Photo: Elena Efimova/Shutterstock

What It Was Like Growing Up in the Land of Endless Snow

Prince Edward Island Narrative
by Claire Litton Cohn Nov 7, 2017

When I was around six years old, my mother took a picture that I remember better than the actual incident. It snowed so much that cars were buried. Everyone had to shovel their driveways and front paths almost hourly or there would have been no way out. My mother shoveled us out and then took my picture, standing with my best friend, walls of snow rising on either side of us. There was a moat around the tree in our front yard; the branches had kept the space directly around the trunk from filling entirely with snow, and shortly after she took the picture, I fell into it. I remember lying there looking up at the sky and wondering if I would be able to climb out or not.

I remember a blizzard that left the entire street whited-out. The wind was so strong, it was snowing sideways. It should have been bright daytime, but you couldn’t see the sun, or anything else at all… streetlights were splotches of yellow through the strange white dark. My mother and I had to abandon our car by what we hoped was a curb and walk back to our house. I walked behind her and held on to the back of her coat, and what was only a five or ten-minute walk home seemed like an hour. When we finally stumbled inside, my eyelashes were white with snowflakes and my clothes were soaked.

Another year, probably around 1991 or 1992, I was staying at a friend’s house, in the country a little east of Charlottetown. She and her sister were my closest friends, and their parents had built their hexagonal house in the late 1970s. It centered around a wood stove that provided most of the heat for the downstairs floor. They had put on an addition at some point, an office/library with a few couches in it, and the girls and I used to stay down there on sleepovers instead of up in their rooms because we could all talk together without disturbing their mom. That night, we couldn’t get warm. We piled every blanket we could find on top of ourselves and were still shivering. I checked the thermometer at one point, and it was -50C. That same year, we went outside and saw the ghostly green splashes of the northern lights in the sky over the forest behind their house. It is still the only time I’ve ever seen them, and they barely ever happen in Prince Edward Island.

Before the Confederation Bridge opened in 1997, the only way to get from the mainland to PEI was by ferry from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick to Borden-Carleton. The Northumberland Strait is icy and dangerous in winter, and sometimes the ferry crossing shut down. Every ship that ran was preceded by an icebreaker tugboat. I remember sitting in the ferry’s hard plastic seats, watching the chunks of ice bob around each other in the wake of the tiny tug, and wondering how it was possible such a small ship could go through the thick ice when the big ferry we were on, couldn’t. The warmth inside the ferry felt like a home surrounded by freezing absence in every direction.

As an adult, I have rarely returned to the Island in the winter. In 2013, my mother moved back to PEI after buying the first house she’d owned since the one she built there in 1979. The next year was the worst snowfall in PEI’s recorded history. It snowed 18 feet in the season. Many people were repeatedly trapped inside their houses because their doors opened outwards and the drifts sealed them closed as tightly as if they’d been nailed. My mother laughingly told me that she’d been stuck for three days and finally had to dig herself out inch by inch, bodily forcing the door open enough that she could squeeze a kitchen spatula out through the crack, and use it to push more snow away from the door. After a couple of hours, she was able to get the door open enough that she could step onto the porch and use a shovel to clear the rest. Then it snowed again. Kids went around every neighborhood with shovels, and probably made a fortune unburying driveways; as soon as you dug it out yourself, the snowplows went by and filled in the end with a two-foot hill. The city didn’t know what to do with all the snow they plowed and resorted to dumping it in mall parking lots in every suburb; some of the mountains didn’t melt until May.

The ocean freezes, the trees make the crack-BOOM of freezing sap, and everyone spends $500 a month on heating oil for their furnace. My husband and I joke that every place has a central topic of conversation, the one that everyone brings up when you don’t know what else to talk about. In Los Angeles, it’s traffic. In New York City and San Francisco, it’s rent. In Canada, it’s winter. Our lives circle around it. Prince Edward Island is just a sliver of land stuck in the great Atlantic, surrounded by ice from December to April, but increasingly, I find myself missing the snowshoes and woodsmoke smells of winter there. Nothing makes winter bearable like home.

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