On Wednesday of this week we had a record snowfall in Toronto.
Although the published figures for the greater Toronto area ranged from 15 to 28cm, I measured the snow each of the four times I shovelled; and I cleared 32cm off our walkway and sidewalk. Even a light snowfall in Toronto snarls traffic, so you can imagine what driving was like. But snow in Toronto isn’t what I’m writing about this week; it just reminded me of some memorable snow storms I’ve experienced.
Having lived in Prince Edward Island for twenty years, and having spent part of one winter in Saskatchewan, I’ve seen lots of blizzards. I hasten to point out that this week’s Toronto snow event wasn’t even close to being a blizzard – virtually no wind, just a relentless sixteen-hour snowfall. But there are three bona fide blizzards that stand out in my memory, which I’ll deal with in chronological order.
The first took place in Morell, PEI, during the mid-40s. As I was only about five years old at the time, my memory of it is sketchy; but some aspects I remember well.
I know the storm lasted over twenty-four hours because I remember going to bed twice while it raged. It ended some time overnight of the second day. When we got up in the morning the snow was banked so high around the house that both the front and back doors were completely blocked. My father and my older brother, Joey, had to climb out an upstairs window, fetch shovels from the barn, and dig us out.
No motorized vehicles could move for two or three days, and even some of the local farmers had to shovel their lanes because the snow was too deep for the horses.
My father was the section foreman for the six-mile stretch of railroad track between Douglas Station and Midgell. The snow was packed so thick and high at some places that the CNR`s snowplows couldn’t move it. My father hired every able-bodied male in the Morell area to shovel the snow. Because he paid four dollars a day (a decent labourer`s wage for the time), he was a pretty popular guy that week.
I remember the next two blizzards vividly because both times I was behind the wheel of my car.
In early December, 1958, I was driving from Regina to Toronto after completing an eight-month stint with TransCanadaPipeLines in Saskatchewan. Shortly after I crossed the Manitoba border it began to snow. By the time I reached the western outskirts of Brandon it had become a full-fledged storm.
There were three big rigs and a few cars stopped at the entrance to a truck stop, the occupants of which were having a conversation. I pulled in and joined them. We decided to put a couple of the big rigs in front, the cars in the middle, the other big rig at the rear, and push on to Winnipeg, a distance of about 100 miles.
As the storm worsened, night fell, and visibility all but disappeared, we inched along at about twenty-five miles per hour. I was the third car behind the second of the tractor-trailers and simply followed the tail lights in front of me. I watched with increasing consternation as the two cars ahead disappeared to the right, either deliberately pulling over or accidentally going into the ditch; there was no way I was going to stop to find out which.
I was now right behind the second big rig, which actually gave me some comfort. Not enough, though, that I could stop calculating the remaining distance to Winnipeg, a depressing exercise indeed, so I pasted a scrap of paper over the odometer with a wad of gum. I didn’t want to turn off the dash lights because I wanted to keep an eye on the engine temperature, oil pressure, and gas tank.
I would occasionally glance in the rear view mirror suddenly realized there were no headlights behind me. I speculated that it was just the two big rigs and me still in the caravan. A short while later there was only one big rig ahead of me as we passed the lead truck, which had slid off the road into the ditch.
After another interminable period of fighting the elements to stay close to and between the taillights of the remaining truck, I realized we were passing a red neon sign that read Trans-Canada Motel. The truck carried on but I stopped, backed up, and managed to find the entrance to the motel. I pulled up to the office and checked in. After a dinner of potato chips, chocolate bars and coke from vending machines (there being no coffee shop), I slept like a baby until about ten the following morning. By mid-afternoon I was able to get on my way again.
The last of the three events took place on Friday, March 23, 1962, and takes us back to PEI.
At the time I was a chartered accountant student with H.R. Doane and Co. in Charlottetown and living in Morell, about a twenty-five-mile drive. One of my best friends, Lou Barry, also worked in Charlottetown and lived in Morell so he travelled with me. Every Friday, two young ladies from Morell, Patricia Aylward and Alycia Runighan, who were attending secretarial school in Charlottetown, also rode with me. This particular Friday, Lou’s father, Gerry Barry, who had just been released from the hospital that afternoon, was also a passenger.
It started to snow in the late afternoon, and by five o’clock when we all met at my parked car, it was falling fairly heavily. We discussed whether to head out and concluded we could probably make it. By the time we got a couple of miles outside of Charlottetown it began to look like we’d made a mistake. After travelling another two miles or so we knew we had. I couldn’t see a thing and stayed on the road by pulling slightly to the left when I felt the wheels go off the pavement on the right. Bad as it was, if possible I wanted to keep going until we reached some houses.
A few minutes later I realized we were at Marshfield. I knew there would be houses nearby so I eased to the right until the car was completely off the pavement and almost in the ditch..
With Lou helping his father, and I linking arms with Patricia and Alycia, we made it the hundred yards or so to the first lighted house on the right, which was the manse of one of two churches in Marshfield. The minister and his wife welcomed us with open arms, cobbled together a meal, and found places for us all to sleep.
After breakfast the next day, Lou, the minister and I went out to check on the car. The only part of my ‘57 Pontiac that was visible was the little ball on top of the aerial.
We fetched shovels and a broom and proceeded to dig out around the car. The snow plows came by shortly after, which meant more digging, during which Aldus Mackenzie’s station wagon pulled up and stopped beside us. Aldus owned one of three service stations then operating in Morell. The wagon was being driven by Aldus’s son, Robert, who was accompanied by Gerald MacCarten, also from Morell. They had spent the night in Charlottetown.
Robert had all the paraphernalia required to pull us free, and we were all back in Morel by early afternoon of what was by then a beautiful sunny spring day. None of us, including Lou’s dad, had suffered any ill effects.
An amazing sidebar to this story: Three months earlier, as 1961 was drawing to a close, Lou Barry, Lou McGuire, Donald (Boo) MacDonald and I were having chips and gravy at The Village Diner in Morell. The Diner’s owner, Carl MacAdam, came over to chat and asked us if we had any predictions for 1962. I’ve long since forgotten what the rest of us said, if anything, but Boo confidently predicted that on March 23, 1962 there would be a major blizzard.