by Mary C. Boughen [ca. 1970]
The people of southern British Columbia love to laud their province as the Canadian Garden of Eden. They boast about their mild climate, their roses in December, their beaches, their hunting and fishing and their breath-taking scenery.
They moan and complain over the winter rains, without which the rich verdure would be impossible, while the occasional snowstorm brings a shriek of protest which rings from the Rockies to the St. Lawrence. They seem to feel that winter is a personal affront and should not happen to a nice province like BC.
But tucked away beyond the Rockies, in the northeastern corner of the province — out of sight and frequently out of mind — is a scattered community of people to whom winter is no stranger. People to whom a rose in December is something very expensive from the florist’s shop and to whom rain in midwinter would mean catastrophe in the form of icy roads and fatal accidents. These are the winter people of sunny BC.
They are the farmers, the oil workers and the inhabitants of the small towns and villages in the area known as the Peace River District. The total population amounts to approximately 40,000 but the total production of these few people is rather staggering to contemplate.
For instance, about 80 percent of wheat grown in BC is produced here, and a slightly higher percentage of oats and barley. All of the oil and about half the gas in the province comes from this area, the rest of the gas being produced in the Fort Nelson district north of Fort St. John. Our province ranks third in the production of gas and oil in Canada.
And all these riches are produced under climatic conditions, which would curl the hair of the ordinary self-respecting citizen of southern BC.
Spring is a grudging affair with many false starts and stops. A muddy thaw is followed in quick succession by driving snow, sub-zero temperatures, high winds, another thaw and the cycle goes on. To the farmer, racing against time to get his spring seeding done, this represents frustration of the direct nature. For instance, he must have his wheat acreage sowed by May 10, at which time he must then turn to the lower valued oats and barley, because wheat sowed after this date will not be harvested before winter sets in again.
There are, after all, only 88 frost-free days in this district. At this time the entire population will cast up a weather eye on behalf of the farmer, because of course the well-being of the small businessman in the towns and villages is linked every closely to the farmer’s prosperity.
Finally around the middle of May, winter relinquishes its hold on the tortured land. Overnight the trees burst into leaf, and the sparkling air is filled with the music of rushing water, hysterical birds, singing mosquitoes and the ever-present hum of the farm machines, toiling day and night to complete their task.
Northern-wise gardeners will, however hold back their enthusiasm until after the end of the month, because they know what that inevitable killing June 1 frost can do to tender tomato plants!
On the other had, all seedlings must be out and established by the second week in June or be shriveled by the hot drying wind, which blasts out of the southwest, lapping up all the moisture from the heavy clay soil.
Consequently, spring in the Peace River District is a period of such hectic activity that one really does not have the opportunity to enjoy it. I doubt that many poets have come up with a sonnet to the northern spring — there just isn’t time. Because now — suddenly — it is summer.
Summer in the Peace is usually one of two kinds: hot and windy or cold and windy. Very occasionally it is cold, rainy and windy — the condition most likely to strike terror into the farmer’s heart, for he can usually count on a frost when the skies clear.
Northerners still remember the year that it snowed on August 14, followed by a hard frost on the night of the 15th, which shriveled all the grain just filling out in the, “soft dough” stage. There were not many crops worth harvesting that year.
With the ever-present wind is the ever-present dust. Great gusts swoop down from the foothills, gathering up the fine clay soil and rolling it in smothering clouds over the countryside. The farmer comes in from working his summer-fallow looking like a character out of a minstrel show.
His wife, who has been battling the gritty mess all day, is not shocked by her husband’s appearance — she has come to expect it.
Picnics with the children are unsatisfactory affairs. It is almost impossible to find a running stream in this semi-arid country which has an annual rainfall of about 15 inches. The Peace River is too swift and dangerous for swimming and the small lagoons are weedy, leach-infested puddles scarcely fit for bathing. All the small children wear serviceable overalls instead of the dainty dresses and shorts of southern children because they must be protected from the vicious hordes of mosquito and blackflies, which could chew them to pieces in a matter of minutes.
Then suddenly it is late August.
The fields of grain, rippling and running in the breeze, have become bronzed and overnight there is a new crispness to the air. Country activity speeds up as people bustle about anxiously, hurrying to complete all the chores, which have to be done before the snow flies. The crops must be gathered and tomatoes ripening on the vine must be covered every night against the sudden fall of the mercury. Storm windows must be inspected [and installed].
Usually, the first killing frost occurs around the first week of September and shortly after, provided the weather has stayed dry, the farmer can begin combining the oats and barley which are the first to ripen.
The night air is again filled with the din of machinery, as the men work day and night as long as the weather holds. Soon heavy dews will allow them to work only from noon to sunset, which happens earlier every evening as the sun speeds southward and the days shorten rapidly.
They have no time to behold the glory of the short northern autumn. They don’t see the poplar trees decked out in their blaze of golden coins, lined against the soft blue of the distant hills, their bright color sparked here and there by the ruby glow of osier dogwood and saskatoon.
They are working frantically against the first heavy three-day rain which strips the gold from the trees, soaks the standing grain, and turns the country roads into slippery, impassable quagmires which can trap grain-loaded trucks for hours.
From that time until freeze-up the farmer battles the elements in a nightmare of anxiety lest he be caught with his grain left out in the fields. Crops are too damp to combine, and he spends half his time trying to think up ways of drying his grain, because damp-stored grain means rotting, heating, and even fires in his granaries. Also, the grade is dropped for damp grain and he doesn’t get the price he has worked so hard for all summer.
Freeze-up usually comes around the middle of October. By freeze-up I mean that the temperature never gets above freezing day or night. The sun makes its appearance for a few hours each day from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. — the rays so oblique that there is no longer any heat in them.
The farmer puts away his machinery. The fields which were not worked this fall will have to wait to increase the spring rush next year.
He must turn now to making his home snug against the enemy. Storm windows are set in place and weather-stripping renewed where necessary. All outside taps (if he is lucky enough to have running water) must be checked. The woodpile must be freshened up, snow tires and chains must be inspected, and if there is already snow on the ground, all buildings banked up against the frost.
A winter night in the north. Not a breath of wind stirs the air as the tall, tragic-looking spruce — black against the sparkling snow — stare hypnotized at the great silver moon, hanging frozen against the velvet sky. From a high knoll across the coulee, a coyote quavers a hair-raising note which is quickly answered in full orchestra by his buddies– no other living thing moves in the frozen night.
The farmer, having stoked his fire, goes back to bed. He knows that in the morning he will have to melt ice to water his stock and boil grain for the hens. He will have to haul water from the dam [dugout] for household use, get in more wood, bank up the house a little more – in fact, he lives each day that he might live through another night to do the same thing the next day. He struggles merely to exist through the long winter.
During some winters when the roads are deep with snow, the family will not leave the farm from December to April. The man can usually tramp to the highway to catch a ride into town in order to stock up on groceries. It is too cold and hazardous a trip for small children.
Books and radio occupy a great deal of the time, and TV for those fortunate enough to be able to receive a picture. But still the winters are long and lonely and April — the beginning of spring — is awaited with more than the usual urgency displayed by more southern folk.
A wise northerner fears and respects the winter. He does not venture out in a car without checking to see that there are chains, shovels, extra clothing and plenty of gas. Many tragic tales have been told of unwary folk who have frozen to death when their cars stalled, or when they have lost their way in a snowstorm, because they were not properly prepared.
The picture painted here so far of the north seems rather grim, but the people who live there under these conditions are anything but grim.
Drawn together by the constant battle against hardship, these people display a warmth and neighborliness reminiscent of the tales our grandparents tell of the early pioneers.
A wedding is community affair, attended from miles around by friends, relatives and mere acquaintances. Small babes are lined up in sleeping rows on the stage while their parents dance to the rhythms of the local orchestra, swap recipes with their neighbors or compare crops with the farmer on the next section.
A drop-in visit at a neighboring farmhouse is an extended affair. If you should happen to arrive some time in mid-morning, you are expected to stay for supper. Any variation in this routine results only in hurt feelings, and the suspicion that you are not very “neighborly”.
On the other hand, if you should happen to drop by someone’s home in mid-winter and find them away, you are expected to go in and put wood on the fire and help yourself to food. The door is always on the latch to the cold and hungry stranger who might stop by needing assistance. Nor is it required of you that you should pay for what you have used. Rather you are expected, in turn, to extend this same hospitality to the next wayfarer who should come to your home in need of help.
Fall fairs and community picnics are looked forward to as a time for getting together to exchange news and gossip, and for comparing accomplishments in a spirit of cheerful camaraderie. Life on a farm can be lonely and it is comforting to share your problems with others before the winter closes you in upon yourself again.
People who have lived in the Peace River area and have left might not wish to return, but I would be willing to bet that they would not have missed the experience. The north is the last place of challenge for young people. It is an exciting place in which to live — a place where new things happen every day. Things of progress and discovery, of building and adventure. And hardship.
These then, are the winter people of BC, and as you enjoy the foamy plum blossoms and balmy breezes of an island spring spare a kindly thought to our snow-bound kinsmen of the Peace.