The Joys of Winter

Back when I was marooned in the frozen tundra of northern Canada, the approach of winter was a time for rosy cheeks, ear to ear grins and general merriment. Gone were the squadrons of 747 sized mosquitoes, the monsoon showers disrupting the first inning of my slowpitch games and the dense pall of smoke that blanketed the river valley from Mother Nature’s summer attempts to fricassee the residents of Fort Nelson.

The first gentle flakes of snow brought everyone rushing from their desks, workshops or wherever to press noses against windows and dream of 7 months of cross-country skiing, snowmobiling or trudging along a trapline hoping for a perfect wolverine in that #4 leg-hold.

Everyone except me…

For me winter meant crawling bleary-eyed out of bed at 2 a.m., tossing what hopefully would be a nourishing breakfast into my Northern Lights College daypack and struggling into enough layers of clothing to be mistaken for the Michelin man. Then, after squirming into clammy mitts, parka and Sorels I would clump-clump down the back steps and pray I could actually start the Jimmy.

After a few anemic putt-putts it would roar to life, firing a great sooty belch of black smoke out the aft end and rattling windows for several blocks around. For the next half hour I would try to coax any amount of warm air out of the heater, while furiously applying the 4 lb. hammer and 12 inch cold chisel to the ice that had formed on the inside of my windshield. Sometimes I would get lucky and the entire sheet of ice would fall off in one go, dropping great chunks of ice down the defroster outlets. This would prove quite interesting later in the trip when the evaporating ice created a most exquisite hoar frost inside the cab. Other times I would curse and swear for the full half hour while beating furiously at the recalcitrant ice. In any event I would have to replace my windshield each spring.

As soon as I was able to raise the temperature in the cab above that of the outside air, I would hop out of the cab and nimbly snap the block heater cord like a whip to extract the plug from the wall socket; winding it furiously around the license plate before my fingers became surgically attached to the plastic. This technique was not foolproof, and several times I wound up the cord only to find frayed ends; somewhat like reeling in that big lunker to find the last 2 feet of leader missing. Each spring I would stop off at the hardware store for a fresh supply of block heater cord plugs and wall outlet plates – on my way to getting the windshield replaced.

Back in the truck I would kick 2 inches of crusted snow off the bottoms of my trusty Sorels, goose the accelerator and then apply both feet, forcibly to the clutch; all the while reefing as hard as I could on the stick shift. Sometimes if I was feeling creative I would simply stand on the clutch and boot the dam thing into reverse. Hopefully the Jimmy would pop into gear and catapult down the driveway at mach 0.8., over the fresh burm of snow and into the middle of the cul de sac. By this time I would have jumped back into the driver’s seat and fastened my seat belt. Hopefully that is… Often in mid catapult the engine would stall, leaving me teetering precariously on top of the burm with my smoke belching tail end hanging out into the street.

Driving to work was even more fun. Charles Goodyear obviously never considered what effect 40 degrees below zero has on his wonderful vulcanized rubber. Under these conditions the tires acquire a memory of the last position they sat in for more than 15 minutes. The memory, of course, is of a flat surface. At 2 a.m. and 40 below this means tires are no longer wide-oval-steel-belted-extra-bias-rain-syping-macho-man-off-road-radials but rather filling-loosening-brain-jarring-butt-numbing-blocks- of-ferro-concrete-with-bits-of-rebar-hanging-out. I could look forward to thud-thud-thump-thump-slide-fishtail-thud-thud-thump for the 7 miles between my house and the weather office on the backside (read as no snowplow til 8 a.m.) of the municipal airport.

In the 8 years I worked at the airport I can say I never ran off the road in middle of the night. A singular feat, for sure, until it is admitted that my Jimmy was certainly one of the most butt-ugly vehicles in creation. Mother Nature much preferred to send a brand new Z-28 or Explorer winging into the toolieberries at the foot of Runway 2-7, than waste time on my sorry excuse for a truck. She once even had the audacity to send a largish cow moose crashing into the side of one of my co-workers’ Fiero; an event that turned his hair prematurely gray and precipitated an emergency call to his wife for a fresh pair of underwear.

But I digress…

Once at work it would be my responsibility to fill and release a large upper atmosphere sounding balloon. This might sound like childs play, until you realize that the balloon was 8 feet in diameter, 12 feet high, and filled with hydrogen. And to top it off, in their zeal to save the taxpayer a few shekels, the government nixed heating systems in the balloon hangar. Thus it was that sometime just shy of 3 a.m. I would find myself bundled up and flapping my arms like a penguin to keep warm, while watching the balloon fill.

At 40 below an amazing thing happens to the atmosphere. Without the ability to retain water (ice) the air becomes extremely dry, often with single or low double digit relative humidity. In this dry air the rubber in the balloons (Damn you Charles Goodyear!) sliding across the table top in the balloon hangar approximates the experiment where you rub the ebonite rod with cat’s fur… Lovely stuff this static! Makes the balloons lift clear of the table to stick to the fur on my parka hood or the hairs on the back of my hand. Normally this doesn’t bother me; except that the balloon is filled with several hundred cubic feet of hydrogen…

Even if you are able to fill the balloon without turning yourself into a smear on the hangar wall, you have to figure how to get the filled balloon out of the building. Now you would think that with the several million dollars the government spent on this installation they would have adequately compensated for the mad-woman’s footsteps proclivity of this oversized psychotic condom, but noooooo… the overhead doors when fully in the up position allowed about 2 feet of clearance between the top of the balloon and the overhead door jam. It is no surprise that veteran upper air balloon technicians can walk like a duck, even in parka and heavy boots.

What occurs next is like something right out of a Keystone Kops movie. Tied to the filler end of the balloon is a length of nylon leader, attached to a styrofoam box containing a small radio transmitter and several solid weather sensors. Holding the balloon aloft in your left hand and the weather instrument box in your right you need to negotiate your way across the icy tarmac without tripping on the leader. When you figure you are sufficiently clear of the building you may stop and check your watch. After all you need to release the balloon and instruments in sync with several hundred other poor souls around the world. This can be tricky if the watch is buried under several layers of sweatshirts, parka and mitts. My personal technique was to hold the balloon filler in my teeth like a trained seal, while pushing back various layers of clothing, covering my watch, with my left hand. This I might add is not for the faint of heart since one false step could send your left eyeball like a projectile through the windows of the passenger terminal a kilometre away.

At the appointed second the manual tells you you are supposed to run with the balloon, into the wind, and then release it; simultaneously tossing the instrument as high in the air as possible. This is because laced around the instrument is a further 100 feet of nylon leader, which is ‘supposed’ to pay out as the balloon ascends. Occasionally all goes according to plan. Usually, though, as I was about to release the balloon, my Sorels would encounter a large chunk of black ice covered in 3/4 of an inch of fresh snow. The balloon would fly out of my hands, the Sorels would attempt to kick me in the nose and the instrument would launch itself into the nearest snowbank. If I was really lucky the instrument would reappear out of the snowbank and shoot off after the balloon like a rocket, threatening to garrotte me with the leader as it went by. The instrument has also been known to wrap itself around fence posts, the rear view mirror on the Jimmy and once even shot back inside the balloon hangar.

Once the balloon was safely on its’ way aloft and the flight recorder equipment running properly I could begin to settle into my regular routine of colouring weather maps, preparing forecasts and media broadcasts, and explaining for the hundredth time how to set that new Xmas barometer. Since I worked in a government building, even though alone, at regular intervals I would shrug on the 17 layers of clothes and huddle in the lee of the building for a quick smoke.

At 6:15 a.m. just as serious fatigue began to set in I would snap on the radio and wait for my cue to begin the morning broadcast on CBC Prince George.

“And now we go to the Fort Nelson Weather Office where meteorologist Mark Law is standing by…”

“Mark, isn’t it a beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-yoooooooooooooooo-tifulllll morning out there?”

“!@#%#@#%^&&&^%#%^&(*&^^@#@#~#%%%…”

Only another 7 months til Spring…

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