The days are clear and bright as crystal. Each step crunches as we break through the old snow’s crusty covering. The powder underneath is a fine spray of fresh wisped away almost weightlessly, each flake a granule of geometric perfection. There is a lightness in the air, a cleansing crispness that shines and sculpts faces buffing cheeks and furrowing creases.
An unrehearsed symphony weaves its way in diminishing waves across open spaces. The refreshing crack of pucks and children’s voices are counterpoints to the traffic releasing us from its drone. Slapshotting sticks, squeals of laughter, skates spraying to a stop float across the white expanse. This soundscape rings true like impromptu celebrations, breathless victory dances and joyful embraces of fun.
We are getting a high quotient of snow and ice time over the last couple of weeks. I’m enjoying plenty of kid flashbacks to winter days in North York – extreme tobogganing, outdoor hockey, snowball fights, frozen feet and perpetually wet mittens, the standard stuff.
There have been windows of winter wonder in the adult years just nothing sustained. Alexa and I had a few Citadel Hill sledding adventures and had a blast of Winterlude in Ottawa when we lived there. Halifax is not a blustery winter place. There was no snow on the ground when we left at the end of January. We can’t really lay claim to a deep of winter tradition unlike the culture in Québec as immortalilzed in the Gilles Vigneault classic, Mon Pays.
Sorel has a strong recreation program that maintains several outdoor rinks with boards, lighting and cabanes for changing and warming up. We’ve checked out Parc Nadeau and Parc de la Rivière and have been eyeing the rink at Parc Bibeau. It’s the largest of the ice surfaces we’ve seen.
The skating and hockey are Noah activities. It’s quite amazing the leaps he has taken on our few capades on the ice here. We’ll get Nellie-Rose out next year. By that time Noah will be skating with the greatest of ease and we’ll be able to focus all of our attention on our new skater. Noah will be there to give her a helping hand too.
Neliie-Rose is getting some quality sliding in. The hill is just a short walk from rue Hébert. Raymond and I pull the kids up and give them a little push down. We’ve got the legs for about 20 trips. The kids are still going strong when we start to beg off. Toward the end, Nellie is tumbling off the back of the sled on the way to the top. Our only clue that something is up is Noah’s infectious laughter. When we turn around from our beast of burden duties, there is Nellie sprawled on the hill giggling about 15 metres away.
At the bottom of the run, where the squeals of delight start to trail away, the flats are a sheet of ice. Some of the smooth spots prove tricky for Nellie to keep her footing. She does well though only landing on her bum a couple of times. She improvises a little skating routine pushing her feet out and to the sides in an alternating sequence. She nails the movement and has a nice skating flow on the go minus the blades.
The day before our departure, we are treated to a St. Valentine’s Day sleigh ride. La tante Danièle takes the reins and King and Prince, the gentle giants, pull us along the back trails. It’s a greatly anticipated family adventure in a class all its own. We’re out for over 2 hours and even though it’s a toasty -8 °C and the trees cut the wind to a whisper, I’m very glad Mé ensures I’m wearing the proper gear.
There’s a big gathering at La Halte today. Four sleighs, six horses, five or six dogs and about 25 people are milling about the cabane. There’s a wood stove inside burning hot, bubbling chocolate for fondue with strawberries and pineapples. Hot dogs, toasted buns and all the fixings are the main course. Coffee with liqueur, champagne and beer are the beverages on offer.
There is lots of laughter and camaraderie. Danièle and Richard know everyone under this blue sky clearing. They are a passionate lot. They love their animals, the outdoors and the bonhomie of the woods and sweeping fields. Everyone is welcome to share a few moments of cheer, to befriend the cold, to imagine the days when sleighs ruled the countryside.
An older fellow comes to speak with Danièle. He has a horse he’s been trying to sell for two years, a ringer for King, he says. He wants to know if Danièle is interested. Danièle extends her arm, “My team is here. King and Prince pull this sleigh. I’m not looking for any other horses.” It’s a no pressure pitch. The old guy says, “You never know, he’s getting old…” Danièle is not biting. She’s polite and says she’ll keep in touch.
Out of reach of the horses, Noah, Nellie and Maxime are eyes to the sky, immersed in the snow waving their arms and legs in unison making angels. The white stuff’s powdery texture means no forts, projectiles, sculptures, snowmen, or other fun possibilities of this nature. Now that the yummy Krispy Kreme donuts have all been scarfed the younger adventurers are starting to get restless for this show to get back on the trail. There is one notable exception, Lila-Jeanne. She’s as quiet as falling snow, not a rustle, not a sound.
Noah’s favourite spot is the securely fastened saucer that drags, sometimes flies, behind the sleigh. It glides in a bumpity-bump fashion over everything including generous quantities of road apples in various degrees of freshness. Doris and Sam do whizz, buzz, zips skirting the saucer on each side at full run. Noah hears them charging and looks out of the corner of his eyes for the flash of balled muscles in full stride. They’re our outriders making sure everything is right.
Noah is riding the saucer like a pro. He gets a little additional speed and requests even more juice. Then it happens. The saucer is off the trail. He tips and at the same time King falls to his knees. Prince continues to canter dragging King and the sleigh. I run back for Noah. His tears are quickly dried with a kiss and a hug. He has snow up his nostrils and in his mouth. Despite the scare he hops back into the saucer and continues until we hit the road.
The woods are lively
Light and clear
But biting cold this time of year
I’ll keep you warm, I’ll hold you dear
I’ll not let go, I’ll keep you near.
Apologies to Robert Frost for the doggerel.