.

      I’m envious of your early crops, but really don’t want the changes in our weather patterns that seem to be coming.

  4. Your son is a very good photographer! What fun pictures — especially the one running through the forest, and the shadows one. 🙂

    Winter here has been, well, not. We hit 80 last week. Broke all kinds of records. I grew up in this area, and never remember this happening before. I do remember having snow on Halloween!

    That said, this unbelievably mild winter falls on the heels of last winter, which was a snow fury. Piles and piles of it. Storm after storm. The year prior? Not so much. But the year before that? Storm after storm after storm.

    So I can’t say I’m seeing this warming trend you are experiencing up there in the Great White North. Here, it seems like every other year we get hit badly with the blizzards. A fair trade, I’d say. I’m calling this spring our reward for last year! I do enjoy the snow, but it was so awful in the way it came last year. Piled to the tops of our fence. And coated with a thick sheen of ice. Impossible to sled or even make a snowman. And so dangerous to drive, as the snowdrifts on corners were so high, you couldn’t see around to oncoming traffic.

    Maybe next year will be super cold up in Ontario, and your family will get in double the skiing!

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