Temperatures in Winnipeg, Canada, can drop to minus 40 degrees, the snow lies meters-thick. Not that the locals are complaining – quite the opposite: they love winter.
The gargantuan heap appears out of nowhere, jutting up in the middle of a desolate, flat area, covering 20 football pitches and soaring 25 meters high – a dirty white-brown mountain of ice and snow. This is where everything the winter skies chuck down on the Canadian city of Winnipeg is collected. Summers can be hot in Winnipeg, but in the dark months the icy storms that whip across the prairies in the province of Manitoba turn the city of 700 000 inhabitants into one of the coldest cities in the world, with temperatures that can drop as low as minus 40 degrees. To keep the traffic from coming to a standstill the snowplows are out and in action between November and March, clearing roads, sidewalks and driveways. Hundreds of thousands of truckloads of snow are brought to the three gargantuan snow dumps just outside the city over the winter season.
“Best take a taxi,” says the receptionist at Fort Garry, a grand hotel at the heart of Downtown Winnipeg. She underscores this advice with a slight frown; it’s not often she’s asked for directions to the snow dump. “And ask the driver to wait! Otherwise you won’t get out of there alive.” The taxi driver takes me four kilometers outside the city and drops me at the dump, which is a vast heap of dirt, snow and ice. Instantly, I regret my foolhardiness. There isn’t another pedestrian in sight. In the distance, trucks speed up and dump fresh loads; a small caterpillar vehicle climbs the mound and pushes snow into place here and there.
Today’s weather is fairly mild, and yet the cold creeps through three layers of clothes and batters my face to the point of pain. The wind whistles over the plain and around the snow dump, making my eyes water as my hands become stiff inside my gloves. A mild day in wintery Winnipeg still means minus 20 degrees, colder than in a deep freeze. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a polar bear pop up from behind a heap of snow. Instead, a small car pulls up beside me, bringing both salvation and the person I am waiting for. Jim Berezowsky winds down the window: “What are you doing out in the cold? Come into the warm.” Rarely have I been happier to get into a well-heated car.
Berezowsky is the manager of streets maintenance. If there’s anyone who understands snow and ice, it’s this man: 52 years old, muscular, tanned, buzz cut. You can see that he spends most of his time outside. Street managers such as Berezowsky are employed by cities like Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto to professionally organize snow-clearing operations. The city’s declared aim is to keep all main roads clear – even if a meter of snow falls overnight, it’ll be gone by morning. As many as a thousand people work with plows to clear the roads, car parks and driveways.
“We haven’t had much to do this year,” he says, “four years ago our snow dump was 40 meters high, and it hadn’t completely thawed even by August.” In really hard winters, Berezowsky and his teams apply over 100 000 tons of salt and grit, at a cost to the city of as much as 60 million dollars per season. And that’s not including ice damage to roads, bridges and squares that need ongoing repairs. Winter in Winnipeg creates work, costs money and blocks the roads. For months on end. Car batteries have to be hooked up to the electricity grid to keep them warm and ensure they remain functional. Many car parks have power sockets for this purpose. Bus stops have to be heated to make sure that people are prepared to wait for a bus.
Snow is our passion
Sounds like winter’s a pretty frustrating season… “Why would you think that?” asks Berezowsky, and he is perfectly serious. He speaks about his hobby, ice hockey, “People here love the cold season, they are amazed at how effective our snow clearing is – snow is our passion,” he says with a grin. The inhabitants of Winnipeg are ideally prepared for snowstorms: in every car boot you’ll find a shovel, broom and salt. Outdoor stores sell thermal boots and gloves that promise to keep you toasty at temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees.
A nation that loves winter more than anything? A few days’ skiing in the Aps, sure, and I loved ice-skating as a child. But to be snowed in and frozen solid for four months – and enjoy it? I’m not the only person to associate long, dark winters with negative emotions. “SAD” is the acronym used by psychologists for the winter blues, and it stands for the alarming-sounding Seasonal Affective Disorder. In winter, the number of depression-related illnesses rises, and the levels of serotonin and melatonin in our blood plummets. Many people suffer from tiredness and lack of motivation. So how does that fit in with Berezowsky’s positive winter euphoria? To sum up what the psychologists advise: It all boils down to what you make of it. Getting out, meeting friends, doing sports is the key to surviving winter; in fact, not just endure it, but become firm friends with it.
People in Winnipeg have internalized this anti-depression program better than anyone else. The city is crisscrossed by kilometers of frozen rivers, which are like racetracks in the morning. Wrapped up in woolly hats, scarves and gloves, the people glide elegantly to work on skates. “Nothing beats it,” says Elizabeth Shearer, a young environmental activist. “It really gets you going in the morning.” A municipal ice ranger is responsible for keeping the tracks smooth as the snow and ice piles up in 30-centimeter blocks along the riverbank. Some companies in Winnipeg have changing rooms for their employees, where ice skates, snow masks and snow-covered coats can be hung up to drip and dry during the working day. Anyone not on the river trail or working seems to be playing ice hockey. Practically every yard in Winnipeg has been prepared for the national sport, and there are countless fields on the frozen Red River, the city’s main river.
I receive the most poetic proof of the love the people of Winnipeg have for winter the following night, when smoke rises into the clear, dark sky and the air over the river starts to smell of wax and petroleum at the annual ten-day Festival du Voyageur, one of the greatest spectacles in Canada. It celebrates the indigenous people, like the Cree and Assiniboine, who 200 years ago inhabited the shores at the confluence of the Assiniboine River and the Red River, not far from where the city’s Central Station now stands. The tribal areas of these indigenous people extended far into what is now the United States. The men would hunt in canoes, catching beaver, musk and fox pelts to sell to European traders.
Representatives of the indigenous tribes of Manitoba have gathered in front of the futuristic-looking Museum of Human Rights, ready to start their procession. Holding burning torches they cross the Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge, which spans the Red River, leading to the French quarter of Saint-Boniface. Here, men in checked flannel shirts are using chainsaws to carve astonishingly delicate sculptures; bears seem to be a popular subject. Others are busy shaping a heap of snow into a giant canoe. A few meters on, I find the true professionals at work: ice sculptors Damon Dowback and Walter Kuch. They have come from neighboring Ontario, and they travel from winter festival to winter festival to compete. “Too warm,” grumbles Dowback, narrowing his eyes and glaring accusingly at the sun. Then he continues to scrape away at a two-meter tall ice block. “The Musicians” is the name of the joint artwork. Once it’s finished it will show a duo complete with instruments.
I stop by a food stall and order pea soup and bison meat in a bread roll. Someone hands me a mug of Caribou, a tooth-achingly sweet concoction of red wine, whiskey and maple syrup. I just manage to register that it is the national winter drink before the mixture of sugar and alcohol rushes to my head. Later, I find myself in a party tent with hay-covered floors. Country music blasts from the speakers, and people dance until their glasses steam up. Winter can get pretty hot in Winnipeg.