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U3A Writing: Winter Wonderland

Moira Marchant recalls harsh winters on the island of Newfoundland.

Over 500 years ago John Cabot discovered a desolate rugged island in the Western Atlantic peopled by only a few Red Indians. This was to be appropriately named Newfoundland and was Britain’s oldest colony until confederation with Canada in 1949.

It was slowly colonised along the coast by fishermen from various countries such as Portugal, France, England and Ireland. These weather-beaten men were often kept in their little settlements, cut off from the outside world by fog and ice. The vast shoals of cod and squid would then enjoy a few more days of freedom.

My nostalgic memories of this island are still vivid, especially of the winter months. Untouched by civilisation, tundra, muskeg, glacial rock, moose and caribou were the main features of the interior terrain, along with black spruce forests, gaunt and silent. To journey to the mainland of Canada entailed a slow ride on the infrequent narrow-gauge railway trains which could be marooned for hours or days in snow drifts, plus a long trip on a ferry boat which had to cope with ice floes.

The deep snow usually lasted for five or six months but the air was crisp and dry and the sun would often smile down on the little town in the middle of a forest where I lived. The colourful wooden houses were snug and warm as they had central heating and double glazing which was replaced by fly screens in the summer to keep out the black flies and mosquitoes. All the houses wore white mantles adorned with stiff and long icy tassels.

As the temperatures could be 20 or 30 degrees below freezing, children were wrapped up well and happily sledged and played in their leisure moments on streets which were relatively traffic free except for the occasional taxi and panting horses pulling sleighs used for local deliveries. Large snowmen with coal black features made their appearance from time to time in the gardens, standing like motionless sentries. After each snowfall I felt elated and marvelled at Nature’s delicate ornamentation on the silver birches and other trees and at how beautiful everything had become.

At night when the sky was dark and full of twinkling stars a shimmering curtain of opalescent colours would often appear, waving gently back and forth. This was the mysterious phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, a sight so familiar in northern regions.

The mighty river, used for hydroelectric power and transport of logs, had ceased to flow, transformed into deep load-bearing ice. A pleasant half-hour stroll brought one to the forest where the lumberjacks would be hard at work felling the spruce, the life blood of the newsprint mill.

Although wintertime could be harsh on this island, in an inhospitable sea, life was never dull because of all the social activities, both in the home and town. I loved the snowy beauty, tranquillity and isolation of this winter wonderland far more than the dusty, hot summers with their inevitable travelling companions of insects all too eager for a nibble.

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