For the first week or so, February has been awesome. I base this almost completely on the weather. I mean, how else would you judge a month’s awesomeness? The first three days had an incredibly warm streak, with temperatures well above seasonal. Over the next week, virtually all the snow melted, the sun seemed to shine brighter, days were longer, a pleasant breeze rolled over the hills. You couldn’t craft a better mid-winter week…
… and then the earth remembered that it was February, the worst month, and things went back to the gutter.
For those first ten days, though, my mood had improved substantially. I didn’t have to wear six-thousand layers when I stepped outside. I saw grass and greenery everywhere I looked. Birds flew overhead. Life was in the air, all around me, everywhere. It felt inspiring, like an early spring, and that filled me with energy. Those ten days were more productive than virtually all of January, and the difference is almost all weather related. Good weather makes for good living.
The opposite, of course, is also true, and you don’t get weather much worse than February. It is easily my least favourite month. Normally I can take solace that it’s only 28 days long, but 2016 is a leap year, so I can’t even hold onto that. Almost half-way through. The worst is over, I hope.
Here’s what happened. We had that wonderful string of good weather, almost supernaturally good. When I went to bed, innocently, on Wednesday, I heard the ominous weather report that a cold front was moving in. Okay, I guess that’s to be expected. Can’t have warm weather all the time. Back to normal for tomorrow. Unfortunately, this was no normal cold front. It’s the now infamous polar vortex cold front.
I don’t pretend to understand how the weather works, but ‘polar vortex’ has seared itself into my memory banks. Last year, despite being the hottest year on the planet ever recorded, featured some of the coldest temperatures in my city. I grew up in Northern Ontario, so I remember the nights of -25C and below, including a handful of -35C. Those lows, though, were virtually unheard of for my current city.
Last year a polar vortex of extremely cold air engulfed Canada for virtually the entire winter. Just as one vortex would weaken another would come to take its place. It was miserable. At one point two such vortexes (vortices?) must have overlapped, because the temperature fell even lower. I believe it hit -42C, though I’m not sure if that included the windchill or not. It doesn’t really matter. It’s all mind-numbing cold at that point.
Water pipes froze. Doors froze shut. Exposed flesh would freeze within two minutes. It made me wonder how on earth people survived in this area before houses and heat and thermal winter gear.
Yesterday it didn’t quite reach that level, but with the windchill it hit -29C. Twenty-four hours earlier, it has been about 0C. When I walked to work that day, I started blissfully unaware, and I finished a popsicle.
It’s not like I went out with shorts and a t-shirt. No, I knew it was cold and I was bundled up: boots, toque, neckwarmer, my best winter coat, everything. I was about as well-equipped as possible, but none of that mattered, because it was -29C with a horrific wind blowing at me the entire time. I’m getting cold just writing these words.
It took about fifteen steps for my feet to go numb, and my hands followed suit immediately after. I had gloves on, and I stuffed them deep into my pockets, but that didn’t help. I curled my hands into tight fists, as if trying to warm them through sheer muscle contractions. It might have helped with the cold itself, but it did nothing for the wind.
Wind sucks. I don’t think there is any defence to it. A gust would come, not enough to blow me over, but enough to completely extinguish my inner warmth. It felt like taking an icy axe right to the chest. I lowered my head like a linebacker, shortening my profile, but nothing could stop that terror. When the wind left, more cold took it’s place, and then more wind and more cold and an endless, vicious cycle appeared.
After about two minutes I realized virtually every muscle in my body was tense. My shoulders were up by my ears with my head tucked down. My arms were glued to my sides. My legs pushed forward with maximum contraction, resulting in more of a stumble than a walk. When it’s cold you draw yourself in to keep warm, and my body was doing that to absolute max.
At the half-way point, my eyes began to hurt. This is one of those phenomenon of the extreme cold. Okay, so everything hurts when it’s that cold, but usually you don’t worry about eye pain. I experienced eye pain. It felt vaguely similar to that feeling when you stare at a computer screen too long, but it was different. This felt like the eye itself, not vision. Compare the pain of a stomach ache versus the pain of doing 100 sit-ups. The discomfort is similar, in the same area of the body, but yet definitely different.
I wore sunglasses, as I often do, and they protected my eyes from the wind, at least in part. Something interesting happened, though. As I breathed out, condensation formed on my glasses. If you’ve ever had your glasses fog up on you, you know this is fairly routine. Well, that condensation began to freeze. Snowflakes and ice spread across my glasses at a slow but observable pace. My walk takes me seven minutes, and by the end the complete inside of my glasses were covered in a thin layer of ice. In seven minutes. From my breathing.
Damn it was cold.
Once I got to work, it took about 20min to feel normal again. Walking inside felt a relief, but the sudden temperature change brought it’s own problems. Mostly, you realize just how cold you were. My face looked both rosy and pale at the same time, and a light shiver took hold, periodically rippling down my spine.
More than anything, though, even as I warmed up and felt life returning to my extremities, a sense of dread took over, small but foreboding. I would have to walk home in that very same weather. “Maybe it will be warmer later,” my brain tried to reason, to give me hope, but when is it ever warmer at night? My entire shift, I kept thinking back to that cold, merciless cold, and sighed.
That night, nobody else wanted to brave the cold either, and we had a very slow night. In fact, I likely could have stayed home and not been missed. I did what I could, and when I went home I faced everything again, though with the wind at my back it felt somewhat more reasonable. When I got home, I grabbed some hot chocolate, a hot water bottle and made the hottest meal I could.
I still felt cold even as I went to bed. God, I hate winter.