Remembering My First Winter in Canada

For this former New Zealander, the thought of a Canadian winter was terrifying. Here's how she learned to embrace the Great White North—sub-zero temperatures and all!

If divorce drove me from New Zealand to the United Kingdom in 1996, it was marriage that drew me five years later to Jasper, Alberta. And once more I had to embrace a new way of living. It was just as well that I had a powerful incentive, as the extreme cold for which Canada was known terrified me.

But I discovered that Canadians had found the antidote to cold temperatures in their centrally heated and exceptionally well-insulated houses. I was astonished to be warmer in my Jasper home during the depths of winter than I’d been in temperate New Zealand in an uninsulated house.

Blissfully warm indoors, I turned my attention to withstanding the cold outdoors. Down feathers proved supremely effective, and once I adjusted to my new silhouette, not dissimilar to that of a Sumo wrestler, I relaxed in the cocooning coziness of my down jacket. With the addition of a toque, sky gloves and Sorels, I was ready for winter.

Or so I thought. Correct attire kept me warm, but it couldn’t help me balance on icy sidewalks. I had to relearn how to walk, exchanging my long strides for the indignity of a penguin’s waddle. One winter’s afternoon, I arrived at an icy intersection just as a car pulled up. I waved the driver on, as I would be slow to cross, but with typical Canadian courtesy, he insisted I go ahead. Oh, the humiliation of hobbling across the ice-rutted road with him watching every one of my painstaking steps!

Fear of slipping and injuring myself threatened to turn me into a recluse until my husband Phil bought me a pair of cleats for my boots. They gave me the freedom to walk safely downtown, but had one major drawback: they were difficult to put on and take off. The task was manageable at home, where I could rest my feet on a backdoor step, but this option wasn’t available while shopping. I was guilt-ridden at the damage the cleats might cause to the floor and so I skulked around, treading lightly to lessen the cleats’ telltale “clack, clack clack.” I suppose I could have sat on my bottom like a toddler to ease the cleats on and off, but that never appealed to me.

With my warmth and safety secured, all that remained was to deal with my negative attitude towards the cold. Greetings of, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” when the temperature was well below zero initially baffled me if not irritated me. But when I experienced how wind chill made my cheeks ache and extreme cold made icicles of my nasal hairs and turned my earrings into instruments of torture, I too came to realize that any sunny winter’s day without wind and severe cold was, indeed, a beautiful day. (Don’t miss this gorgeous gallery of Canadian winter photography.)

Another discovery awaited me. I had always loved watching snow fall; it was mesmerizing and I never tired of it. Even at night, I would gaze at the snowflakes illuminated in the streetlight, eddying down as gently and softly as feathers, muffling all sound.

A greater delight was to walk in the snow with it falling around me. Wonderfully dry, it didn’t melt and saturate my clothing, but rather adorned it with tiny white diamonds so fragile they could be scattered by a single breath. Filigree-like flakes alighting on my face produced childlike wonder, as did opening my mouth and catching snowflakes on my tongue.

It was at such moments I realized a change was taking place—just as Phil had captured my heart, so too had Canada.

Next, find out what another recent immigrant wishes he’d known before moving to Canada.

Originally Published in Our Canada