How wimpy a warm winter makes you. I shudder to think what will become of us as global warming tightens its sweaty grip on the North, turning it into suitable habitat for southern species such as Torontonians and Vancouverites. Will we abandon all outdoor activities on days below the -10C mark and sit around whining about the cold, unnerved by snow that lingers for longer than a week? I never thought so, but this season that I hesitate to call “winter” does make me wonder.
It was hard to get dressed right for a walk with the dogs this morning, considering it was a chilly -12C (hard to remember when we last had it that cold – maybe in January?). Sam couldn’t make up his mind which of his various high-tech, breathable, wind-stopping and heartwarming items of clothing might do the job. Because I have less gear to choose from, I am saved the daily agonizing decision-making that poor Sam has to go through, which seems to prove my point that more stuff just means more hassle. I put on my old lined jacket from the second hand store while Sam hunted around for the correct fleece hat to face the winter morning in.
Eventually we set out, thinking we were dressed just right. That is, until we came around the base of a hill and the wind hit us. It wasn’t a very strong wind, just the kind of persistent cold-fingered breeze with enough bite to it to create a windchill. The two young dogs became immediately disabled, limping along on three legs, one paw dangling pitifully and apparently half frozen in the air. They kept looking at me with those sad brown eyes as if the weather or their wimpyness were entirely my fault. Well, the latter possibly is.
Sam seemed to be faring not much better in his thick fleece sweater and down vest, hugging his arms to his chest. “Are you cold?” he asked me hopefully, turning his back to the wind. How cunning, I thought. Instead of admitting that he’s cold, he wants me to be the one who says it first. Both of us pride ourselves in (largely imagined) northern toughness. I kept walking briskly, pulled my scarf up higher and scoffed: “No, not in this jacket. Do you find the wind too nippy?”
It was probably -20 with the windchill, Sam figured. Nothing too outrageous for March, it’s just that for the past six weeks or so we’ve been living in a time-warp where it’s April already and actual cold has faded to a dim memory. I kept waiting for one more cold snap that never came. Instead, the pussy willows are out, the buds on the poplars and cottonwoods have swollen to a point where I wouldn’t be surprised to see them burst into leaf any time now, and I’ve replaced my fleece pants with jeans. And now this.
The wind howled thin and lonely over the mountain range, down over the hills sparsely haired with poplars and then flung itself into my face like an anaesthetic. Further communication with Sam was made difficult by my numb jaw. It would be a good time to have dental work done, I reflected as I tried to purse my lips for whistling to the dogs. My eyes teared up in a valiant attempt to keep from freezing, immediately followed by a steady drip from my nose. Like translucent streamers, the long threads of mucus swayed in the wind until they finally launched themselves into the breeze and drifted dreamily down into the snow. Was this really what winter had been like when it was cold?
I wiped my eyes and applied a finger first to one, then the other nostril to rid myself of the snot banners before yelling at Sam: “Hey! This is no fun. Even the dogs don’t want to go on.” To prove my point, old Leshi turned around and headed home, cold-heartedly abandoning us to our icy fate. Now that I had conceded defeat, Sam generously admitted that he needed to put on a jacket before going anywhere further. Shuddering, we turned our backs to the arctic air that kept slicing away at our necks and followed the old, wise dog back to the cabin.
Apart from worrying about all the depressing and upsetting environmental changes that a warmer climate will inflict on us, I am now uneasy about the mental effects it will have. Without bragging rights of toughness and endurance, what will it mean to be a northerner?
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.